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The Ferries of Kentucky

Kentucky has more miles of navigable waterways and streams than any other state except Alaska, and that requires a lot of infrastructure to get people and traffic across water as they travel the state. In addition to bridges and highways, Kentucky has an active ferry system that helps get people where they need to go.

Jeremy Edgeworth is the Freight, Rail, and Waterway Coordinator for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. He says people are often surprised to learn that ferries are still part of the state’s transportation strategy.

“Our ferry system provides a vital connection to our road system,” says Edgeworth. “We have a great amount of roads and bridges that help connect Kentucky, but there are just some places that cannot be reached by roads and bridges. Our ferries are really a moving bridge that helps provide connection for some of these more rural areas.”

For some commuters heading south from Lexington or Nicholasville down to Madison County, the Valley View Ferry at the Kentucky River is the best route to take, and not necessarily because it’s the fastest.

“On the way home, there’s traffic backed up waiting in line, even though [the ferry] only carries three cars at a time,” says George Dean, Coast Guard Compliance and Operations Consultant for the Valley View Ferry. “They will get out and socialize with each other. They take a break and it’s just amazing how much people really enjoy the ferry.”

The Valley View Ferry is the oldest in the state. In fact, passengers might notice that the vessel, a towboat named the John Craig II, flies two state flags: Kentucky and Virginia. That’s because the ferry was originally chartered in 1785, when Kentucky was part of Virginia.

Ferries play important roles across the entire commonwealth. At the western side of the state, the Dorena-Hickman ferry crosses the Mississippi River between Kentucky and Missouri. In the northeastern corner, the Jenny Ann takes travelers across the Ohio River between Augusta, Ky., and Georgetown, Ohio. It even has the capacity to bring 18-wheelers over the water.

“Folks in Augusta used to have to go to Maysville or all the way up to northern Kentucky to get across the river,” says Edgeworth. “So the folks that live there in Augusta, that’s what they rely on.”

Clayton Embly is the port captain for the Valley View Ferry. For him, overseeing the relatively short trip across the Kentucky is as serious as any other role.

“I’ve been a merchant marine for over 30 years, and this is by far the smallest vessel I’ve ever commanded,” says Embly. “Probably with the most risk, because unlike a tanker, here you’re dealing with the public and when you’re carrying almost 16,000 people a month, you see 16,000 things that can go wrong, so it’s a challenge that way.”

But being a captain for the historic ferry has its perks, too.

“Once the boats close down and the gates are locked, it’s not unusual to take a step back and maybe drop a fishing line in the water if you have time,” says Embly. “It’s a nice place to spend an afternoon.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life Episode #2517, which originally aired on April 11, 2020. Watch the full episode.