An updated version of this article has been published and can be read here.
The owners of White’s Ferry announced today they have ceased operations after a Loudoun Circuit Court ruling found there is no record documenting the creation of a public landing on the Virginia shore.
The case was brought by the family that owns Rockland Farm, where the landing and its access road have long operated. Litigation over the public access stretches back to 2004, with the ruling coming in November as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2009, but which sat largely inactive until 2013.
The ferry operation began 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. 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. In 1946, R. Edwin Brown and a few other investors acquired the ferry. The ferry has been operated by the Brown family for the past 74 years.
According to the lawsuit, the ferry operated on about 2 acres of the Rockland property under a licensing agreement with the owners. That agreement stipulated that no additional construction was permitted at the Virginia landing without the landowner’s permission.
In 2004, the ferry operators built a new concrete retaining wall to replace a wooden structure damaged by high water following a hurricane. The Rockland owners objected that the new construction violated the terms of the use license. The dispute led to the termination of the license, according to filings in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit sought rent payments to compensate the landowners for use of the property from the time the agreement was terminated, estimated at $638,423 from 2004 to 2018.
Among the arguments of the ferry operators was at the landing and access road had been subject to public use because of an 1871 road condemnation case or as a result of the 1932 Byrd Act, which converted public roads, bridges and landings from local to state control. However, Circuit Court Judge Stephen J. Sincavage concluded that there was not compelling evidence to conclude the landing was subject to public use status.
In addition to finding the ferry had no legal claim to use the property as a public landing, Sincavage awarded the Rockland owners $102,000 in damages for trespass, damage to property and breach of contract.
Under the November court ruling, a new agreement with the landowners or the establishment of a public landing would be required to keep the ferry operation going.
News of its sudden closing caught elected officials on both sides of the Potomac River by surprise.
So far, the county has not considered condemning land for the ferry landing—although supervisors were only recently briefed on the matter, and the full Board of Supervisors has not yet held a meeting on it. Both district Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) and County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said they would like to see the ferry stay in operation—not only for the Potomac River crossing, of which there are few, but for the ferry’s historic value.
The county government on Monday afternoon released a formal statement stressing that the county was not a party to the dispute between the two private parties. According to the statement, the parties had been negotiating an agreement to continue the use of the property.
“While Loudoun County is not party to the legal dispute, the county remains concerned about the outcome from a regional transportation perspective. We recognize that any impact to ferry service may impact our residents and people who work in Loudoun County,” the statement reads.
Kershner issued a statement pointing out that the situation “illustrates the critical need to pursue a future bridge crossing between Virginia and Maryland. Regional connections between Maryland and Virginia are extremely susceptible to issues such as the closure of White’s Ferry and the American Legion Bridge.”
The supervisor said more should be done to build a new Potomac River crossing in eastern Loudoun, which was endorsed in concept by the county board in 2018.
“I call on our regional transportation leaders to see the benefits of what can be achieved by addressing long overdue regional transportation needs by building an additional bridge crossing between Virginia and Maryland. Less congestion will deliver job opportunities, quality of life for our residents, and economic development to our region,” Kershner said.
The Town of Poolesville, MD, published a statement Monday morning calling the ferry “an integral part of the Western Montgomery County area, the connection to Northern Virginia, a historic treasure, and a vastly important piece of transportation infrastructure.” According to that statement, Poolesville commissioners are working with Montgomery County and Maryland state officials to keep the ferry open. Their role in doing so is unclear.
“The closing of this important transportation link, will have a massive impact upon countless commuters, surrounding communities, and alternate routes of travel,” stated Commission President Kerri Cook. “Also, the western part of the county is identified by a rich history and unique character and White’s Ferry is an essential element of that Montgomery County history.”