The first passenger boards the Cape May - Lewes Ferry in 1964

Cape May-Lewes Ferry History

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry: Sailing Daily Since 1964

Historic photo of the Twin Capes Ferry

This information is a compilation of public and private historic sources revised 2/28/2014. 

More than 17 million vehicles and 45 million passengers have crossed the 17-mile mouth of Delaware Bay via vessels of Cape May-Lewes Ferry during its interesting more-than-five-decade history of operations that began July 1, 1964. Up to 100 vehicles and more than 800 passengers today can board modern ferries longer than football fields for an enjoyable 85-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 more than 50 years ago.

Pre-Ferry: Establishment of the DRBA

In 1962, the Delaware River and Bay Authority (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 Delaware Memorial Bridge 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. DRBA Commissioners promptly authorized an update of a 1956 feasibility study on the proposed ferry crossing by a resolution adopted on February 6, 1963.

The Beginning: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 the 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.

The 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. The 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 the first voyage on 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.

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.