Take the Ferry at Fredericktown

Even near the City of Bridges, there are other ways to cross a river

You might expect a ferryboat in coastal New England, on Staten Island, in Puget Sound near Seattle, at Ocracoke on the Outer Banks or in some old Western when a train of covered wagons has to get across a big river. There’s something old, slightly exotic and maybe even romantic about a ferry.

We’re not used to them around here. But there is one. On the Mon, at Fredericktown, about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, a small and efficient, bright-red, cable-guided boat named Frederick regularly hauls vehicles back and forth between LaBelle (locals say LAY-bell) and Fredericktown. Six days a week.

If you’re in that neighborhood, the two- or three-minute ferry ride can save you from driving to either of the nearest bridges, which are about 15 miles away.

The day when I stopped with my video camera crew, Ron Columbia was the pilot operating the ferry. He directs vehicles into position on the flat little boat. He starts the engines. He collects tolls, makes small talk. He helps keep the trip pleasant. He’s conductor/engineer/porter all in one.

"Yeah," said Ron. "I like it. I like the people who come across. I enjoy talking to them. I see a car across the river, sitting on the other side; I just start over there and go pick them up. Go load them up. Bring them back across; drop them off. About a hundred times in an eight-hour period."
Some local historians will tell you there’s been a ferry here since 1790. Ferries were usually positioned at points on a river where people had multiple reasons to go back and forth, and often the site of a ferry crossing was where a bridge would eventually be built.

In 1967, when it was privately owned, this ferry stopped operating, apparently for a number of reasons, but in 1977, it was rehabilitated and revived. Since then it’s profited greatly from new traffic going to and from the recently built maximum-security state prison on top of the hill on the Fayette County side. The ferry is now jointly owned by Fayette and Washington counties. The river is the county line.
Sadly now it looks as though a new $95 million bridge – part of toll road 43, the Mon-Fayette Expressway, or as we call it in our van, "The

Loneliest Highway" because of the small number of cars using it – could make this ferry superfluous and obsolete. That bridge, which would be 4 miles down river, is scheduled to be complete in 2012. It’s just plans right now, but progress can be fast.

So this summer is the perfect time for a day trip to Fredericktown. Ride the ferry. Get a new view of the Monongahela Valley and a better understanding of what’s on the other side of the river.

Rick Sebak produces, writes and narrates documentaries for WQED tv13, as well as national specials for PBS. His programs are available online or call 800/274-1307.

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