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Ferry Service Kicks Off 331st Year In Tiny Eastern Shore Town

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Tom and Judy Bixler describe owning the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry as their own personal “fairy tale.”
Tara Boyle/WAMU
Tom and Judy Bixler describe owning the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry as their own personal “fairy tale.”
The Oxford-Bellevue ferry was first established in 1683, and has survived 331 years of change on the Eastern Shore. (Tara Boyle/WAMU)

In 1683, officials in Talbot County, Maryland, ordered the creation of a ferry service. The goal was to carry “horses and men” across the Tred Avon river and provide a vital link between two bustling Chesapeake Bay communities.

Fast forward 331 years, and that ferry is still running between the small towns of Oxford and Bellevue.

“We call owning the ferry our fairy tale,” says Judy Bixler, who owns and runs the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry with her husband, Tom. “It’s really a spectacular job. You meet people from all over the world.”

The Bixlers bought the ferry in 2001, after a long search for a ferry line to run. Judy Bixler is one of a number of women to have owned the Oxford ferry over the past three centuries.

“The most famous woman was Judith Bennett, and she outlived three husbands running the ferry. So I often tease my husband that he better watch out because I’m Judy and she was Judy. He better beware!”

In the early days, the ferry was a small barge; slaves were probably used to row or pull the barge across the river. In the years since then, the ferry has evolved from a steam tug barge, to a gas engine tug, to a diesel two-engine ferry that’s in service today. From the ferry’s wheelhouse, the boat’s captains have a panoramic view of the river and Oxford’s waterfront.

“Just look around yourself right now, we’re standing on the bridge of the ferry — does it get any prettier?” says Tom. “We sit in a wonderful spot, we overlook the Oxford Harbor [and] the Tred Avon River, and we get to enjoy all the wildlife and all the folks that come to visit us, so what could be better?”

Among the wildlife they see are eagles, osprey, and even deer swimming across the river. One time, Judy found herself surrounded by a pod of 75 porpoises.

Many of the ferry’s passengers are tourists who come to see this wildlife, or to bike through the quiet communities of Oxford and Bellevue. It’s a far cry from the colonial days, when Oxford was a busy trading port, and from the later boom years of the seafood industry.

“It used to be a commuter ferry that brought workers back and forth between Bellevue and Oxford, to canneries on both sides,” says Judy. “But lately we only have a handful of commuters; it’s basically become more of a tourist ferry.”

And with that in mind, the Bixlers encourage visitors to come check out what’s officially described as the nation’s oldest privately-held ferry service.

“The ferry is a very special part of Talbot County history,” Judy says. “We do feel that we’re keeping a heritage going here running this ferry going to Bellevue every day.”

Music: "Ferry Cross the Mersey" by Gerry & the Pacemakers from Gerry & the Pacemakers

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