"Did General Early take this boat?" asks a kid who has heard the stories about how the Confederate commander crossed the Potomac at this point after his unsuccessful attack on Washington.
"It looks it, doesn't it?" jokes Caption Rudy, who pilots the Gen. Jubal Early, an all-mental vessel made in 1954, between Maryland and Virginia at White's Ferry. The flat boat, built to conform to Coast Guard requirements, is the latest in an almost unbroken succession of boats that have ferried passengers across the Potomac at this point for almost 150 years. The ferry, though not the individual boats, has survived war, storms, floods, Coast Guard regulations and court battles.
And the settlement of White's Ferry, a store and a couple of houses, probably looks pretty much as it did when Early is supposed to have passed through. A family picnics on tables provided by the ferry management, which also rents rowboats. A woman sunbathes by the river, rousing herself at intervals to throw sticks into the water for a pair of eager Labrador retrievers. The ferry, which does not follow a rigid schedule but just moves from one shore to another when there are passengers waiting, glides in. After a car and a photo chip van, the only four-wheeled passengers on an early afternoon run, are aboard, Caption Rudy pulls a crank that sets off an operation Rube Goldberg might have dreamed up. The crank on the side of the ferry starts a diesel engine in a small tugboat fastened to the main boat by metal rods. The tug pushes the big boat across the river. Nobody steers, because on the other side of the boat are pulleys that guide the boat along a cable across the river.
The men in the potato-chip van pass out samples as Caption Rudy collects the fares. "I have a deal with a cookie truck that comes across regularly," he tells them, but collects the full fare. As thr four minute voyage draws to a close and the wooded Virginia shore looms dead ahead, Caption Rudy releases a chain that holds the tug's bow to the main boat. The tug swings out and turns around, providing braking power and getting the ferry ready for the return trip.
About 1830, someone by the name of Conrad started a ferry service at this spot, where the Potomac is only about a fifth of a mile wide. The ferry service stopped during the Civil War, but commanders on both sides of the conflict often took advantage of the narrowness of the river at this point to make surreptitious crossings. In September of 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee led his Virginia troops across the river near here on the invasion into Maryland that ended with the battle of Antietam. The next month "Jeb" Stuart led his troops back across the Potomac into Virginia after a raid on Chambersburg, Pa. Though some Civil War buffs dispute the claim that Jubal Early crossed here, the tale has great sticking power. So does the story that Col. John Mosby, the Confederate "gray ghost," haunted this part of the river on his spying missions.
The most noted Yankee crossing was arranged by Col. Edward Barker, who led 900 men across the river in small boats and vowed to "breakfast in Leeshurg or in Hell." He was killed at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, but all that can be proved is that he definitely did not breakfast in Leesburg. As a result of the same battle, the ferry's name was changed from Conrad's to White's, re-christened for the Confederate hero of Ball's Bluff, one Lt. Col. Elijah V. White, who took over its operation.
In 1939, floods and then the war put the ferry out of commission for eight years, until three local businessmen bought a war-surplus wooden barge and started the service up again. The wooden boat glided back and forth for seven years, until the Coast Guard condemned it as"unseaworthy."
Though the present boat was built specifically to meet Coast Guard requirements, the ferry ran afoul of the rules again in 1971 for not having the proper inspection stickers, life preservers or fire extinguishers. The ferry owners went to court to try to prove that the Potomac at this point wasn't a commercially navigable body of water subject to Coast Guard rules. The U.S. Court of Appeals sided with the Coast Guard, however, and the ferry owners agreed to meet all the requirements.
We didn't count the life preservers because we were too busy looking for alligators. After several voyages without finding any, we finally lured the kids away by vowing to eat ice-cream cones in Leesburg.