Galveston's Bolivar Ferry, Texas' version of the famous New York Staten Island Ferry, may be the best tourist bargain in the Lone Star State.
It's free, and the roughly 20-minute ride each way between Port Bolivar and Galveston is an entertaining diversion from the beaches and historic districts that are the biggest local tourist draws. Nowhere else in the vast state of Texas can you cross and share a waterway with ships on one of the world's busiest channels, feed scores of seagulls eager for bread or popcorn, and spot dolphins swimming and diving within shouting distance of the boat.
"The scenery, looking at everything, I've enjoyed it since I was a child," Destiny Perry-Inman, 30, of Kirbyville said on a recent trip. "I'd come here every summer with my dad. I would recommend it to people who enjoy this sort of thing."
Passengers standing on the bow can get a saltwater shower as the nearly football-field-long ferry plows through a swell or the wake of a ship. At night, the lights and flares of gigantic petrochemical plants in nearby Texas City burn on the horizon to the northwest. Ocean-going freighters and tankers dot the horizon leading into the open Gulf of Mexico.
"We just love it," Millie Garfield of Victorville, Calif., said, as she accompanied her daughter and 5-year-old grandson. "It's a neat experience for kids."
Garfield's daughter, Sarah Emerson of Silsbee, about 90 miles northeast of Galveston, said that whenever she gets visitors from out of town, the ferry is a must-do trip.
You don't get to see the Statue of Liberty on this crossing, but like its East Coast counterpart, which for decades has been hauling passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan, the Bolivar Ferry for generations has been carrying vehicles and passengers the nearly 3 miles across Galveston Bay from the island to the Bolivar Peninsula. The peninsula is a sliver of land separating the bay from the Gulf of Mexico in Southeast Texas about 50 miles from Houston. The ferry runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, halted only by the approach of a hurricane or tropical storm.
Officially, the ferry run by the Texas Department of Transportation is an extension of Texas Highway 87, which parallels the coastline northeast out of Galveston. It saves motorists a three-hour, 140-mile drive around the bay to Bolivar from Galveston.
"It is a state highway," department spokesman Hank Glamann says of the ferry. "It's just a chunk that happens to float."
The boats carried 1.4 million vehicles and nearly 4.4 million passengers in the past year. People can remain in their cars, get out and stand on the deck at the bow or stern or climb stairs to a second deck for a seagull's eye view. The fleet's newest $23 million vessel is undergoing final preparations before entering service to expand the number of boats to six.
The busiest time of the year is June, July and August, and hours-long waits to drive aboard a boat are not uncommon. People merely wanting to take the boat ride can walk aboard and avoid the lines after parking at the ferry landing, where dozens of pelicans normally roost on the pilings with hundreds of seagulls.
Each boat can carry up to about 70 vehicles and 500 people. Those vehicles can include up to eight 80,000-pound 18-wheeler trucks.
Most of the ferries are named for former members of the Texas Transportation Commission and are painted the colors of the schools they attended. They travel at a top speed of 10 to 12 knots but don't turn around. Their crews do. Each ferry is double-ended, meaning the captain and his first mate walk across the roof of the ferry's upper deck from one pilothouse to a second matching control room on the other side for the return trips.
"The best job I ever had," Capt. William Maxey, who's been piloting the ferries for 10 years, said from the pilothouse of the orange-painted M/V Robert C. Lanier. University of Texas alumnus Lanier was Transportation Commission chairman in the 1980s, then a three-term mayor of Houston.
Maxey says weather is always a concern during his normal eight daily round trips, particularly fog.
"That's when we earn our money," he said. "It makes it interesting."
He remembers one instance in which a lightning bolt struck the water near the vessel during a storm.
"There was fire coming out of the water," he said. "I've worked on a ship all my life, and I'd never seen anything like that. You could feel the intensity."
The first ferry service began in the 19th century, when Galveston was the premier city in Texas, only to be crippled by the great hurricane of 1900 and subsequent construction of the Houston Ship Channel that fueled Houston's ascendancy as a metropolis. It's that channel, gateway to the world's busiest inland port, that the ferries cross.
A private company that first ran scheduled, regular ferry service sold its two vessels to Galveston County in 1929. The following year, the county sold the ferries to the state. The first state-operated ferry went into operation July 1, 1934, and became so popular a 25-cent toll was imposed.
The fee was dropped in 1949.
"One hundred percent free public transportation," department spokesman Glamann says.