Fayette County ferry transitions into retirement

Renatta Signorini
| Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013, 10:54 a.m.

Years ago, during a meandering motorcycle ride through Fayette County, Vinny Arlotta came to a dead end on East Fredericktown Road.

There, the Alverton man found the Fredericktown Ferry, and he vowed to return.

On Wednesday, Arlotta and his wife, Debbie, drove their car onto the ferry and crossed the Monongahela River into Washington County.

“I like history, and this is something that once it's gone, who knows if it will ever come back,” Vinny Arlotta said.

About 30 first-time riders and lifelong ferry fans boarded the small boat in what was billed as a “retirement party.” The ferry's last trip will be on Friday.

Fayette County commissioners decided in May to dock the centuries-old operation because of decreased ridership.

Washington County has no interest in keeping the ferry running without the neighboring county's help.

The relic, with chipping paint and rust spots, ferries vehicles and pedestrians. Two full-time employees and one part-timer officially will be laid off on Sept. 3, according to Amy Revak, Fayette County chief clerk.

The retirement party was planned by Friends of the Fredericktown Ferry, and it offered an opportunity for people to learn about the ferry and hitch a ride before the service ends.

“Honestly, I don't know who 90 percent of these people are,” said group member Evan Williams of Carmichaels, who helped organize the small event. “We're not here to save it, we're just here to raise awareness.”

During a three-minute, 23-second ride, operator Ron Columbia stood inside a red-, white- and blue pilot house and revved the engine to cross the river. Underwater cables guide the ferry.

Larry Rutherford collected fares and made sure everybody got safely aboard. The ferry typically carries at least one vehicle on each crossing, according to Columbia.

Pedestrian ridership, however, was higher than usual. Columbia was on vacation but said he volunteered for a couple hours to help Rutherford.

Both union members will be able to take other union positions for which they qualify if they notify the county human resources department by Sept. 10, Revak said.

“They also will be on the county recall list for two years, which means that they would be notified of potential positions they qualify for and they could bid on them,” she said.

Bridget Vernon of Oak Forest in Greene County brought her Boston terrier, Macey, for one last trip across the river. Vernon said that when she was a girl, she and her father would take the trip each week to Fayette County.

“It was a big deal to come down and ride the ferry,” she said. “It's sad that they're closing it.”

Average daily ridership dropped from 247 to 90 passengers when the Mon-Fayette Expressway bridge opened last year, county officials said. Before that, the ferry operated for about 15 hours daily, with eight hours on Saturdays.

While Washington and Fayette counties share operating costs, Fayette employs the riverboat pilots and manages the operation.

It posted a $44,678 loss in 2012. The two counties contributed $155,000 toward total operating costs of $238,000 that year, according to county officials.

Millsboro couple Leslie Swesty and Clarence Wilkerson grew up riding the ferry and use it a few times a month.

“I have been riding on this thing since I was a little kid,” Swesty said after their final trip. “It's pretty sad. I kind of fought back a little bit of emotion.”

Several people snapped photos and gazed out into the green river water and tree-covered hills as they glided across the Monongahela for the final time.

Fayette commissioners have not determined the ferry's final resting place.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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