Debris Stalls White's Ferry, Forcing Evacuation

About two dozen vehicles are stranded on White's Ferry, according to Montgomery County fire department spokesman Pete Piringer. Video by News Channel 8/WJLA-TV 7
[Map: Passengers stranded on White's Ferry]
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

The vehicle ferry that crosses the Potomac River between Poolesville and Leesburg became mired in a floating debris field yesterday morning, forcing about two dozen passengers to be removed by smaller boats.

The ferry became stuck in the unusually large amounts of debris flushed into the river by the heavy rain of recent days, according to ferry operators.

"The river hadn't been up like this for months, and there was a lot of stuff piled up along the banks," said Malcolm Brown, whose family owns and operates the White's Ferry barge. "Debris is a constant problem on any river, but we had a big mass of trees coming down."

Montgomery County fire and rescue workers took passengers to shore, leaving about 20 cars aboard as ferry operators cleared branches and logs from the cable that guides the barge across the river. There were no injuries, and drivers got their cars about an hour later.

Last night, according to an outgoing phone message at the company's office, ferry service remained suspended. It was unclear when service would resume.

The barge had made it about two-thirds of the way across the 1,000-foot stretch of the Potomac before becoming stuck about 8 a.m., according to Pete Piringer, Montgomery Fire and Rescue spokesman. Rather than risk breaking the cable and setting the barge loose in the current, operators shut the ferry down and began to clear the debris.

Two members of the ferry's crew remained on board, helping to dislodge more items and using ropes and cables to shift the boat back toward the middle of the river.

Ferries have operated at that location on the Potomac -- just north of Leesburg on the Virginia side and about six miles west of Poolesville on the Maryland side -- since before the Civil War. The current operation was purchased in 1946 by Edwin Brown, who, at age 88, still oversees the business today.

The boat travels via cable and moves as many as 600 people, and their vehicles, across the Potomac each day. Cars line up on what looks like a boat ramp on both sides of the river, awaiting their turn for the short trip across.

Staff writers Steve Hendrix and Jonathan Mummolo contributed to this report.

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