Ferry Tales: In tribute to NYC's 'red ladies'

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About two weeks ago a strange thing occurred here in Port St. Joe. For what was probably the first time in more than two decades, a vessel significantly larger than the typical fishing boats seen in this area made its way, like an apparition, toward the mooring facilities at what once was our town’s lifeblood, the Port St. Joe paper mill.

Of all the possible watercraft, you gotta think that the iconic Staten Island Ferry would be one of the least likely to arrive at our little pristine Panhandle town. But that’s what it was. And if one wasn’t enough, a couple of days later, another appeared and moored aft of the first one.

Well, let me tell you, this event had a profound impact on me and I’ll tell you why in a moment.

Last year I read in The Star that some sort of a ship and ferry maintenance facility was being planned to be built on land once occupied by paper mill. Since the mill was demolished nearly 20 years ago, we’ve been reading, almost annually, about a wide array of plans for the development of the site, none of which ever came to fruition. And as of two months ago, the property still remained abandoned.

Then, around the beginning of the year, one could see some semblance of activity on the site in an area close to the waters of St Joseph's Bay but furthest from the highway. All that could be discerned was the erection of a pole-barn type of structure. I didn’t have much of an idea as to what was actually happening because, truthfully, I had forgotten all about the article which mentioned the installation of the ship maintenance facility.

Now, here’s my little “Ferry Tale” and perhaps you’ll soon understand why the arrival of the two ferries made such an overpowering impression on me. You see, I was born and raised in… yup, Staten Island, New York.

My grandparents on my mom’s side, whose surname is Murray, settled there in the ‘20s when my mother was a teenager. Grandma Murray, who was a nurse, commuted from Staten Island to Manhattan daily aboard the old reliable ferry. The fare was a nickel in those days. The trip crossed the open waters of New York harbor, with the borough of Brooklyn to the east of the routing and the state of New Jersey on the opposite side. Near the end of the five-mile commute, the Statue of Liberty was passed within a couple of hundred yards to the west. Take it from one who knows, on a good weather day, the 5.2-mile, 25-minute trip was incredibly interesting, scenic, and educational.

When my mother was of working age, she, too, found employment in Manhattan and, you guessed it, rode the ole’ gal to and from one borough to the other. My father’s family, meanwhile, had recently relocated to Staten Island from Brooklyn, and dad also commuted aboard the red lady (the ferries were painted a bright red in those days). This would have been in the ‘30s and the fare was still a nickel.

Now here’s where it gets interesting and very personal. One day during a commute, a friend of my dad’s who was commuting with him and who happened to also know my mother, saw the young Miss Murray, beckoned her to join him and the handsome stranger who was with him. And my dad’s companion then asked young Miss Murray to meet young Mister Blake. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m not sure it was love at first sight, but suffice it to say, they eventually fell in love and married a couple of years later, all the while commuting aboard the ferry. I, too, remember riding the Red Ladies to Manhattan, whether it was for a grade school field trip or a Madison Square Garden hockey or basketball game. That would have been in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and, yes, the fare was still a nickel.

When I was 14, my family was uprooted, and we moved to Chicago. However, I went to college in Philadelphia and, seeing that Staten Island was but 90 miles away, I returned frequently because of all the Murrays and Blakes who still resided there. I had a total of nine aunts and uncles scattered around the borough at that point. That would have been in the early ‘60s.

Then I met my lovely wife in 1965 and we courted in New York for two years before marrying. And for several months during those two years, we lived with a couple of my aunts and uncles on “The Island” but we both held jobs in Manhattan. And, like my parents before me during their courtship, here I was a generation later making the same commute as them. Needless to say, the SI ferry became an up-close and personal part of our lives. And you’ll never guess how much it cost in the mid-‘60s. Yup, five cents! That’s about four decades without a price hike! Amazing!

In 1967 we left New York and have returned only a couple of times since then and, regrettably, have not ridden the ferry since then. But all of what I’ve written above came flooding back to me when I got a glimpse of our two Orange Lady guests. I guess someone decided that a color change was in order and at some point the fleet was painted orange.

But my story doesn’t end just yet. There’s one more coincidental thing I must mention. Upon learning more about our visiting ferries, I found out they were being constructed at Eastern Shipbuilding at the far eastern reaches of Panama City’s East Bay. So, on a lazy Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, m’lady and I decided to take a ride and see if we could find where these ferries were “born.”

After about an hour’s run toward the northwest, we found the Eastern Shipbuilding’s yard and got a glimpse of a third SI ferry which was under construction. But guess where the shipyard is specifically located. Wait for it… at Murray Point on Murray Bayou! Given my mom’s maiden name and our family’s history with the Staten Island Ferry, this had to be karma at its most coincidental level.

Before ending my “Ferry Tale,” here’s a bit more of what I learned about what’s going on between Murray Point and Port St Joe. In that the water depth at Murray Bayou is too shallow for a fully-finished, completed boat to navigate to deeper water, the craft will apparently leave the shipyard as pretty much empty shells. They will then proceed eastward on the Intracoastal Waterway to the Gulf County Canal, then proceed down the canal to St Joseph’s Bay and, finally to the old paper mill’s dock facility. Here they will be completed with the inclusion of seating, concession stands, lavatory facilities, and other weighty accouterments until they’re ready to make their final journey to New York Harbor. For now, they’ll be three such craft earmarked for this construction cycle and we hear they’ll be visiting us here in Port St Joe for three to six months.

Lastly, a few more facts and figures. There are eight ferries in service, and they operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They’ll carry 25 million riders per year (that’s 68,500 folks per day) and, as such, it ranks as the single busiest ferry route in the United States, as well as the world's busiest passenger-only ferry system. And my final statistic is perhaps the most incredible one. I’m disappointed to report that the age-old fare of five cents to ride the old gal no longer applies. Nope. In 1997 the New York Department of Transportation actually reduced the tariff. So for the last 24 years, it’s been absolutely free!

So, I guess the old paper mill site finally is undergoing a rebirth after the last two decades of idleness. And I can't think of a neater, more meaningful installation (to me, anyway) than the one which will eventually join the fleet of the painted ladies of New York Harbor. I think I'll raise a glass tonight.

The above article was humbly but proudly submitted, by Jack Blake, of Port St. Joe.

This article originally appeared on The Star: Ferry Tales: In tribute to NYC's 'red ladies'

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