Cape May-Lewes Ferry History

Compilation of public and private historic sources revised 2/28/2014. 

Twin Capes Ferry

More than 14 million vehicles and 43 million passengers have crossed the 17-mile mouth of Delaware Bay via vessels of Cape May-Lewes Ferry during its interesting 50-year history of operations that began July 1, 1964. Up to 100 vehicles and 1,000 passengers today can board modern ferries longer than football fields for an enjoyable 80-minute mini-cruise across the bay, with efficient access highways and modern terminals on each side. Patrons now enjoy amenities onboard such as elevators, air conditioning, television, wireless internet access, comfortable seating, and safety measures not imagined 50 years ago.

Water Features of Region . . .

A glance at any map of the mid-Atlantic coast of America between New England and the south, however, makes obvious the historic water features of the Great Bays-the Delaware and the Chesapeake-contributed to human mobility and economic advancement.

From a sand-dune or tree, native Americans could see across the Bay on clear days; some could make a day-long crossing by paddling their small canoes.

Ocean-worthy sailing ships of European explorers and settlers who crossed the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries sailed across and up Delaware Bay into Delaware River. Rivers and waterways were the "highways" of commerce, travel, communications, and even wars.

In the 19th century, steamships or "steamers" would transport the first tourists from Philadelphia and Wilmington "down river" to Cape May, America's first and oldest seashore resort at the southern tip of New Jersey for the summer, or a month, or even for a week-end. The steamship Republic advertised transit "from hot Philadelphia to cool Cape May." A round-trip fare was $1.00 and half-price for kids.Tourists from Virginia and the southern United States, including several U.S. Presidents, arrived at Cape May by coastal steamers. Others came from the north. In 1824, the first ferry service in the U.S. opened between Hoboken, New Jersey, and Manhattan, New York.

Railroads started arriving in the 1860s and steamships in the late 19th century. For decades into the mid-20th century, they linked up to transport people to the Atlantic shore of both the New Jersey and Delaware "Twin Capes."

But dreams that persisted for two centuries to link the two states together by regular ferry service were not realized until 1964.

Several Early Attempts to Create Ferry . . .

Several attempts failed before those Delaware Bay ferry-crossing dreams became a reality.

In February 1895, the Delaware legislature authorized the Queen Anne's Railroad, a Maryland corporation, to extend its lines across the state to Lewes with a goal to establish a direct link between Baltimore and the coast. The western railroad terminus was at Queenstown, Maryland, with connections from there to Baltimore via steamship. The eastern terminus provided travelers with access to the Rehoboth resort via rail, and steamship connection with Cape May, New Jersey. This was the last major railroad built on the Delmarva peninsula, but it soon went out of business.

In New Jersey, a "Ferry Landing" site at the southern edge of Delaware Bay near Cape May Point appears on maps since the late 19th century. Horse-drawn carriage paths became dirt roads between the "Landing" and the famous resort of Cape May. A steam-powered rail trolley was built for faster, more consistent transit to and from town. A steam-shovel in the 1930s advertised a privately owned "Cape May-Lewes Ferry" while building the rail trolley.

The invention and growing popularity of automobiles in the early 20th century encouraged car ferry dreamers and advocates to take action. In 1926, a Baltimore developer purchased three of the 12 experimental concrete ships that had been built for transport duty during World War I with the plan to use them as the Cape May Point "Landing" ferry terminal. This failed when one of the ships broke loose in a storm, sank into the bay shoreline sand, and became a deteriorating monument to the attempt. Remnants of the U.S.S. Atlantus are still visible.

Business and political leaders formed a "Cape May County Ferry Commission" in the early 1930s to promote the idea again. Studies were made, but lack of funding dampened hopes-for another three decades.

The federal government seriously considered financing a ferry across Delaware Bay during World War II for national security and economic reasons. Primary goals were to conserve gasoline and rubber used for tires on travel. But again, the end of the war reduced enthusiasm and urgency, so ferry plans were put in "mothballs" like many vessels used during the war.

Other major ferry systems did meet demands for crossings elsewhere in the region for decades while the link between Cape May and Lewes remained a dream.

Other Ferry Systems Flourished . . .

In 1913, the Wilson Line ferry began ferry service between Wilmington, Delaware, and New Jersey, to transport cars and passengers across Delaware River. In 1926, New Castle-Pennsville Ferry started "Head-On" ferry crossings, 24-hours a day with 6 vessels of 206' length, each carrying up to 75 cars. It was advertised as "The shortest and fastest route between New York and Washington."

The same Delaware-New Jersey Ferry Company of Wilmington also operated a "restful hour and forty-five minute ride across Chesapeake Bay" between Cape Charles and Little Creek (Norfolk), Virginia. Then advertised as the "largest and fastest automobile and passenger transports in the United States," three 260-foot steamships each carried up to 90 cars at 18 miles per hour across the 21-mile Chesapeake Bay.

Bridges Replacing Ferry Crossings . . .

By the 1940s, the New Castle-Pennsville Ferry service was proving to be inadequate in meeting the constantly increasing traffic demands to cross Delaware River. In 1946, Congress enacted legislation authorizing the construction, operation, and maintenance of a bridge. A $40 million issue of revenue bonds was sold in June 1948 to finance construction of the giant bridge.

On August 16, 1951, the Delaware Memorial Bridge was opened to traffic. The ferry steamers made their last crossings on the same date, having been made obsolete by the beautiful new suspension bridge running parallel to the ferry route. Up the Delaware River and across the nation, bridges and tunnels were replacing ferry crossings.

Within weeks after the Delaware Memorial Bridge opened, construction of the New Jersey Turnpike was completed, connecting New York with Delaware and points south through the entire length of the state of New Jersey.

Problems of Traffic and Finance . . .

During its first full year of operation, DMB traffic volume exceeded expectations and revenues soared. Before it was built, it was estimated that 3.6 million vehicles would use the bridge in 1951. However by 1952, the first full year of operation, traffic nearly doubled to 7 million vehicles crossing the bridge. This unexpected volume caused traffic problems.

Another "problem" was the unanticipated revenue, caused by the increased traffic, which accelerated the bond payments. The bonds would be paid off in the early 1960s. When the bonds were paid off, toll revenues were scheduled to cease. The State of Delaware sought permission to continue tolls to build another crossing and approach roads. New Jersey opposed the plan and asked for an opportunity to negotiate an agreement.

The governors of both New Jersey and Delaware appointed a Conferee Committee to negotiate an agreement. The Conferees met during 1959 to work out details for a compact between the two states.

Finally on November 1, 1959, a press release stated the Conferees had completed their report, and it recommended the adoption of a compact to create the "Delaware River and Bay Authority" (DRBA). The initial project assigned to the new agency was the operation of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

More Failed Attempts to Start Ferry System . . .

Throughout the 1950s, political and business leaders in both Delaware and New Jersey pushed for creation of a ferry system between Lewes and Cape May. The Garden State Parkway was constructed along the Atlantic coast of New Jersey to New York, but "Exit Zero" at Cape May was scheduled to become a traffic dead end. Delaware was less than 20 miles south, but the 17-wide mouth of the bay was in-between.

In 1953, the New Jersey Legislature authorized the NJ Highway Commission to establish and oversee the construction and operation of a ferry to connect the southern terminus of the Garden State Parkway at Cape May with Delaware. That effort failed because Delaware did not authorize similar legislation.

The Hudson River Day Line company offered in 1955 to privately operate a public ferry service between Cape May and Lewes under contract with the NJ Highway Commission, but that project died as well.

On July 5,1956, a report by NJ Highway Commission recommended a ferry crossing of lower Delaware Bay between Cape May and Lewes. Though encouraging to advocates, those plans did not advance significantly until jurisdictional and financial issues could be resolved in the early 1960s.

Finally by 1962, DRBA was created by the Legislatures of the States of Delaware and New Jersey and by Act of the U.S. Congress. The new Authority took over the DMB in 1963 and was given authority and responsibility to manage all "crossings" over the Delaware River and Bay between the two states.

The newly created Authority was also given a mandate to address the need for another bay crossing, probably by ferry, between Cape May, New Jersey, and Lewes, Delaware. Dreams of a ferry seemed more hopeful.

DRBA Commissioners promptly authorized an update of the 1956 feasibility study on the proposed ferry crossing by a resolution adopted on February 6, 1963.

Meanwhile at the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia . . .

From the early 1930s to 1954, a private corporation managed scheduled car ferry service between Virginia's Eastern Shore and the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area. By act of the Virginia General Assembly, the Chesapeake Bay Ferry District and Commission were created and authorized to acquire the private ferry corporation and improve existing ferry service.

In 1956, Virginia authorized its Ferry Commission to explore the construction of a fixed crossing of the Chesapeake to replace the ferry system. Following studies and engineering, $200 million in revenue bonds were sold to private investors with future tolls pledged to pay them off. Contracts were awarded and on April 16, 1964, just 42 months after construction began, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened.

News of plans for construction of the new Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel project promptly raised hopes that some of the fleet of ferry vessels that were used to cross the Chesapeake would become available for use on the Delaware Bay after the bridge-tunnel became operational.

1964 Was Perfect Timing to Start CMLF . . .

The timing of events was perfect for advocates of the ferry service across the Delaware Bay between Cape May, New Jersey and Lewes, Delaware in 1964.

When results of the updated ferry study arrived, DRBA Commissioners immediately resolved in April 1963 to establish the Cape May-Lewes Ferry at earliest possible date. At the same time, DRBA agreed to build a twin Delaware Memorial Bridge parallel with the successful first bridge and also expressed interest in the Chesapeake ferries for possible use in creating CMLF.

By June 11, 1963, a $106 million financing plan was put together to combine the estimated $12.7 million cost of the new ferry system and the much needed second span to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. DRBA also formally agreed to inspect the Chesapeake ferries.

Negotiations were successful with the Virginians. Promptly in July 1963, DRBA approved the purchase of four of the seven ferry vessels that were still being used by the Chesapeake Bay and Tunnel District for $3.3 million in April 1964.

The four vessels, the SS (Steam Ship) Pocahontas, SS Princess Anne, SS DelMarVa, and MV (Motor Vessel) Virginia Beach would be rechristened by DRBA as the SS Delaware, SS New Jersey, SS Cape May and MV Cape Henlopen.

Preparations for Ferry Operations . . .

Finally, after many years of feasibility studies, engineering reports, financial proposals, negotiations and planning, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry was scheduled to begin operation in 1964. Much had to be done to get ready, so DRBA had a busy year of preparations.

By February 24, 1964, an engineering report on plans for new terminals, access roads, a Lewes breakwater, dredging and bulk-heading on both sides of the bay, and many other details was received. The very next day, DRBA Commissioners authorized $412,950 for rehabilitation of the four Chesapeake ferries by a Norfolk shipyard.

Fuel storage, ticketing and administrative offices, recruiting personnel, public relations, and numerous other business requirements of the new ferry operation were addressed. All safety requirements and procedures were addressed and inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard for the protection of the traveling public, and CMLF crews.

DRBA hired as its new CMLF general manager, a veteran of more than 30 years with the Little Creek, Virginia ferries which were to be phased out of existence there. He was put in charge of modernizing the four ferries he would bring to Delaware Bay. DRBA also hired four veteran ferry captains and other personnel from the Chesapeake operation to move north for Cape May-Lewes Ferry duty.

Dedications & Maiden Voyages . . .

DRBA personnel as well as representatives of local governments, chambers of commerce, and community organizations on both sides of the bay planned and carried out extensive celebrations and appropriate dedication ceremonies at both Cape May and Lewes in the days leading up to July 1, 1964.

Dedication-week activities included preopening inaugural "Hands Across the Bay" ferry crossings to raise funds for the community celebrations and parades with prizes for outstanding floats. Celebrations also included a fly-over by a squadron of jet fighter planes, 25 sky-divers, receptions and dinners, and public concerts by a bagpipe band, the Air Force Band and the U.S. Coast Guard Band.

A fleet of an estimated 2,200 private boats of all sizes was scheduled to parade, greet, and escort the first ferry crossing at Cape May. An ocean power boat race from Ocean City, New Jersey to Lewes, Delaware was scheduled during the week after the ferry opening, and a 30-mile sailboat race from Ocean City to Cape May was sponsored by area yacht clubs.

Tens of thousands of people were involved in the week-long dedication celebrations, all because of the expected positive impact that the new Cape May-Lewes Ferry would have on the economies of southern Delaware and southern New Jersey.

The governors of New Jersey and Delaware, along with officials of the U.S. Department of Commerce, state, county, and local governments, DRBA, and many private organizations and individuals participated in formal dedication ceremonies, first at Lewes terminal, then at Cape May terminal on June 30, 1964.

On one of the two ceremonial VIP crossings the day before the official opening of CMLF on July 1, 1964, the ferry had is first accident. Hundreds of officials and supporters paid a then-hefty $10 fare to be aboard the history-making first ferry crossings of Delaware Bay. Two vessels crossed the bay in different directions, each carrying VIP passengers for dedication ceremonies on the other side.

As the SS Cape May turned in Lewes Harbor to approach the dock, the captain was forced to maneuver the vessel around dredge lines and underwater wires. While turning, one of the ferry's two propellers hooked onto a steel cable, which wrapped around the propeller shaft, making it inoperable.

The captain backed the SS Cape May into the Lewes slip using only one engine. The New Jersey passengers disembarked to participate in Lewes dedication ceremonies, learning they were stranded in Delaware with expected transportation home delayed indefinitely.

The second ferry, SS Cape Henlopen, returned later in the day to Lewes from the dedication ceremonies in Cape May. Delaware passengers returning from Cape May disembarked by a gangway ramp on schedule. With emergency repairs still being made to remove the steel cable from the propeller of the SS Cape May, the SS Cape Henlopen transported hundreds of New Jersey attendees back to Cape May later than expected, but everyone arrived safely home. After repairs, the vessels returned to their namesake ports. An embarrassing start for sure the day before the official opening to the public.

CMLF launched its first ferry vessel crossing for public vehicle and passenger transportation on July 1, 1964, aboard the SS Cape Henlopen from Lewes Terminal at 6:47 am, 7 minutes late with only 8 vehicles and 15 passengers aboard.

First Years Included Start-Up Problems...

The first year experienced several start-up problems. Construction of the terminals was still underway, access roads and parking lots were not completed, and operating problems resulted. In July 1964, its first month of service, the ferry carried 27,250 vehicles and 107,000 passengers, less than most optimistic estimates.

While CMLF generated revenues that were less than expected during its first month of operation, the authority remained optimistic. During this same time period, construction on the Delaware Memorial Bridge twin span was underway and would be completed on September 12, 1968.

After the first month of ferry operation, licensed deck officers went on strike, shutting down ferry operations for 17 days including the entire 1964 Labor Day weekend. The Authority sought a court injunction against the strike, and in a few weeks, the strike effort folded.

During 1965, the first full year of operation, 161,000 vehicles and 542,000 passengers traveled by ferry compared to projections of 200,000 vehicles and 377,000 passengers. Income during the first year was $970,000 compared to a projection of $1.8 million. Schedules, expenses, fares, and other factors were adjusted to compensate.

Since the Early Years...

In 1975, ferry operations were dramatically reduced from 24 hours a day to 16 hours per day. Operational costs were substantially slashed while revenues continued to be steady. Also in 1972 the Authority signed an $11.7 million contract with Todd Shipyards Corp. to construct 3 new ferry vessels.

As traffic and revenue increased, the ferry ran into capacity problems. The existing vessels could no longer handle the demand. With the introduction of casino gambling in Atlantic City, the problem worsened.

The Authority began plans for its fourth new vessel and in June 1981, the MV New Del, later renamed the MV Cape Henlopen, was put into service. Four years later the fifth new vessel was put into service and named the MV Cape May.

In 1994, the Delaware River and Bay Authority initiated an aggressive vessel refurbishment plan. The primary goal of the refurbishment plan was to improve customer service and comfort. All five vessels in the present fleet were completely refurbished in a five-year, $54.4 million master plan: MV Delaware (1994), MV Twin Capes (1996), MV Cape May (1998), MV Cape Henlopen (1998) and MV New Jersey (1999).

Passenger terminals at both Lewes and Cape May have been dramatically upgraded and modernized since 2000 at cost of over $12 million. Access highways, parking lots, support facilities, and virtually all other aspects of CMLF customer service have been maintained to state-of-the-art quality and performance.

Today, the Ferry operates three vessels.  The MV Cape May was sold to Northstar Marine, Inc. in 2013, and the MV Twin Capes was sold in 2017. For over 50 years, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry operation has become a reliable, quality transportation link in the mid-Atlantic region of the East Coast-earning its reputation as "The Best Boat Ride in America".

At last official count, there were 67 ferries operating in waters of the United States with capacity to carry 50 or more vehicles. More than half (34) are on the Pacific Coast, 11 operate in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River, 1 in the Great Lakes, and 6 in New England. Of the 15 ferries operating along the Atlantic Coast, there are 3 each in Virginia and New York, 4 in North Carolina and the 4 ferry vessels of Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

Compilation of public and private historic sources by:

J. Fred Coldren


Additions and corrections are welcome.