By Max Wolter, Photos by Danielle Smith
Driving down State Route 7 along the West Virginia border, I pass a riverside restaurant and pull into a gravel driveway leading to the water. As I get out of the car, I spot the Sistersville Ferry across the Ohio River. The boat creeps away from the dock and approaches Ohio.
A couple bikers pass me and walk to where the river meets the concrete dock. It’s a hot day and the sun beats down on my shoulders. Eventually, the boat creeps closer to land and scoots its metal tongue onto the driveway.
Gary Bowden, an energetic 73-year-old wiry retired man, waves and greets us. Bowden has been on the Sistersville Ferry Board for three years after reviving the ferry service.
The pandemic and a lack of a captain shut down the ferry in 2020, but Bowden revived it. He found Captain Bo Hause, joined the ferry city board and formed a creative relations team of locals to raise money and attention.
“I kinda inserted myself into the board, and by July 4th weekend we were up and running again,” Bowden says.
The Sistersville Ferry is the oldest ferry service in Ohio. In 1813, a paddle boat began transporting people across the Ohio River between Fly, Ohio and Sistersville, West Virginia.
An oil boom in 1892 attracted many businesses and families to Sistersville. They relied on the ferry to get to work or transport goods. Now, most local businesses have left town, and the ferry sees less business.
“We don’t have the employment or population base anymore to sustain it,” he says.
The ferry recently hosted musicians and historians to attract more attention.
The population of Sistersville is just under 1,400 residents. Despite that, the Sistersville Ferry Facebook page has over 7,000 followers, with their posts often racking up hundreds of likes.
Even though Sistersville’s population cannot support their ferry, many visitors send donations or stop in town to ride the ferry. It costs one dollar to ride the ferry and five dollars to transport a car.
Other cities have a special bridge, memorial or statue, but Sistersville has its ferry. “It’s YOUR Sistersville ferry. It’s YOUR little icon from the mid-Ohio valley,” Bowden exclaims as the ferryboat cuts across the water.
At the dock, Bowden introduces me to the crew, Tom Meek and Captain Bo, two retired Marine Corps veterans who have been running the ferry intermittently for the past 12 years. Captain Bo will be retiring at the end of the 2024 season. Meek is training to take over as captain in 2025.
“It gets real hot out here when you’re on this boat all day,” Meek says. He has a deep tan and wears a sun hat.
Captain Bo is dressed in a royal blue sailor’s jacket with a matching blue hat and black cargo shorts.
“You didn’t want to wear the full suit for the press?” Bowden asks.
“No, it’s too dang hot out for that,” Meek replies.
When Captain Bo is ready to sail across the river, I jump in my car and drive up the metal ramp onto the ferry. Captain Bo climbs up to the captain’s quarters. Meek shuts the ferry gates, and the boat takes off.
A breeze runs through my hair and the sun’s heat becomes manageable.
The brimming sun makes the water sparkle as the birds serenade. I catch myself letting out a sigh of relief while gazing down the river. For a moment, I pause my adventure and appreciate the surroundings.
As we float into West Virginia, we are welcomed by one of Sistersville’s landmarks, the region’s first oil drilling rig.
Bowden grabs a couple cold bomb-pop popsicles from the ship’s tiny shop and starts handing them out to travelers.
“It’s the little things that make our trip memorable,” Bowden says.