Approximately 600 vehicles on any given weekday and up to 1000 per day over the weekend use the historic White’s Ferry to cross the Potomac River from Loudoun County, VA into Montgomery County, Md., and back.
Located three miles from Leesburg on Route 15, just shy of Farmer John’s Whitmore’s produce stand, is White’s Ferry Road, leading travelers down a notably picturesque thoroughfare where cars line up day and night at the 200-year-old river crossing for a three-minute ride across the Potomac on a cable and motor driven floating ferry which holds up to 24 cars and passengers.
Every few years, White’s Ferry captures headlines when this calm part of the Potomac, 20 miles above Great Falls, floods, freezes or the historic ferry’s cable snaps and the ferry drifts 500 yards downstream — with cars and occupants along for the extra ride until rescued by either the Loudoun County or Montgomery Fire and Rescue.
There are even stories such as the cheating couple who, while waiting for the ferry, disrobed in their vehicle and apparently, disengaging the brakes, found themselves and the vehicle in the Potomac, crawling out of the sunroof, in the middle of winter, naked on top of their car, waiting for rescue.
While events and stories will continue, few know the history of White’s Ferry or its owner, 97-year-old Maryland land attorney, Edwin “Ed” Brown who has owned and operated the ferry since 1946.
Brown was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1941 but WWII soon placed Brown in the Army Air Corp stationed in England running various blue collar shops.
“Here I was a graduate lawyer and I’m in charge of the base utilities. I had a paint shop and a carpentry shop, all the stuff to keep the base going,” Brown said.
Brown spent several years in England where he met a young lady from a local village named Winsome. Brown describes Winsome as being “the flower of the Village.”
The war ended and Brown returned to Maryland, reopening his law practice and lived close to where White’s Ferry used to be.
“When I came home from the war, there was no ferry, it had been washed away in 1942. So, I worked with Lucas Phillips and leesburg resident Bob Symington, Wilbur Hall, Bob Brundidge and a few others and we all put in seed money. I wrote the charter in ’46. We paid the Williams’ (owners of the property) $2200 for 2.7 acres,” Brown said.
While running his law practice and getting White’s Ferry back in operation, Brown also returned to England, married Winsome and brought her back to the states where they have lived in the same house a few miles from the ferry since 1948.
The only two “annoyances,” as Brown puts it, comes from the Virginia side. Land leading to the ferry launch is called “Rockland” which has a long history itself and handed down to family by a trust. But the landing, the way to get vehicles onto the ferry, on the Virginia side, is actually a public landing which E.W. White, the founder of the old People’s Bank in Leesburg, had helped put in place. By Loudoun County in 1871 according to Brown. Thereafter, once the Rockland property was acquired, Brown made an agreement with its owners sometime after 1952 for perpetual use of that land.
“People always want a piece of the action,” said Brown.
The other annoyance is the talk of a bridge every few years, typically around elections.
Two problems with a bridge exist, according to Brown. First, the river floods every several years making the water level 11 to 35 feet higher than normal.
Waters flood the entire area, even the White’s Ferry cafeteria, park and C&O Canal can be underwater. The bridge would have to be so tall and long that the land to build both ends would stretch for miles, not to mention the roadway concessions. Even if that could be designed and funded on the Virginia side, it cannot occur on the Maryland side due to the Agricultural Reserve—the land in Montgomery County along the river is preserved.
“That bridge would destroy this end of Montgomery County,” said Brown speaking of the farmland. “It will never happen.” The Montgomery County government also said it won’t support or fund a bridge.
Brown points out that the land around White’s Ferry is kept in pristine condition due to the traffic and tourism. On the Maryland side, the C&O Canal bike trail runs just feet from the cafeteria and is a destination of many who begin their biking, walking or travels, stopping in for a cold drink, sandwich or ice cream.
Concluding that the ferry is here to stay, preservation of the ferry operation has been paramount. The operation and land on the Maryland side is now preserved belonging to a trust Brown created. To further preserve the family heritage in running the ferry, three years ago, Brown’s grandson, Matthew Swensen, moved his family to the area and works for Mr. Brown on the daily operations as the General Manager.
“We have learned everything from scratch,” Brown said, “We had no idea how to deal with floods. Our first ferry was made out of wood which got loose and we lost in one of the floods.” The wooden ferry Brown used was acquired from DC by one of the partners. It was one of many wooden barges used during WWII anchored length wise to form a bridge.
“We have three types of floods here, a 2-year flood, a 10-year flood and a 100-year flood,” Brown said, “The two year flood, we have that twice a year and the water might get up to the door of the convenience store. The 10 year flood happens about every two years, the water gets into the store 3 to 4 feet deep and the 100 year flood, I think there have been 3 of those in the past 60 years, are marked on the building.”
Another problem is prior to making the ferry motorized, it was a reaction ferry. To operate the ferry an overhead cable called a traveller was anchored on both sides of the river. To guide the ferry, a cable attached to the traveler to the ferry, called a birdie cable, was adjusted to help angle the ferry downstream each way.
“We couldn’t get the cable high enough out of the water to get away from the floods,” Brown said. “The water would rise, the boat would rise, but the cable was the same height. So, we changed to a guide cable in the water, which we still use today.”
The ice was another problem but not as much of a problem after the power plant opened five miles upstream and warm water flows out of the cooling ducts into the Potomac and past White’s Ferry.
The next ferry was steel, designed by the Coast Guard, and built in Baltimore in 1957.
“When they were delivering it down to us, they were having the Poolsville Day parade and our ferry coming in from Baltimore fell in behind the parade and everyone thought it was planned and part of the parade,” said Brown.
Unfortunately, the Coast Guard’s design for the ferry was flawed as vehicle placement and weight distribution were not accounted for in the design according to Brown. If water would get on the deck it would leak into the air chambers instead of flowing off the deck. A heavy vehicle at one side would make the ferry’s apron misalign with the landing, the ferry would take on water and begin sinking. “We had to cut through the high side of the ferry’s compartment and pump the water out,” Brown said. In addition, it was too narrow, so vehicles could line up but there was no room to open the doors—the occupant was trapped while being ferried across the river.
The boat in use since 1988, was a replacement for the flawed Coast Guard design. It is wider and accounts for what Brown learned from experience. In 1996, Brown had the boat extended to hold a total of 24 cars.
When asked what was one of the more interesting things about White’s Ferry that people should know, “It still amazes me how many people say, ‘I had no idea this was here’ and are in awe that this is here,” said Swensen.
At 97 years old, Brown still drives down to the ferry to check on operations as often as he can. His life seems to reflect the reason he named the 1953 and 1988 ferry, Gen. Jubal A. Early, “Early had a rebellious, no-surrender attitude,” said Brown.