I’ve noticed queries from the search engines that wonder whether car ferries cross the Chesapeake Bay. Apparently my United States Domestic Ferries page scores high on a related sets of queries but my page doesn’t provide the actual answer. That’s because my page deals with the present situation and doesn’t delve into the historical record. However, I have greater latitude on the Twelve Mile Circle so I will attempt to provide an answer. The short version is that, no, car ferries don’t cross the Chesapeake Bay today.
The Chesapeake Bay is located in the Mid-Atlantic region and is the longest and largest estuary in the United States. One would be in good company to consider that it might be convenient to find some way to cross it. Otherwise a trip between Norfolk and Cape Charles, both in Virginia would involve a 500 mile journey over land rather than just a few miles over open water. Fortunately the problem has been solved.
Were there any Chesapeake Bay car ferries?
Why yes, there were once a number of ferries that crossed the Chesapeake, and they transported automobiles and trucks from one side to the other. They were quite popular for a time, actually.
As an example, the Virginia Ferry Corporation operated ferries that crossed the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. They departed from Little Creek (on the border between Norfolk and Virginia Beach) on the western shore to Cape Charles and Kiptopeke Beach on the Virginia Eastern Shore. The heyday for this corporation wasn’t very long. It ran ferries in the years after World War II and into the 1960’s according to the Chesapeake Bay Ferries website.
A much longer ferry tradition existed further up the bay in Maryland. Ferries existed between Annapolis and Kent Island as early as the nineteenth century. They were probably carrying automobiles by the 1920’s or 1930’s according to the Roads to the Future’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge History. Several lines and operators existed between the Maryland Eastern Shore and the larger portion of the state. These included the Claiborne-Annapolis Ferry operated by a private company and the Sandy Point-Matapeake Ferry operated by the State of Maryland
Why aren’t there any Chesapeake Bay car ferries?
That’s another question I often see in my query logs. The answer is simple: Bridges. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel opened in 1964, connecting the two shores of Virginia with an innovative combination of bridge and tunnel segments. Maryland also connected its shores with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1952. They weren’t too original with the names, though. This one is just a bridge, no tunnel, as the name clearly states.
The ferries disappeared soon thereafter at both locations. They simply couldn’t compete with the bridges. It might take an hour or two to cross the Chesapeake Bay using a ferry after figuring in waiting, loading, sailing and unloading. It took just a few minutes to drive across a bridge, and travelers didn’t have to worry about sailing times either. Ironically the traffic on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge can get so bad on summer weekends that a ferry is starting to sound pretty attractive again.
Interestingly one can still cross the Chesapeake Bay by ferry today, just not directly and not with an automobile. Smith Island, Maryland and Tangier Island, Virginia are small marshlands in the middle of the bay inhabited by traditional watermen and their families. I’ve been to Tangier Island and I can say with certainty that it’s an amazingly interesting and unique place to visit.
Both of these islands are served by ferries from the eastern and western shores of the Chesapeake. Thus, it’s possible to hopscotch across the bay, using either island as a layover. It would take a little while and you couldn’t take your car with you, but it could be done and it might be an enjoyable adventure.
Car ferries across the Chesapeake though? No, those are a relic of the past. That’s too bad. There’s nothing like a ferry ride on one of the big boats. Wouldn’t it be great if they actually came back, though?