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Take a trip on this 'fun' James River relic from a bygone era

Captain Craig: 'A lot of people put a lot of effort into keeping this baby going'
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Posted at 9:32 PM, Jun 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-17 23:22:41-04

SCOTTSVILLE, Va. — Natural wonders remain constant along this stretch of Central Virginia near Scottsville.

“The James River. The mighty James,” Captain Craig McPherson said. “It can brighten up anybody’s day. It is just a great site.”

From rushing waters to towering trees, five miles upstream from Scottsville a "manmade" relic has been part of the landscape longer than anyone can remember.

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Captain Craig McPherson, Hatton Ferry

Hatton Ferry started running on this spot about 1870.

“It was the only way across the river at the time,” McPherson explained.

The mode of transportation from a bygone era connects Albemarle and Buckingham Counties with McPherson at the helm.

“It is something not too many people get to experience,” said McPherson.

The waterman who served on a submarine during Vietnam volunteers his time above the surface keeping history afloat.

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Hatton Ferry

Travelers once hitched rides on Hatton Ferry to move goods across the water. The vital link helped keep commerce flowing.

“Thomas Jefferson use to ride a ferry upriver called Warren Ferry,” McPherson said.

These days the ferry’s freight has changed, but its task has not.

“I’ve had up to 18 Harley Davidsons on here, which was quite a load,” said McPherson.

On this day in particular, Captain Craig whisked two-wheeled travelers Sheila and John Scott to the another county and another period.

“How many people have ever ridden across the river on one of these things? Probably not many,” said Sheila.

Don’t expect a white-knuckle ride.

“It is not as fast as a motorcycle, but it is fun,” said John.

On this craft, rushing isn’t the point.

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Hatton Ferry

“Nothing moves fast on the ferry,” said Captain Craig. “It wasn’t built for speed.”

Eventually, bridges spanning rivers cut travel time making most ferries obsolete. But Hatton endures.

First mate and volunteer Bob Colley takes pride showing off the artifact to visitors from across the globe.

“It touches on so many different things. The history of Scottsville. The history of the river. The history of ferry operations,” said Colley. “It is a lot of joy. We’ve had people from Paris, France to Paris, Texas out here.”

Ferries still exist on the nation’s waterways. But you won’t find one like this anywhere else. If you listen closely, what you don’t hear is an engine.

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Hatton Ferry

Hatton is the last pole-operated ferry in America. This behemoth is propelled by a wooden pole, cables and the river itself.

“There are like five different currents coming through here and that is what pushes the ferry across,” explained Captain Craig.

A delicate balance that requires lots of Captain Craig’s elbow grease.

“You got to be in fairly good shape,” said Captain Craig. “Oh yeah. Yeah when you cross 20 times a day you can burn up some calories.”

The ferry hit rough waters three years ago when the barge was damaged by high waters and tangled trees. Service was suspended. The future of the ferry was taking on water.

“We missed a good bit of history that people lost out on,” said Captain Craig.

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Hatton Ferry

This summer, thanks to a generous donor, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society is making a big splash.

Reacquainting this piece of the past to the James once again while honoring the generations of ferryman who plied these waters long ago.

“It is definitely good to have Hatton Ferry back,” said the historical society’s Tom Chapman. “Well it is cultural heritage. It is the importance of local history. It is telling the stories of where we came from.”

Tom Chapman said Hatton Ferry is woven into the region’s river soaked DNA.

“It is not a cut through. It is not a time save. It is traveling into the past and experiencing something different at a different pace,” said Chapman.

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Trips remain on the house but donations buoy this ancient operation.

“If you see a sign that says the ‘Last Poled Ferry in the United States' well, we got to go see that,” said Chapman.

For Captain Craig, he’ll gladly escort you on a trip that’s dripping with history. It’s a time-honored tranquil tradition rippling across 150 years.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort into keeping this baby going,” said Captain Craig.

Hatton Ferry it is a steel workhorse in constant motion with Mother Nature.

“The ferry is running again and it is all good!”

Hatton Ferry runs on Saturday and Sundays and holiday Mondays if the river levels are safe. For morning information on the Hatton Ferry, click here.

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