My third childhood home was on Pittsfield Street in Pennsville. It was only about four blocks from the river, and near the Pennsville-New Castle ferry terminal. The ferries made many trips each day, and discharged and reloaded their various cargoes of vehicles and pedestrians at that busy terminal. The older of my two brothers and I would often walk down to the ferry landing and then go on to explore for miles along the river banks. It was exciting to sit and watch the ferries that came and went so frequently and wonder where all the people were going. Our mother often took us on the ferry to go shopping in Wilmington, or to the movies in New Castle. It only cost 5-cents to ride as a pedestrian on the ferry. One time we went to see the actor Red Skelton in a movie about a Fuller Brush salesman. My younger sister got scared at something in the movie and began to cry loudly. We all had to leave the theater and go back home on the ferry. I was disappointed at missing the movie, but always enjoyed the ferry ride. The ferry system between Pennsville and New Castle was put in service on labor Day, 1925 after a couple-hundred residents of New Jersey and Delaware had formed the Pioneer Line earlier. A quick access to the tourist attractions on the lower east coast of New Jersey was desired. Prior to that time, all traffic from the South had to go clear to the Philadelphia area, where there was ferry across the river, to go to the beaches of south Jersey. The newly initiated service at New Castle became quickly very popular and cut the driving time to the Jersey beaches by several hours. Piers were constructed on both sides of the river. The head-on dock at Pennsville was a model of it’s kind. The two ferry-boats in service were named “New Castle,” and “Pennsville.” Boat operation began each day at 6 AM, continuing every 30-minutes until 12:30 AM or oftener as traffic demands increased. Each ferry boat was 206-feet long, and capable of carrying up to 75 cars.
It was always thrilling to watch a ferry come into the slip at Pennsville. One ferry would come dashing in just as the other was leaving. Bells would clang, and the engine would be thrown in reverse to slow it down, throwing up a churning wash. Gulls would be following the ferry, crying incessantly, while watching for fish that got spewed up in the foamy water. The ship would hit the greasy, creosoted pilings of the dolphins, bounce a bit, and one of the line handlers would bravely jump ashore onto a small walkway to make the heavy line fast to a bollard. Sometimes the boat would not be slowed sufficiently and it would hit the dolphins with a grinding crash. The dolphins were huge wooden pilings bound tightly together in round groups with steel cables. If a ship hit them hard enough they would rock back and forth, swaying from the force of the impact. It sometimes looked like they would snap off and float away.
When the ferry came to a complete stop, a whistle would shrilly sound, the ramp would be slowly lowered and the vehicular traffic would be hand-waved to exit, one by one. After all the cars and trucks had been gotten safely ashore, the pedestrians were urged to quickly exit before vehicles waiting to go in the other direction were allowed to get aboard. When a ferry was going out, the process was simply done in the opposite order. Cars and trucks would be loaded in single file between the low decks, with their hand-brakes set, pedestrians were allowed to quickly board, the ramp would be raised, the whistle would sound, lines would be let go, with the line-man having to hastily jump aboard, and the ferry, with great gushes of wake, would exit the slip.
When we were lucky enough to ride on the ferry it was always a treat to run up to the top deck in nice weather for a good view of the progress across the river. There were always gulls crying, chasing the boat on hovering wings. Often there would be other ship traffic on the river, and from that top deck one could see a long way up and down the river. Wilmington and Pennsgrove were upriver. Delaware City, and the river elbow at Finns Point were downriver. The hair-tickling breeze would carry the unique scents and sounds of the whole area, along with the aura of things unknown. For the rest of my life, I will always associate the smell of creosote with the Pennsville Ferry terminal and the Delaware River.
The area where the salt water of the Delaware Bay mixes with the fresh water coming from upriver has a singularly identifiable mix of odors: salt-water reeds, with their feet in the wet sand; mud blown in from the river bottom by the Army Corps of Engineers during dredging operations; the taint of chemical plant and oil refinery effluents; the constant stirring up of the channel-bottom by the propellers of large ships; dead fish and crabs lying on the sand in warm sunshine; and lastly, many other kinds of assorted flotsam and jetsam. When one is born and grows up along the Delaware River that peculiar mix of sights, scents and sounds is permanently imbedded in the innermost self. It alone signifies home to a child of the area. The wooden, brick, steel or stone structures that once were homesteads may be long gone, but the river always remains.