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The last of its kind

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The ‘new’ ferry boat at Davis Ferry, taken from the north side of the river.

Rural Monroe County ferry is a reminder of travel of days gone by

**Editor’s note: As of June 20, 2016, the Davis Ferry has ceased operation. After the high waters from the winter receded, a large portion of the river bank began to slide into the river, according to Monroe County engineer Jeff Griffin. After reviewing the failure with the Army Corps of Engineers, it was their recommendation that the ferry discontinue operations for the foreseeable future.

Story and photos by David Haynes

The U.S. Highway 84 bridge is the only bridge that spans the Alabama River in rural Monroe County, where residents of the Packers Bend community north of the river are faced with a 50-plus-mile drive each way to reach the county seat in Monroeville.

For a half century, Davis Ferry on County Road 40, a dirt road, at Haines Island Park offered an alternate route, which cut that distance by half until the diminutive, two-vehicle ferry ceased operation in 2012 when the aging vessel was deemed unsafe.

This presented a major inconvenience for regular users of Davis Ferry, particularly teachers and employees at Monroe Intermediate School, a kindergarten through 8th-grade school located a few miles from the ferry, as well as others who use the ferry for commuting.

But in July 2015, after other logistical complications, the ferry resumed operations with a newer and larger ferry boat that can safely cross the 300-yard-wide river in less time.

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Photo of the Gee’s Bend Ferry, taken in 2012. This ferry has been in operation since fall 2006.

Davis Ferry, which operates free of charge year-round on weekdays from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed 11-1 for lunch), is the last of its kind in the entire state. Only two other ferries – one connecting Dauphin Island and Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay and the other in Wilcox County on the Alabama, connecting Gee’s Bend with Camden – are each much larger and require a toll to ride.

The new Davis Ferry actually looks like a scaled down version of the Mobile Bay or Gee’s Bend ferry boats. It can transport up to three cars instead of two, and the crossing time is cut by about half thanks to the more powerful twin diesels that push it from one side of the river to the other.

The old ferry boat, powered by a six-cylinder pickup truck engine that turned a paddle wheel on one side of the craft, was tethered to a cable for its crossings and had no provision or ability to steer on its own.

The new boat, which was given to Monroe County by Etowah County in northeast Alabama, is powered by two diesel engines forward and aft and can be steered by either of two wheels in an elevated wheelhouse that towers high above the plate steel flooring. This ferry had been at Hokes Bluff on the Coosa River just upstream of Gadsden and was refurbished a few years ago with the aid of a federal grant. But after being refurbished, officials decided the county could not afford the operating expenses and never put it into service on the Coosa, where it sat idle for years.

After the old side-wheeler ferry in Monroe County aged to the point of being unusable, officials from that county and Etowah County made an agreement to give the newer ferry to Monroe County as a replacement. So in March 2013 the Hokes Bluff ferry boat was moved to the Davis Ferry location, but delays in adapting the landings and other complications delayed its resuming operations until July 2015.

County Engineer Jeff Griffin said they originally planned to steer the new boat freely from one bank to the other, but later abandoned that option and decided to make use again of the cable used to guide the older side-wheeler. He noted that because the new ferry boat is longer and heavier, a larger diameter cable was installed to safely tether this vessel against the forces of the Alabama River’s sometimes swift currents.

That cable stretches between two large towers on either bank and is connected to the ferry by pulleys and cables attached near its bow and stern. However, unlike the old ferry, if the new boat were to ever break free of its tether, it does have the ability to be steered safely to the landing ramps without the cables.

This very situation played out in 2011 when a military helicopter on a training mission out of Fort Rucker accidentally struck and severed the long cable that spans the river, killing the Dutch pilot instructor and setting the old ferry adrift. Fortunately, the Dutch student pilot was able to land the chopper nearby and a nearby fisherman towed the ferry back to safety.

Bobby Tuberville, who still operates Davis Ferry, was there the day the helicopter severed the cable. “I remember seeing him come in low and saying ‘he’s going to hit that cable’ and before I could say another word he did!” He said there were several tense minutes as the ferry was set adrift with no way to steer before the fisherman came to their aid and got them back to the safety of shore.

Tuberville, who has operated Davis Ferry for years along with now-retired Davis Ferry operator J.C. Stabler, noted that one thing he doesn’t miss about the old ferry is cranking the ramps up and down on each crossing manually, using what appeared to be a somewhat larger version of a boat trailer crank winch. The new boat boasts huge hydraulic cylinders that have eliminated that chore.

Old ferry boat is on display

The old ferry boat was removed from the river in late June 2012 and moved just up the bank to a grassy area on the Monroeville side, where it sat for several months before being moved again to the end of County Road 40 at its intersection with County Road 17. It was finally transported back to Wilcox County, which had given it to Monroe County back in the 1960s. That ferry boat had previously operated near the present-day Highway 10 bridge in Wilcox County.

Today the retired red ferry is on display inside a chain-link fence at the Boykin Nutrition Site at Gee’s Bend, its bow and stern ramps boasting freshly-installed boards. From where it sits in retirement, it’s only a minute’s drive to the on-ramp for the new Gee’s Bend Ferry.

Griffin said the ferry has averaged transporting 16-20 vehicles and around 25-30 people a day since resuming operations. He noted that funding for the free ferry is included in the county’s regular annual budget and there are no plans for a toll.

This unique reminder of travel as it was for previous generations offers riders a chance to have the full experience of crossing a great river by actually being on the river and not just speeding across on a ribbon of concrete spans. And Davis Ferry is one of the last places in the South where the experience is available.

Adventurous travelers might even choose to make a long loop drive crossing the Alabama on both ferries in the same day, provided it’s a weekday and not during lunchtime from 11-1 when they arrive at Davis Ferry.

Also, if planning to take the Gee’s Bend Ferry, travelers are advised to check its website for any schedule changes or interruptions of service at http://geesbendferry.com.