DELMARVA ALMANAC

The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry

by Dana Kester-McCabe

The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry was started in 1683 and except for a pause caused by the American Revolution it has been running ever since.

In 1683 Oxford Maryland was poised to become an important shipping center for the region. So, Talbot County commissioned the establishment of a ferry to accommodate all those merchants who had begun businesses there on either side of the Tred Avon River. Tred Avon is simply the way some Brits at the time pronounced Third Haven which was a description of this river among several along the eastern Chesapeake Bay.

By 1694 Oxford, and what is now known as Annapolis, were named the official ports of entry for colonial Maryland. Large British commercial businesses established branches there to trade all manner of "necessities" for colonial gold - tobacco. By 1747 there were over 200 commercial sailing vessels registered to trade at the customs house in Oxford.

The ferry service was an important component of the busy little port and except for a pause caused by the American Revolution it has been running ever since. The current owners are Captains Tom and Judy Bixler. I talked to Judy about the ferry by phone recently and she told me more about the history of the ferry.

The ferry became official when innkeeper Richard Royston was hired by Talbot County in 1683 to run the ferry service across the Tred Avon River, and be paid in tobacco. Royston was involved in some unsavory activities apparently leading to his arrest at one point.

The ferry changed hands a number of times and there were a number of women owners including one Judith Bennet "who went through three different husbands" while running the ferry. In the early days many of the owners were the innkeepers on either side of the river.

The Robert Morris Inn which is adjacent to the ferry landing was started in 1710. Someone there may also have been involved but this is unclear. During the 20th century there were only three families that operated the service. There was Captain Bill Benson who had the ferry for almost 38 years. Then the Clark family, Gilbert Clark, ran the ferry bringing in a boat from Shelter Island. And then his son and daughter ran the ferry in the 1970's until the Bixlers bought the ferry in 2001.

The ferry has seen a variety of different kinds of boats which in turned have been powered according to the technology of the day. Originally the ferry was powered by sculling or rowing, then by sail. Then it went to a barge and a steam powered tug. Eventually the tug and barge were replaced gas powered boat which was replaced with a diesel engine vessel in the 1950's. This was a two car ferry that was lengthened to accommodate three cars. That was the boat Captain Bill had which was built by Buck Richardson who was a native of Oxford.

The current ferry made from steel, The Talbot, was built in 1980. It is 30 feet wide and 65 feet long. The ferry once served the commuting needs of residents in the area but is now primarily a tourist attraction.

The Bixlers have a lot of boating experience. Both are licensed captains. Tom had been a deck hand on a ferry in New York as a young man. Before owning the ferry service, the couple had a very demanding life running businesses that included a car dealership.

Stress of running that business was giving Tom ulcers. He said that when they retire he really wanted to own a ferry. So, they retired early and looked around the country to find one that was available. They were lucky to find that the Clarks were ready to sell their ferry. They had a connection with the Clark family and so the sale was made. The Clarks wanted to sell to another family and Judy also has her captains license, so they were perfect fit. Judy and Tom both run the ferry. They call it their "Ferry Tale."

The ferry has been used for other purposes besides transporting travelers. Once a year they allow a local charity to use the ferry as a fundraiser. It has been used to seed oyster beds on the river, to assist stranded or capsized boats, and even to transport fire trucks to put out a blaze on a burning vessel in the middle of the river.

The Bixler's also have had a lot of fun with special events on the ferry, such as trying to see how many cars they could get on board within their safe weight range. Captain Bill was able to fit five VW bug's on his three car ferry. They had a good time outdoing that record.

It is normally a nine car ferry. "That's not Suburban's." Though they can fit in the open space, only smaller cars can fit in the space under a canopy by the pilot house. Since there were a number of the smaller Mini Cooper owners in town they decided to see how many of those they could get aboard. They actually got 18 Mini Coopers on the Ferry.

A 19th Mini Cooper came down the road. They were visitors who just happened to be in town and a local store urged them to get to the ferry. They did not realize that they were coming to a special event until they got there. But they would not fit so they had to watch the ferry cross without them. "That was a lot of fun. We had a great time."

Judy says it's a great business. They have a lot of fun and are never bored. Not two trips are the same. There are different passengers, the river constantly changes. "There are different boats we are waltzing with." They see amazing wildlife. Three different times they have seen dolphins. Rockfish and schools of bait fish can be seen jumping. There are osprey and eagles. It's always changing. It's always an adventure. "We love it."

The ferry is also a favorite of bicyclers. They come to see the charming town of Oxford and ride the ferry as they tour around Talbot County. Visitors and residents sometimes bring their own cocktails down and ride the ferry back and forth on what they call the "cocktail cruise". The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry runs every day from April to November. Find out more at http://www.oxfordferry.com/

Another reason to come to Oxford is their annual Picket Fences display. Artists paint psectionsof Oxford's unique style of picket fencing. These are displayed through out the town and are auctioned off for charity in October. Click here to find out more.

History of Talbot County, Maryland, 1661-1861, Volume 2
by Samuel Alexander Harrison
Williams & Wilkins Company - Balitomer, Maryland 1915

Highroad Guide to the Chesapeake Bay
by Deane Winegar
Longstreet Press - Mrietta, Georgia - 2000

Where Land and Water Intertwine: An Architectural History of Talbot County, Maryland
by Christopher Weeks
Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland 1984

Maryland Curiosities: Quirky Characters
by Allison Blake
Morris Book Publishing - 2009

Maryland, a Guide to the Old Line State
by the Federal Writers' Project - 1940