Maybe you already knew this, but the federal government has a Ferry Boat Discretionary Fund. Being a bit behind the curve, I had never heard of it. But Rod Bray, Capital Projects Manager for Marion County, assured me it’s a regular part of federal highway funding. He has good reason for keeping track of such things. His county operates two toll ferries on the Willamette River, and one of them, the Buena Vista ferry, located some fifteen miles south of Salem, is in need of replacement. A $3.2 million stimulus grant from this fund is making it happen.
The new vessel will be electrically powered and run on an overhead trolley, and should be ready for service next spring. Repairs to the landings and other shore-side improvements will need to be made beginning this fall, so service is being shut down a bit early this year—August 15 to be exact. That left me little time to take a ride on the aging diesel-powered transport that has been crisscrossing the river since 1955.
The sudden appearance of a ferry on a drive through the countryside still causes that moment of disorientation when you wonder whether you made a wrong turn, both in direction and time. But the corn and lettuce fields I passed on my way to the landing served as a reminder of what keeps such an old-fashioned conveyance relevant in the modern age. How else but with a ferry can you get big, heavy farm equipment across a river? (No, a bridge wouldn’t do here, Bray had explained when I asked. It would have to be built to span not only the river channel, but an extra half-mile of flood plain, at prohibitive cost.)
Shore-side improvements include repaving the landings.
Photo: Dana Magliari
With its 30,000-lb capacity, the existing ferry can carry some pretty big loads, according to Darren Jones, who has operated its controls for 11 years. That includes tractors, small combines, and trucks bearing the harvest of the area’s many cherry orchards and dairy farms, in addition to the corn and lettuce I saw. But some modern farm machines are too big for him to take, such as tractor-trailers, large combines and bean trucks, which can weigh in at 50,000 lbs. The new ferry, under construction in Seattle, will be equipped to handle these, but for now they are forced to take long alternate routes that add over 40 miles to their trips—and at the ponderous rates they crawl, several hours.
But of course, there’s something else that keeps ferries going. People love them. Bicycle touring groups, car clubs and sightseers make a point of including the Buena Vista ferry on their itineraries. With the advent of GPS units, Jones said more and more people are learning of the ferry’s existence and making special trips to see it. When he started this job 11 years ago, he might have carried 40 passenger cars a day. Now, he said, it’s more like 100. All of which helps make it a dependable revenue source for the county.
The view from the deck is part of the appeal for sightseers.
Photo: Dana Magliari
If there’s any downside to replacing this ferry, it’s the risk of the new boat being too sleek and modern. Part of the Buena Vista’s appeal is that it looks like surplus equipment from an earlier age, a glorified raft whose seaworthiness you might question until you witness it actually reach the other side. Tethered to an overhead cable, it trudges across the channel in an arc, steering into a current that persistently nudges it downstream. Watching from shore, you wonder if Jones will manage to rein it in in time to make the landing. (He always does, although he said a strong north wind can send the boat spinning.) By contrast, the new electric vessel might glide across effortlessly, and what would be the fun in that?
But the old boat’s time has come, explained Jones. He’s certain the hull won’t pass its next inspection. It received only a conditional pass after its last one. I’m glad I got to see it before it goes. I’ll be back next spring to ride the new one.
For more info: Buena Vista ferry replacement project