Meet the Family Behind the Woodland Ferry in Delaware

The Woodland Ferry. Photos by Maria Deforrest

The Cannon family launched a ferry service on the Nanticoke River in the 1740s that survives—and thrives—to this day.

Donald Deputy spends his workdays watching the broad Nanticoke River shift in tides and seasons right outside his window. “I think this job’s great,” he says. “I just love the office view.”

Deputy’s job is captaining the Woodland Ferry, the craft that connects the two shores of the Nanticoke in western Sussex County. The river cuts a slice from east of Seaford down to the Chesapeake Bay, and there’s no bridge for a stretch of about 10 miles between Seaford and Sharptown, Maryland. If you don’t have a boat of your own, you have two options: Drive around or take the ferry.

Most of the towns in the area hug the north-south highway, leaving Delaware’s southwestern corner more to forests and farm fields. The small settlement of Woodland grew up around the ferry, which began hauling carriages—and later cars—back and forth across the water when the enterprising businessman James Cannon set it up in the 1740s, according to Delaware Public Archives.

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The town was known for many years as Cannon’s Ferry, and the Cannon family charged their neighbors a fee to cross. The county took over running a ferry at the site in 1883, per the archives, and got rid of the charge. It’s been free ever since.

The ferry crossing is among the oldest in the country, although one in Connecticut dates to 1655.

Deputy

Today, Deputy keeps busy helping local commuters on their way in the morning, then toting local traffic passing through the area and tourists who came just to ride the ferry.

A deckhand opens the gate and lets the waiting cars drive aboard, their spots separated by a yellow stripe down the middle. The craft can accommodate up to six cars. Benches line the railing for foot passengers or cyclists, with life preservers handy.

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Deputy perches above the deck in a little enclosed cabin. When everyone is set, he engages the throttle and the water churns as the ferry pushes off and the riverbank recedes. When the ferry is in action, a cable is raised to water level to keep it on track; at other times the cable drops to allow boat traffic.

After a five-minute journey to other side of the river, Deputy either picks up another load of traffic or waits until someone happens along. During the summer, 200 or more vehicles a day might pass through the ferry gates.

He doesn’t get bored when there’s downtime, Deputy says. He’s got plenty of time to think, and it’s a nice change of pace from his days as a charter boat captain in Lewes and then down in the Florida Keys. That was a tough and uncertain way to make a living, he says, a young man’s game in the “24 Club.”

“Twenty-four years old, 24-inch waist and you work 24 hours a day for $24,000 a year,” he explains. He returned to this area toward the end of his father’s life to spend time with him and says he was fortunate to land the ferry job.

Donald Deputy

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The boat is lucky to have him now: It used to employ three captains, but the other two have retired, leading the Department of Transportation to cut back the hours of operation. The department is looking for candidates to round out the staff again.As a captain of the boat at the center of the community for 13 years, Deputy has become part of it.

Around 30 vehicles are regulars each morning, “Cars that you know everybody’s name and where they live,” he says. Deputy points out a local woman walking her dog along the river. “Comes by every day,” he says.

At Christmastime, locals will bring cookies for the ferry crew. “People are real good to us,” Deputy says.

He points out nearby landmarks like Woodland Community Church, built by the Cannons in the 1800s, and the old house they used to live in (what’s left of it—the interior burned out more than a decade ago, but it’s been rebuilt and looks much the same).

“It’s a town that time forgot,” Deputy says.

The river and ferry are central to life in this town. Eleanor Jamison of Seaford, now in her late 90s, grew up on a farm nearby. Her family made a home in the community’s old schoolhouse, which has now been restored to its old form.

A car crossing the water
The Woodland Ferry has changed a lot over the years, from much smaller versions like the 1946 model show at left to the modern engine-powered version that can haul six vehicles at a time. The latest iteration is named the Tina Fallon, honoring a longtime state representative. Some earlier ferries were made of wood and powered by hand, so passengers today are traveling in relative speed and luxury. Courtesy of The Delaware Department of Transportation.

“I just think the river’s wonderful,” Jamison says. “As a kid when I went to school in Seaford, and all those people that I saw, they didn’t know about the river. …They had a river, but they didn’t know they had a river. But I used to think, how could you grow up to be normal and not have a river?”

Her father served as a ferry captain in the late 1940s or ’50s, and she had a good friend whose father also ran the ferry.

There’s no better “office” view than that of ferry captain Donald Deputy, who can watch the changing of the seasons and fluctuations of the river from his cabin window.
There’s no better “office” view than that of Woodland Ferry captain Donald Deputy, who can watch the changing of the seasons and fluctuations of the river from his cabin window.

She and other young people were allowed to move the ferry in the summertime and swim in the dock area, she remembers. “If we saw a car coming on either side, we had to jump out in a hurry and pull the ferry back in position.”

The town was about twice as big in those days, she recalls, with a post office, another church some called “holy rollers” and a gas station.

The river, though, was a lot quieter than it is now. “As kids if we were swimming…and an oil barge came up or something and made big waves, that was a really special day.”

Now, Deputy says, you’ll often see multiple tugboats in a day helping haul cargo in and out. “A lot of commerce up and down the river.”

Around and under his vessel, the river teems with life too. Deputy shows a video he took on his phone of a bald eagle swooping down to snatch a fish. Big rockfish come up the river in the spring, then in late summer, thousands of tiny rockfish fry appear, followed by birds chasing them for a meal.

Occasionally, noteworthy events shake up the routine. Once when a vehicle came to cross, Deputy spotted three state police vehicles waiting for it on the other side. The driver saw them too and beat a hasty retreat, leaving Deputy in the middle of a slow-speed police chase. (They later caught the car’s occupants.)

Another time, Deputy saw a kayaker struggling in the water, unable to get back in the craft. Then a tugboat approached, its pilot unaware of the flailing boater, so Deputy called in a warning on the ferry’s radio.

“I can’t get her stopped,” he recalls the pilot saying. “I said, ‘You better get her stopped, or you’re going to be on national news.’” The tug spewed black smoke as the pilot desperately slowed, stopping in time to avoid tragedy. Deputy was cited with a Delaware Award for Heroism for his actions.

The ferry has seen other dramatic, and sometimes tragic, events over the years. In 1937, a woman and her baby drowned in an accident on their way back from a family visit, Wilmington’s Journal Every-Evening newspaper reported. Her husband, a local sawmill worker, tried to crank-start the car’s engine so it would be warmed up when they got ashore. But he forgot the vehicle was in gear, and when it started, it drove backward off the ferry into the water.

Another death in 1843 was no accident. It seems Jacob and Isaac Cannon, some of the ferry’s early proprietors, were unpopular with other locals, accused of greed and foreclosing on loans. A man named Owen O’Day shot Jacob dead at the ferry “under the eyes of condoning neighbors,” according to the historic registry listing for the ferry, after Cannon prosecuted him for stealing a beehive.

Jacob is buried within sight of the spot where he was killed, at the church he helped pay for.

“Woodland has a lot of history, good and bad,” says Wanda Miller, a lifelong resident of the area who attends Woodland Community Church. Inside the building, you can find ferry memorabilia, including a series of historic photos of the craft as it has evolved over the years from a wooden, hand-powered vessel to the modern engine-driven version. One frame from around 1900 shows a mule and buggy catching a ride, the church and Cannon Hall visible on the shore beyond.

A sign in Delaware
Visitors who wish to savor the experience can relax on benches at The Woodland Ferry Park at the boat’s entrance.

A miniature model of the ferry is displayed in one of the church’s wings, complete with a tiny tractor-trailer. Semitrucks, which are too big for the ferry, sometimes show up anyway, Miller says, their drivers fooled by GPS into thinking it’s a viable route. Once, one of them took out the church’s bell while trying to turn around in the parking lot. (The driver paid to fix it.)

If they need better directions, they can get them from longtime deckhand Scott Neal, who says he loves his job and interacting with passengers. “Scotty knows every road on the East Coast,” Deputy adds.

Miller says she can’t imagine the community without the ferry.

“If you live in Woodland, you hear the ferry (horn). …That’s just the sound of Woodland.”

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