This summer, in a project underwritten with grants from Maryland Humanities, the Oxford Museum installed a series of weatherproof panels on board the Oxford-Bellevue ferry, Talbot, celebrating the history and impact of the ferry service on life along the Eastern Shore for nearly 350 years.
“For centuries, passengers have been carried across the Tred Avon River without ever being aware that they are part of a long history. This was our chance to share a few illustrated ferry tales along the way,” said Stuart Parnes, Oxford Museum board member and exhibit curator.
They may never have crossed the great oceans or fought in glorious sea battles, but the little Oxford-Bellevue ferries have had a major impact on life along the Eastern Shore for nearly 350 years.
In 1683, the Talbot County Council first authorized a ferry to cross the Tred Avon River, a year before the town of Oxford was officially established. British settlements and plantations were already taking root here. Colonists needed to move horse-drawn wagons, cattle, and other goods along the coast. At a time when roads were a slow and dangerous option, water was the way to go.
The first ferries were propelled by sail when the conditions were favorable, or by oar when they were not. Service was sporadic for the first few decades, but soon the link between Bellevue and Oxford grew more dependable. By the 1740s, as trade with Liverpool made Oxford a prominent maritime center, regular ferries moved goods and passengers across the river and to ships at anchor.
The Revolutionary War brought an end to Oxford’s fortunes, a decline in her population, and a halt to ferry operations. Not until expanding crab and oyster harvesting brought people and businesses back to Oxford and Bellevue did the ferries return to stay. By the end of the 19th century, steam- and then gas-powered launches were pushing flat-bottomed scows back and forth across the river regardless of wind or tide.
In 1931, there was the construction of the first self-powered ferry. Built here in Oxford, the 50-foot Tred Avon would be operated by Captain Buck Richardson and his two sons for just six years before being turned over to William L. Benson, who would serve as her captain for an astounding 36 years. Captain Benson was an Oxford institution, whether sitting on his Morris Street porch or at the ferry’s helm 364 days a year. He brought the Tred Avon into the modern era, replacing her old gas engines with new diesels and lengthening the boat by six feet to accommodate larger automobiles.
At the end of 1973, Captain Benson announced his retirement and chose Captain Gilbert Clark of Shelter Island, New York, to take over the operation. Gilbert brought not only his daughter Val and son-in-law David Bittner with him to Oxford but also an old six-car ferry boat, the Southside, to join the old Tred Avon.
Then in 1980, Gilbert delivered a new ferry to Oxford, built at Blount Marine in Warren, Rhode Island, to replace the two smaller, aging boats. Under the Clarks’ and Bittners’ command, the new Talbot became more than just an essential means of transportation for residents and businesses. She became an important part of the Oxford community, transporting a fire engine to burning boats and serving as a wedding chapel and excursion boat. With the help of advertising, she also became a popular Eastern Shore tourist attraction.
The current ferry Captains, Judy and Tom Bixler, took over the Talbot in 2002. Despite the lack of any financial support from the state or federal governments, they have dedicated themselves to continuing the historic service across the Tred Avon River. Proud to be stewards of America’s oldest privately-operated ferry, the Bixlers maintain the Talbot as Oxford’s most recognizable symbol.
The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry remains a powerful reminder of the town’s maritime heritage and an extraordinary example of a four-century tradition that continues to carry on.