White’s Ferry has been ushering motorists and pedestrians across the Potomac River since a year before the United States won its independence from Britain. More than two centuries later, that family-run service remains afloat.
Opened in January 1782 as Conrad’s Ferry, the ferry—which connects Loudoun with Montgomery County, MD, via a 300-yard cable stretched across the river just north of Leesburg—was originally used by Virginia farmers to travel to markets in Maryland and Washington, DC. Following the Civil War, Confederate Colonel Elijah V. White purchased the ferry and renamed the service after his family and the ferry boat after Confederate General Jubal Anderson Early.
Decades later, in 1946, R. Edwin Brown and a few other investors acquired the ferry. On Jan. 26, Brown died at the age of 99. But the Potomac’s last functional ferry remains in the hands of the Brown family, with Sharon Shefter serving as general manager.
A total of six staffers keep the ferry running. That includes an operator and deck hand who tend to operations aboard the ferry, which is comprised of a 32-year-old car float with room for up to 24 cars that’s pushed across the river by a tug powered by a five-cylinder diesel engine. Shefter, who’s worked at the ferry since 2014, said the ferry makes multiple roundtrips each hour, running from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. 365 days a year. She said the service stops only if the river rises tremendously or if it’s full of debris.
Shefter said that in the past, it’s been estimated that the ferry transports about 600 cars across the Potomac daily. If those numbers were constant each day, that would mean White’s Ferry carries close to 220,000 cars across the river every year—along a straight-line route that makes commuting to and from Maryland’s and Virginia’s DC suburbs quicker and easier, eliminating the need to cross the Point of Rocks Bridge or navigate dense traffic on the Capital Beltway.
A one-way car trip costs $5. Roundtrips are $8. For motorcycles, a one-way ticket costs $3. The ferry also sells one-way trips to bicyclists and pedestrians, who are charged $2 and $1, respectively.
In general, Shefter said the number of drivers using the ferry has decreased, a trend she largely attributes to a cultural change that sees more employees working from home rather than commuting to the office every day.
But in the past six years, Shefter said the number of cars using the ferry has remained about the same. She said many of those passengers are first-timers who were previously unaware of the ferry’s existence.
“It’s definitely a hidden gem,” she said. “The GPS has become a wonderful thing.”
The Brown family has no plans to change any aspect of the service they’ve been offering for seven decades. Shefter said no upgrades are necessary to make the ferry any more modern than it already is, since the design is so simplistic.
She said the ferry is also safe, as the staff constantly maintains it and inspects for issues, which are few and far between.
“We take all precautions possible,” she said. “We really want people to come use the ferry.”
And, the Brown family wants to keep White’s Ferry’s lengthy legacy alive for years to come.
“We’re trying to preserve the history of the ferry,” Shefter said.