Mutinous Ferry Roils the Waters

Each day, the ferry transports more than 500 people and quite a few vehicles between Loudoun and Montgomery counties. The round-trip fare is $6.
Each day, the ferry transports more than 500 people and quite a few vehicles between Loudoun and Montgomery counties. The round-trip fare is $6. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

True to its Confederate namesake, the Gen. Jubal A. Early ferryboat yesterday defied orders by the federal government to halt operations because of a licensing dispute and instead kept chugging back and forth across the Potomac River carrying hundreds of commuters.

The penalties risked by the 70-year-old family-run service, known as White's Ferry, were not trifling, either. U.S. Coast Guard officials said yesterday that investigators were considering seeking criminal charges and fines that could run into the thousands of dollars per trip for allowing an unlicensed mariner to operate the ferry and disobeying an order to terminate a voyage.

But that did not seem to rattle the ferry's owner, Edwin Brown, who bought the ferry in 1946 and christened its first wooden barge in honor of the flamboyant cavalry officer whose great-niece was a regular passenger.

"It'll be a cold day in hell before they collect any money from me," Brown, 86, said yesterday, adding that he had made his fortune defending property owners in eminent-domain disputes with the authorities. "I have never had any fear of the government."

Brown also was shocked that Coast Guard investigators in Baltimore were considering hefty penalties, saying he thought he had worked out a settlement with officers who had visited the ferry's offices in Dickerson.

"You can't trust the government," he said.

Several customers sounded more alarmed than Brown did that the ferry had been ordered to shut down, even if temporarily. Most take the ferry to save gasoline and time by crossing the Potomac there instead of at Point of Rocks or the Capital Beltway. The ferry shuttles as many as 600 commuters a day between Loudoun and Montgomery counties, making four to five trips an hour for 18 hours a day.

Roberta Solis, who lives on a horse farm in Darnestown and took her first ferry ride as a young girl, said the experience is one of those little-known gems about living in Washington, like ice skating on the Mall's Reflecting Pool.

"It's always fun going on the water. It was like going on vacation -- for just a few minutes," Solis, 60, said while waiting to board in a silver pickup on her way to Leesburg's shopping outlets. "And it felt like history."

The controversy could not have alighted on a more peaceful stretch of the Potomac. The river is wide and shallow there -- no more than four feet deep on the Maryland side, maybe twice that on the Virginia shore. While a fisherman cast his line, a snowy egret tiptoed around a dead snag, its image mirrored on the water's surface.

The 87-foot vessel has a ship's bell, a pilot house, a fire ax, a lifeboat and a grand old silver anchor, but it looks more like a hunk of driveway that has broken loose and floated downstream with a bunch of cars. Each trip takes about 15 minutes, and the round-trip fare is $6.

The captain, Louis Bittner, 48, said that the back-and-forth routine can get tiresome but that it beats driving tractor-trailers, which he used to do.

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