Crossing the river can be an ordeal without the help of a blue-eyed, taciturn man named Dale Jones. When he takes a day off, certain unhappy Northeast Florida motorists have to drive their cars an extra 50 miles to get from one side of the St. Johns River to the other. They have to drive to Palatka across Old Memorial Bridge or head south an hour to pass above the river at Astor.
But for $10, Jones will take two vehicles and their passengers across the river on the oldest ferry in the state. Since 1853, the Fort Gates Ferry has transported farmers, soldiers, livestock, wagons and now motor vehicles from the Salt Springs area of the Ocala National Forest to the little community of Fruitland to the east.
In the old days the ferry pilot employed a long pole to push the little barge and cargo across the wide river. After the Civil War, a steam-driven boat nudged the barge from bank to bank. Now Jones perches at the wheel of a little tugboat powered by an internal combustion engine. The tug and barge, by the way, are almost a century old.
"If things work, why replace them?'' is the ferry pilot's philosophy.
Jones has nothing against modernity, nothing against bridges. He drives his pickup across them from time to time. But bridges are sadly imperfect, he has found. Sometimes the draw in a modern bridge gets stuck in the "up" position during a power outage. Sometimes a traffic accident blocks the lanes.
Then even modern Florida needs a ferry.
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Jones, 50, owns the ferry with a relative, Dick Hackett, 75. They also own the Fort Gates Fish Camp next to the ferry terminus on the Fruitland side of the river. They rent boat slips and cabins. They say "nice fish" when somebody comes in with a stringer of bass. Sometimes they take a photo of the triumphant angler and post it on a bulletin board for visitors to admire.
Before it was a fish camp, before the ferry began operating, Fort Gates was a federal encampment during the longest Indian uprising in U.S. history, the Second Seminole War, which lasted from 1835 to 1842. During the Civil War the ferry transported Confederate troops. Today Fort Gates is a place where anglers in orange jumpsuits launch their expensive boats to go after bass.
One of these days Jones is going to start fishing for bass.
"I bought me a license last October,'' he says. "But I still haven't wet a line. Too much work. I got me a ferry to run.''
Once there were dozens of Florida ferries, including one that crossed Tampa Bay. Now only four remain. The Mayport Ferry, founded in 1948, crosses the St. Johns near Jacksonville and can manage 40 vehicles and 200 passengers at a time. Since 1943, a private ferry has carried motorists, two at a time, from the Putnam County mainland to their homes on 3.5-mile long Drayton Island where the St. Johns River widens into Lake George. In Southwest Florida's Charlotte County, a ferry has been transporting residents from Palm to Knight and Don Pedro islands since 1984.
The Fort Gates Ferry transports about 1,500 vehicles a year across one of the most remote sections of the St. Johns. "This part of the river ain't got tore up like some of those places around the bend,'' Jones says. In his opinion, development is a double-edged sword. It can bring customers but change the relaxed way of life. The Fort Gates Fish Camp and Ferry has a new neighbor, a residential development that includes a paved airplane runway and hangars instead of garages. Maybe one day the wealthy homeowners will demand a new bridge from politicians. For now, in a bad economy, they depend on the ferry.
The ferry operates as needed between 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. every day except Tuesday. At the fish camp, a customer knocks on the office door to find Jones. From the Ocala National Forest side, customers have three options to alert the ferry pilot. They can call on their cell phones and hope for the best. They can blow their horns and hope the wind is blowing toward Jones.
The time-honored way is to drive to the river bank and turn on the vehicle's headlights.
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There is no paved road leading to the ferry on either side of the river. On the fish camp side, the 1-mile-long dirt road is always passable and close to civilization in an emergency. On the Ocala National Forest side, a motorist requires a sense of adventure. The yellow sand road to the river weaves through wilderness for 7 miles. The road is known as National Forest Road 43, Salt Springs Road, Fort Gates Road and Florida Bear Scenic Highway. Motorists who break down are more likely to see bears than tow trucks.
In dry weather, a Honda Civic should make it. In rainy weather, streams of water flow across the road. In a frog-strangling downpour, parts of the road wash away.
Switch on your lights.
For a long time, nothing happens.
Then a dot appears on the river. The dot gets bigger. It's a 40-foot barge pushed by a 20-foot launch with Dale Jones at the helm. It has taken him 10 minutes to make the 1-mile crossing.
He lands. He ties up to the dock. He keeps his mouth shut. He spins a wheel that raises the ramp to the level of tires. He gestures "come on" with both hands. His passenger drives slowly onto the barge. He gestures "a little more" and his passenger drives a little more forward. Now he holds his hands up in the "stop" position. He unties from the dock. Without a word he boards the tug, turns the barge around and heads for the other side.
• • •
Fifteen minutes later, at the fish camp, he is slightly more talkative.
Two customers today. But on a good day there can be 30. Maybe more if there's an accident on the bridge at Palatka.
Who are his customers?
They are deer hunters with rifles in the windows of their pickups. They are families with kids and tubes heading from the coast to a day in an Ocala National Forest spring. They are foreigners who want to ride on every ferry in the United States. They are a lawn man with a truck and trailer who has accounts on the other side. They are motorcyclists. Twenty Harleys can fit on the trailer. They are cyclists. Jones can fit 45 and their riders on the barge.
"I basically like this,'' says the former Pennsylvania resident who moved here more than a decade ago. Sometimes he is bored and wishes he were doing something more exciting. But those feelings pass. "It's pretty here. It's peaceful. People are nice and friendly.'' He sees eagles and ospreys. He sees big alligators. One time he saw a bear swimming across the river.
Another time a lightning bolt struck a marker a hundred yards from the barge. "I won't pick you up in a storm,'' he says. "Not worth 10 bucks. You'll have to wait.''
In 1972, Paul Newman visited the Fort Gates Fish Camp to film a commercial for a car company. The guy who ran the ferry let Paul Newman take the wheel for a few minutes. In the stuffy fish camp office, where wasps fly just below the ceiling, they have a scrapbook full of clips about the Paul Newman visit.
The owners of the ferry at the time, Fred and Connie Ludolff, had the gumption to invite the famous movie star to supper. At the ferry landing — even now — even close-mouthed Dale Jones can tell the story of what happened next.
"Connie,'' Paul Newman said, "I'm awfully hard to please. I want bass, corn on the cob with watermelon for dessert.''
He left with a full stomach.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."