Anyone who lives in coastal Delaware these days knows that the Cape May-Lewes Ferry is a short and enjoyable way of travelling from Delaware to New Jersey, and back again.
The approximately 90 minute journey is the most direct route between the two mid-Atlantic states, and the ferry transports hundreds of thousands of travellers each and every year, particularly during the busy summer months.
But while the larger ferry with the larger ships and the larger customer base gets all of the attention in the southern reaches of the nation’s First State, there’s a ferry service a few miles to the west that pre-dates the CMLF by more than two centuries.
It is one of the oldest ferries in continuous operation in the United States and harkens back to a much simpler time in the United States, a time long before “horseless carriages” and other modern conveniences of the 20th and 21st centuries.
But how much do you know about the Woodland Ferry, other than the mechanical issues that have been reported in the newspapers in recent years. The ferry has a long and storied, and uniquely colorful, history and we’re going to tell you all about it in our latest historical blog entry here on theoldfathergroup.com.
So let’s begin our look back into this unique piece of southern Delaware history:
The Woodland Ferry’s recorded history dates back to 1734, but it was likely in service for many years, possibly even decades, prior to it’s first notation in the history books.
By law, it almost certainly had to be in place before the turn of the 18th century.
You see the small town of Woodland, just outside Seaford and resting on the northern banks of the Nanticoke River, was actually a part of Maryland in the 1600s.
Why is this important? Well, a law was passed by the Maryland legislature during that time requiring that all counties in the state maintain ferry services over rivers, creeks and swamps.
The law is clear, but what isn’t clear is the date the crossing began between Woodland and Laurel. But the colorful history of the ferry, and its connection to some of the state’s most notorious characters in those early days, has certainly been well documented.
The farthest we can go back in our look into the Woodland Ferry is 1734, as that’s the first time it’s mentioned in the journals of the time. So that’s where we’ll begin.
The actual date of the photo below is not known, but it was taken sometime prior to power being added in the 1930s. This is the oldest known photo of the historic Woodland Ferry. It's part of the collection of memorabilia that is housed in the "Days Gone By" Museum in Woodland.
Sometime between 1734 and 1748, the infrastructure for the Woodland Ferry was created on both sides of the Nanticoke River by members of the infamous Cannon family.
You may have heard of the family’s most famous member – the notorious slave runner Patty Cannon, who kidnapped free blacks and sold them to slave dealers in the southern United States. In fact, the ferry was connected to the slave running trade of the day, though these allegations have never been definitively proven.
But what has been proven is the reputation of the Cannon family as a whole. The entire clan was literally despised by other members of the community, perhaps because of their reputation for shady business deals and foreclosing on properties with little or no compassion for their fellow man.
The family’s operation of the ferry is a big reason for it’s colorful and storied past. Originally run by James Cannon, what was then known as Cannon’s Ferry later passed on to his son, Jacob, and eventually to Jacob’s wife, Betty, and her two sons.
The Delaware Department of Transportation photo below shows the Woodland Ferry circa 1930, with historic Cannon Hall in the background.
It was under the operation of Isaac and Jacob, Jr., that the ferry began to turn a profit, much to the chagrin of the community.
The brothers were undoubtedly notorious businessmen who, along with their mother, were able to successfully petition the Delaware General Assembly in 1793 for exclusive ferrying rights at Cannon’s Ferry.
Essentially, they killed the competition. The Cannons were now free to charge what they pleased for crossing the Nanticoke, and they began to do just that.
According to historical records, the cost for ferry service in the late 1700s was five cents for each person or horse, 10 cents for a two-wheeled carriage and 30 cents for a four-wheeled carriage.
The Woodland Ferry transports passengers across the Nanticoke River in this photo from the 1950s.
While turning a profit at the ferry, the brothers also ran their merchant and shipping interests. They owned as many as 30 slaves at one time, as well as more than 5,000 acres of land on the peninsula.
But remember their reputations and how hated they were by the community? Well, that notoriety eventually caught up with them in the spring of 1843, and it changed the course of history in the area.
Here’s the brief account, as told in “Remembering Sussex County,” published by The History Press in 2009.
Records show that Jacob Cannon stepped off the ferry on April 10 of that year only to find a neighbor by the name of Owen O’Day waiting for him with a gun, angry that Cannon had supposedly stolen property from him.
In what seems to be a sign of how hated the Cannon family was in the area, O’Day was never even brought to trial for the murder of Jacob Cannon. He soon fled the area, never to be seen again.
Isaac Cannon died a month later and the ferry went through a period of decline before Sussex County took over its operation in 1883.
The Woodland Ferry is today run by the Delaware Department of Transportation, which continues to oversee the operation in compliance with legislation passed down by the Delaware General Assembly many years ago.
That legislation requires Sussex County to establish and maintain “a public ferry across the Nanticoke River at the place now known as Woodland, but formerly known as Cannon’s Ferry.”
In a complete reversal of the way the Cannons ran the ferry, that same legislation also requires that transportation across the Nanticoke be free of charge from sunrise to sunset.
But while the ownership and the fee for crossing the Nanticoke has changed significantly over the years, the ferry itself has evolved many fold since the 17th century.
For more than 200 years, the ferry was propelled across the river by the ferrymen themselves, and horses, ropes and even passengers were used to get the vessel from one side of the river to the other.
In 1930, however, a Model T engine was attached to the ferry, along with a cable that was strung along the bottom of the river, thus modernizing the operation.
One of the oldest ferries in continuous operation in the United States, the Woodland Ferry was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
In the photo below, Delaware Gov. Elbert Carvel crosses the Woodland Ferry on March 16, 1961, during the dedication of the “Virginia C,” which replaced the existing two-car wooden ferry.
We hope you enjoyed this look back into the history of the Woodland Ferry. Join us again next time as we continue our historical blog series with another story about another local treasure.