SISTERSVILLE - Twice a day, five days a week, for the better part of 18 years, Lori Jones has ridden the ferry across the Ohio River from Sistersville to Fly in the morning and back in the afternoon.
Without it, she'd be putting an extra 70-plus miles on her car each time she went to and from her job in Ohio.
"It's faster to get home in the evening and to my kids' athletic events," Jones said, sitting in her car as the Sistersville Ferry made its way back to the Mountain State side of the Ohio River at Sistersville.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Sistersville Ferry Capt. Bill Schleier catches a life preserver tossed to him by a senior deckhand aboard the ferry in Sistersville, W.Va.
About an hour-and-a-half earlier, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., residents Don and Diane Karney were in line in their car to go from West Virginia to Ohio by ferry. Diane is originally from Alma and her mother still lives in the area.
"(When) we come up here, we always try to hit the ferry," Don Karney said. "It's unique. We don't have anything like that in Florida."
There's nothing else like it in West Virginia either, said Eric Peters, executive director of the Tyler County Development Authority and chairman of Sistersville's ferry board. The Sistersville ferry began operating 196 years ago and is the only commercial ferry still running in West Virginia, as well as the only one on the Ohio River north of Cincinnati.
Jones and Karney typify the uses and users of the ferry: the local residents who use it as an extension of West Virginia 18 and the visitors who consider riding it a novelty.
Ridership has been declining in recent years as plants like Ormet Corp.'s Hannibal facility have closed, but Peters said the ferry is still useful as oil and gas activity in the region builds.
"It's very important for those companies that that ferry be available," he said.
Tyler is the only county in West Virginia on the Ohio River where there is no bridge spanning the river. Besides the ferry, drivers have the option of a 36-mile round trip to cross the Hi Carpenter Bridge linking St. Marys and Newport or a 28-mile trek to cross at New Martinsville, Peters said.
Bill Schleier, who is captain of the ferry along with Herman Hause, said vehicle usage has ranged from 58 to 100 a day.
In years past, "those would be considered pretty poor days," said Schleier, who's worked on the ferry four years, two as a deckhand and two as a captain. "One hundred fifty, 200 was not unusual."
On this day, Schleier had to deal with heavy fog in the morning, negotiate debris throughout the day, deal with heavier-than-usual barge traffic and sit and wait when a pop-up thunderstorm hit with lightning striking a little too close for comfort to the mostly metal boat and 32-ton barge.
They weren't ideal conditions, but in a way, Schleier said, it wasn't that unusual of a day.
"It is kind of typical, 'cause you never know what's going to happen," he said.
Some might see operation of the ferry as a simple back-and-forth proposition, but those folks aren't manning the steering sticks in the wheelhouse. Schleier makes anywhere from 50 to 75 landings a day between the Ohio and West Virginia sides and "every landing is a little bit different depending on the wind, the current and the load on the barge," he said.
"But that's part of the fun. I love this job," Schleier said.
Even turning the boat as it switches sides of the river is more complicated than the uninitiated might realize. The barge stays pointed in the same general direction, but the captain detaches the boat, turning it around 180 degrees as the barge floats before reconnecting with a hydraulic latch.
Traffic was light this day with no more than two cars on the ferry at a time after the thunderstorm.
"If the weather is nice, you get a lot more riders," Schleier said. "Days like today, it's the hardcore riders."
While a number of riders use the ferry to get from point A to point B, the ferry is a destination for others.
"I've seen like a minivan pull on, and they'll have, like, four or five generations," Schleier said.
Once he met a man from Germany who had researched ferries in the United States and put Sistersville on his itinerary.
"He wanted to go across every river he could," Schleier said.
Motorcycle and classic car groups from Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other places include the ferry in their routes, Peters said.
The range of people who ride the ferry is part of the appeal for senior deckhand Franklin Smith, who moved to the area with his wife last year.
"I'm a sociable person, so I get to see people from all different states," he said. "And it's a nice, calm, relaxing job, most of the time."
The barge can carry eight cars, but also transports semis, box trucks and dump trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. Fares range from $1 for walkers and bicyclists to $3 for motorcycles, $4 for cars and trucks, up to $15 for a semi.
This year, the ferry board started a pass system where people can get six trips for the price of five. The ferry can also be rented for parties at a rate of $200 for two hours or $250 for three.
The fares generally pay for operation of the ferry, Peters said. State and federal grants are used to fund major repairs, but there is no regular appropriation from either level.
"This ferry is city-owned, but it is a continuation of West Virginia Route 18. So Route 18 doesn't end until that ferry touches the Ohio side," Peters said. "But for many decades, the city (of Sistersville) was expected to maintain (that part of) Route 18 for the state."
In 2011, Sistersville City Council voted to cease operations of the ferry, but received word a day later that a $25,000 Local Economic Development Grant from the governor's office had been secured to keep it running.
Peters did not have budget numbers readily available, but he said in the last two years the ferry has just broken even.
"That's about it," he said. "We've not been able to begin a new season with a cash reserve, at least not from operations."
The ferry is in the process of drawing down $158,302 in U.S. Department of Transportation grants to address repairs and maintenance of the boat and its landings. A couple of years ago, the board received carryover funds from the West Virginia Public Port Authority that paid for replacement of the boat's transmission. However, that money is no longer available thanks to changes at the state level, Peters said.
An infusion of state funding is expected to be announced next week, with $15,000 coming from a Community Participation Grant secured by Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Sen. Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel. Additional funds are expected to come from the House thanks to Delegate Roger Romine, R-Doddridge, Peters said.
That money can be used for operations.
"We have substantial fuel bills and things of that nature that have to be addressed," Peters said.