Cape May-Lewes ferry turns 50

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the ferry service between Cape May, N.J., and Lewes, Del., at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The ferry service operates a three-vessel fleet year-round. Since its debut on July 1, 1964, the ferry has carried over 14 million vehicles and 43 million passengers. The Delaware Bay and River Authority operates the ferry system, under the joint control of Delaware and New Jersey.

The 17-mile crossing takes about 85 minutes on one of the double-ended ferries. The 320’x68’ ferries are powered by twin diesels that put out a total of 4,000 hp. The vessels cruise at 16 knots and can carry 1,000 passengers and 100 vehicles.

The first ferries were purchased from the Little Creek-Cape Charles, Va., ferry system, which connected Virginia’s lower eastern shore with Hampton Roads. That service was rendered obsolete when the 20-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was completed. The maiden voyage on the newly christened Cape May, which had just arrived from Virginia, was a bit of a debacle. On June 30, 1964, the day before official service began, hundreds of passengers paid $10 for a round-trip voyage from Cape May. Upon arriving at the landing in Lewes, the ferry’s prop snagged a cable from a dredging operation and was incapacitated. A diver had to be flown in from Norfolk to free the propeller. In the meantime, hundreds were stranded until late that evening when a second vessel arrived.

Over the years, the ferry service has seen its ridership decline as the Delaware Memorial Bridge provided a high-speed link for east coast travelers and fares increased. Today, the crossing costs $42 for a car and driver in the high season. Last summer, in an effort to cut costs, the Cape May was sold for $750,000 to New Jersey-based Northstar Marine for conversion into a barge.

Even so, the ferry is part of the psyche of a generation of beach vacationers in the mid-Atlantic. Each of the terminals will host anniversary festivals the weekend of June 28-29.

About the author

Kathy Bergren Smith

Kathy Bergren Smith has been a correspondent with WorkBoat since 2002. She is also a writer and photographer for the Port of Baltimore Magazine covering shipping and port activities. Smith, also a noted commercial and fine art photographer, resides in Annapolis, Md.

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