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Three Centuries of Service : Operating a Ferry With Staying Power

Charles Hillinger's America

October 11, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

OXFORD, Md. — The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry across the Tred Avon River is the oldest privately owned car-and-passenger ferry service in America. And one of its captains is a woman.

But, that's nothing new. Women have played an important part in the history of this 304-year-old ferry service.

In the 1700s, Judith Bennett was married to three different captains on the ferry line and served as a captain herself between husbands.

Two other women skippers in that century were Catherine Bennett, daughter-in-law of Judith Bennett, who ran the ferry five years beginning in 1737, and Elizabeth Skinner, who operated it during the 1750s.

In the minutes for the Talbot County Commissioners meeting Nov. 20, 1683, is this notation:

"This court have pitcht upon Mr. Richard Royston to keepe a ferry for horses and men over Tred Haven to the towne of Oxford and back gaine."

Royston had come to Maryland from England in 1670. He was an attorney, an agent for a London grocer and a grand jury foreman in a celebrated hog-stealing case before he began the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry.

The same ferry service has three regular captains today: Gilbert Clark, 63; his daughter, Valerie Bittner, 39; and her husband, David Bittner, 42.

David is a civil engineering graduate of Lehigh University. He served in the Air Force five years as a jet pilot before becoming a ferry skipper.

Valerie is a seventh-generation ferry captain.

"It's an honor to be a ferryboat captain on this historic run, especially since my great-great-great-great grandfather, great-great-great grandfather, great-great grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather and father were all ferryboat skippers," Valerie Bittner noted.

She is, however, the first female captain in the family.

"I think I am a natural for this job. I have been around ferryboats all my life. It's in my blood," she allowed as she stood in the pilothouse behind the wheel of the 10-car ferry Talbot on a seven-minute, 3/4-mile run from Bellevue to Oxford.

The Bittners and Clark have two boats chugging back and forth at speeds up to 10 knots across the Tred Avon: the 10-car steel ferry boat Talbot, commissioned in 1980, and the seven-car Southside, afloat since 1923.

Clark brought the Southside down from New York, where he had operated it between Shelter Island and Long Island. The Clark family ran the Shelter Island ferry continuously from the 1850s until Gilbert Clark sold out in 1974 and bought the Oxford-Bellevue ferry from Captain William Benson.

Benson owned and operated the ferry from 1936 until he sold it in 1974. The 76-year-old ferry boat captain is still at it. He is a relief skipper, and next February, he will celebrate 50 years running ferryboats on the Oxford-Bellevue crossing.

Residents from miles around--in cars, trucks, on bicycles and on foot--ride the ferry between the two tiny towns at the south end of a peninsula. The ferry saves 25 miles of driving. On weekends and busy days, Clark and the Bittners will operate both the Southside and the Talbot to handle the traffic; otherwise they take turns running the ferry from dawn to dusk seven days a week.

Last month, the Talbot was pressed into service as a fire boat.

Early on a quiet Sunday morning, a 58-foot yacht caught fire from an electrical short in the Tred Avon River off Bellevue. There were three people and three parrots aboard.

The Talbot, with two fire trucks aboard, arrived to put out the fire and save the yacht. The birds and the humans made it safely to shore in a dinghy.

"For years we have been practicing with the local fire department for just this type of happening," said David Bittner.

It was another exciting page in the history of America's oldest ferry service.

"Stories about people and events connected with this ferry during the last 300 years would fill several books, I'm sure," Valerie Bittner mused.

"The captain I would like to know more about is that Judith Bennett," she said. "What happened to her three ferryboat skipper husbands? Did they die or just take off and leave her to run the ferry? I wish I knew. I often think when I'm up here in the wheelhouse about those other women captains who lived so long ago and wonder what life was like for them running the old ferryboats between Oxford and Bellevue across the Tred Avon."

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