Ferries crossing the Ohio River once were numerous in this area. My own great-grandfather operated one between Mason County, W.Va., and Gallia County, Ohio, at the end of the 1800s.
Highway bridges built in the 1920s killed off the ferry business to the point where there is only one left in West Virginia, and its future is uncertain.
The ferry between Sistersville, W.Va., and Fly, Ohio, hasn't begun its operating schedule this year, and the board this week decided to suspend operations this year. Who knows whether it will resume operations in the future.
It's a personnel problem. The boat's one pilot, Bo Hause, left to take a job elsewhere, and so far the Sistersville Ferry Board has not found a replacement.
"It's just hard to find a boat pilot that's not making great big money out on the river," said Mayor Bill Rice.
Barbara Gage, chairwoman of the Sistersville Ferry Board, which operates the ferry, said, "We've been trying for a number of years to find another pilot, without a lot of success."
The ferry board can't compete with marine transportation companies in terms of salary. It hopes to find a retired pilot who wants to earn some extra money or someone in a similar situation.
Because the ferry has had only one pilot the past several years and because it doesn't do enough business to justify a seven-day-a-week schedule, it has operated on a four-day-a-week schedule, from Thursday through Sunday.
The ferry gets no money from the city of Sistersville, which has a population of about 1,300. Its $60,000 annual budget comes from fares, fundraisers, donations and some government help, Gage said.
Government funding comes from two sources. One grant of 80% federal money and 20% matching funding from West Virginia is for maintenance and repairs on the boat and its barge. The ferry board must pay the expenses up front and apply for reimbursement from the grant, Gage said.
The other is a rural transit grant. The ferry board must match that money, but it cannot use fares for the match. Money raised from donations, merchandise sales and fundraisers such as the annual Ferry Boat Festival is used for that.
But this year's festival has been canceled, as organizers didn't think they could have a ferry boat festival without an operating ferry boat, Gage said.
One thing that adversely affected the ferry's finances a few years ago was an insurance adjuster's determination that the ferry could not be insured under the city's blanket policy, Gage said. Now it must pay about $18,000 a year for marine insurance, she said.
The ferry has been a tourism draw for Sistersville and Tyler County. Motorcycle groups, area natives back home for a visit and other people who would just like to try a ferry have found the Sistersville ferry attractive.
Town officials have made several attempts to secure funding from state sources, but they keep getting turned down, and sometimes state officials won't even talk to them, Gage said.
"It's really been frustrating. That's been true for a couple of years now," she said.
It's odd that a state that has spent more than $10 million sponsoring a professional golf tournament and can spend $7,000 putting a tourism sign on a tractor-trailer cannot find a few thousand more to help a legitimate tourist attraction in a small community.
Jim Ross is opinion page editor of The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington. He can be contacted at email@example.com.