The history of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry is a story of perseverance. A ferry between New Jersey and Delaware via Cape May Point had been a dream of many individuals for nearly two hundred years, but it wasn’t until 1964 that the dream ferry was finally fulfilled, after countless disappointments, delays, and failures.
Throughout the 19th century, steamships would often transport passengers from Delaware to New Jersey, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the first serious attempts were made to create a dedicated ferry system from Cape May Point.
One of the first and most famous of these attempts to create a ferry system occurred in 1926, and involved Colonel Jesse Rosenfeld and his company from Baltimore. The Colonel purchased three experimental concrete ships that had been constructed during the steel shortage of the First World War, and were now obsolete. One of these ships was the now famous SS (Steamship) Atlantus.
Colonel Rosenfeld’s intention was to use these concrete ships to create a Y-Shaped floating dock that the actually ferry could dock with. The Colonel’s company had designed a special drawbridge mechanism that would allow passengers of the ferry to disembark onto the floating dock and then go ashore.
Construction of the floating dock commenced on March 26, and it appeared that the project had a reasonable chance for success. Unfortunately, a severe storm on June 8, 1926, tore the S.S. Atlantus away from its moorings, and the ship ran aground 150 feet from Sunset Beach on Cape May Point.
Numerous attempts were made to recover the Atlantus, but they were all in vain. The Atlantus can still be seen from Sunset Beach today, and has become a major tourist attraction for Cape May Point. As a consequence of this accident, the Colonel’s ferry project fell apart, and was never completed.
The Cape May County Ferry Commission was formed in the early 1930s to examine the possibility of constructing a ferry system. The commission performed a number of feasibility studies, but funding was a problem, and the idea was shelved again.
During the Second World War, concerns of economics and national security prompted the federal government to consider the idea of financing the construction of a Cape May ferry system. The war ended before any significant progress could be made however.
The 1950s was a decade of more failed attempts to get the Cape May Ferry off of the ground. The obstacles during this period were mainly those of jurisdiction between the states of Delaware and New Jersey.
An example of these problems of jurisdiction occurred in 1953. The New Jersey Legislature authorized the NJ Highway commission to create a ferry between New Jersey and Delaware, but the initiative was doomed to failure because Delaware did not enacted similar legislation for their side of the ferry effort.
A private company came forward with a proposal to develop a ferry for the New Jersey Highway Commission in 1956, but the project was, again, unable to get off the ground.
The New Jersey Highway Commission tried again in 1956 as they drafted a study recommending a ferry crossing between Cape May and Lewes. Jurisdictional obstacles, again, prevented any forward movement on the construction of the ferry at that time.
The breakthrough for the Cape May Ferry project finally came in 1962, when the Legislatures of New Jersey and Delaware, along with the US Congress came together to create the Delaware River and Bay Authority.
The DRBA was given jurisdiction over all crossings between New Jersey and Delaware, and immediately moved for an update to the 1956 feasibility study regarding the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Upon receiving the updated report, the Authority passed a resolution to create the Cape May-Lewes ferry in 1963.
1964 turned out to be a very good time to start the ferry, as DRBA was able to purchase ferries that had been used in Virginia, but were now obsolete due to the construction of bridges.
The DRBA purchased, and rechristened four of the Virginian ships: the SS Pocahontas, SS Princess Anne, the SS Delmarva, and the MV Virginia Beach, became the SS Delaware, the SS New Jersey, the SS Cape May, and the MV Cape Henlopen respectively.
The Cape May-Lewes Ferry was finally ready to begin operation in 1964.
Dedication celebrations lasted for a week, and included a fleet of private boats that were on hand to escort the first ferry voyage from Cape May Point.
The Cape May-Lewes Ferry’s first accident occurred during these first VIP. The SS Cape May, arriving in Delaware, had one of its propellers caught in a steel wire, rendering it unable to make the return trip, and temporarily stranding its VIP passengers in Lewes.
Financially and logistically, the first few months of operation for the Cape Mays-Lewes ferry were a disappointment. This was partially due to overly optimistic estimates of ferry usage and revenue, and partially due to a number of unforeseen obstacles, including an ill timed ferry workers strike, and the fact that the infrastructure on the shore line was incomplete.
Thankfully, the second year of the ferry’s operation was far more successful, and met or exceeded projections for that year.
The Cape May-Lewes ferry has grown consistently since 1965. To handle the ever increasing number of passengers, five new vessels were constructed between 1972 and 1981.
1994 marked the beginning of an ambitious plan to dramatically enhance the level of service offered by the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. The Delaware River and Bay Authority committed $54.4 million to completely refurbish the five vessels in the fleet.
In addition, the terminals at Lewes and Cape May have both been dramatically upgraded in recent years to ensure a state-of-the-art experience for all passengers.
The Cape May-Lewes celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2004. The ferry currently transports thousands of passengers and vehicles across the Delaware Bay every day. Today, modern ferries are longer than football fields, and offer all manner of modern conveniences that could not have even been conceived of in 1964.