White's Ferry (red X) offered the only crossing of the Potomac River between American Legion Bridge (I-495) and Point of Rocks (Route 15)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
White's Ferry was the last of 100 ferries that once operated on the Potomac River to carry vehicles between Maryland-Virginia. Ferries crossing the Potomac River have a long history, but bridges have replaced all but one.
Conrad's Ferry was authorized by Maryland's General Assembly in 1782 and began operating around four years later. A boat was attached to a 300-yard cable stretched across the river, and originally pulled by hand to carry horses, wagons, and passengers across the Potomac River.
what is now known as White's Ferry was originally started as Conrad's Ferry
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Loudoun County, Virginia (by Yardley Taylor, 1854)
New owners purchased the ferry in 1946. The first ferry was a segment of a World War II pontoon bridge. The first actual ferry boat was purchased in 1953, then replaced in 1988.
Each boat was named the "Jubal Early" in honor of a Confederate general. He had led an army into Maryland in July, 1864. After marching downstream beyond the ferry, the Confederates attacked Washington, DC from the north. Early's attack was repulsed, and a year later he fled to Mexico after the end of the Civil War. Though he returned to the United States in 1869, Early never swore allegiance again to the Union. The ferry operators admired his "no surrender" attitude.1
between 1953-2021, the boats at White's Ferry were named after Confederate General Jubal Early
Source: Flickr, Jubal A. Early ferry (by Thomas Cizauskas)
A property dispute led to White's Ferry closing at the end of 2020. On the Loudoun County side of the river, the ferry landing was on private property. Elijah White had renamed Conrad's Ferry after the Civil War, and Loudoun County acquired land in 1871 for a ferry landing. However, there was no documentation of the location of that public property. The Brown family acquired White's Ferry in 1946 and purchased land on the Maryland side, but the landing site in Virginia was located on the property of Rockland Farm. It licensed use of the landing starting in 1952.
The relationship cracked after the ferry landing was expanded without authorization in 2004. After Hurricane Isabel destoyed a wooden wall on the Virginia landing, the ferry operators replaced it with a concrete retaining wall. They assumed their repair was within a public right-of-way.
The owners of Rockland Farm claimed there was no public right-of-way and that the entire landing was on their private land. In 2020, Rockland Farm won a long-delayed lawsuit; the Loudoun Circuit Court judge ruled the ferry operator had no right to use the landing and had to pay $102,175 to remove the retaining wall.
Rockland Farm followed up with offers to license the ferry at a new fee or to purchase White's Ferry. The operator claimed the offers were financially unrealistic, and that the demand for $18,000 a month to use the landing exceeded the entire monthly revenue from operating the ferry. A proposal for $1.00/car would have diverted 38% of the gross revenue per car, assuming fees remained at $2.62 per trip for daily commuters.
The ferry operator also claimed that Rockland Farm's proposal that the revenues be split evenly (1/3 each) between the landowner on the Virginia shore, the landowner on the Maryland shore, and the operator would have left the operator without adequate funding to pay annual costs. The operator proposed $400,000 for an easement, and the counter-offer was $2,000,000 with the right for Rockland Farm to cancel the agreement with just 30 days notice.
The operator ultimately abandoned the fruitless negotiations and closed the business without warning. Since the ferry was the only crossing of the Potomac River for 35 miles between the Point of Rocks and American Legion bridges, closure disrupted the pattern of commuters.2
White's Ferry closed in 2020 after a dispute over rights to use the property of Rockland Farm (highlighted in blue) for a landing
Source: Loudoun County, WebLogis - Online Mapping System
Efforts to negotiate a deal between Rockland Farm and the ferry owner to reopen White's Ferry were not successful. In February, 2021, Chuck and Stacey Kuhn purchased the ferry business and all assets. The wealthy couple, owners of a large moving company, had already been deeply engaged in buying and conserving land in Loudoun County. They served the role of "white knight," and their acquisition was intended to facilitate reopening the ferry for the 800 daily users who were affected by the closure.3
The new owners failed to restart ferry operations quickly. The owners of Rockland Farm insisted on a payment of $0.50 per vehicle for the right to use their property on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. Rather than agree to the demand, the ferry owners proposed Virginia or Loudoun County condemn the ferry landing site, paying fair market value to convert the site from private into public property.
Once the landing site was owned by Loudoun County, it could negotiate a deal to authorize use by White's Ferry. The "taking" process, with various court filings, could take as long as 10 months before vehicles could be floated across the river. A judge would determine "fair market value," but the county could use its newly-acquired property while the legal process to determine value was underway.4
most facilities for White's Ferry, including the toll collection area, was on the Maryland side
Source: Montgomery County, White's Ferry Operations Alternative Study (Figure 1-3)
The new ferry owners kept pressing for Loudoun County to use its power of eminent domain to purchase the landing owned by Rockland Farm. The ferry owner stated in August, 2021:5
In October, 2021 the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors started the condemnation process. It removed 30 acres around the landing from the Agricultural and Forestal District:6
The county was interested in maximizing the return on its pssible investment by increasing the number of cars who could cross the Potomac River each day. When privately run, the ferry made an average of four trips/hour. It took six minutes to load the ferry and six minutes to unload, plus three-and-a-half minutes to cross the river.
Road access ramps could be reconfigured to allow loading cars, installing an electronic payments system, and buying a larger boat (replacing the current one, which was two smaller ferries combined together) to accommodate more vehicles.7
Loudoun officials were less interested in restoring ferry service than Montgomery County officials. The peak use was on weekends rather than on workdays when commuters were crossing the river; Maryland wineries were beneficiaries of the ferry. Loudoun officials considered the ferry to be a minor fix for a more-significant transportation proposal to connect Route 7 in Virginia to I-70 in Maryland. Montgomery County was unwilling to support a new highway and associated development, cutting through the area in the county designated for large-lot agriculture.
One Loudoun supervisor framed the problem as a need to expand road capacity, rather than just restart a ferry that carried 800 people/day:8
The Montgomery County Executive responded that commuters should move to the side of the river where their job was located, rather than push for a bridge. Montgomery County had established an agricultural reserve in the western end of the county, zoning for housing on large (25-acre) parcels. In contrast, Loudoun County zoned its shoreline of the Potomac River to allow dense subdivisions, with housing for new commuters who created a demand for new transportation infrastructure.
Extension of the Metro Silver Line into Loudoun County provided mass transit to jobs east of Loudoun County, but a trip from Ashburn to the Red Line station at Shady Grove required 90 minutes. The Montgomery County Executive was blunt:9
a hairpin turn at the Loudoun County landing limited the size of vehicles which could access White's Ferry
Source: Montgomery County, White's Ferry Operations Alternative Study (Figure 3-21)
White's Ferry is located in the floodplain, complicating proposals for building new infrastructure
Source: Montgomery County, White's Ferry Operations Alternative Study (Figure 2-1)
White's Ferry was two boats, bound together and pulled along a cable to cross the Potomac River
Source: Montgomery County, White's Ferry Operations Alternative Study (p.50)