Gee’s Bend in Wilcox County is famous for beautiful, hand-stitched quilts and folk art. Now, the area is making history again as home of the nation’s first all-electric ferry.
Following an 11-month hiatus, the Gee’s Bend Ferry began carrying passengers, automobiles and the occasional tractor across the Alabama River April 10. Once powered by diesel engines, the ferry now uses a large tower of batteries that is recharged at docking stations in Camden on the north and Boykin on the south sides of the river.
“The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) owns the Gee’s Bend Ferry, plus two ferries in Mobile (at Dauphin Island),” said Tim Aguirre, general manager of HMS Ferries Inc. of Alabama, which operates the vessel. “The ferries provide an important service by saving time, fuel, and wear and tear on automobiles. We operate every day during daylight hours, unless water or weather deems it unsafe.”
Stacy Scott, a Pine Hill resident who works for Cahaba Mental Health Center in Camden, routinely takes the ferry to see clients who live in the Gee’s Bend area.
“Riding the ferry saves me about 35 minutes one way,” she said. “But it’s not just time I save. I save money on fuel and miles on my car. Besides, riding the river is a nice, peaceful break in my day.”
The ferry runs from 6 a.m.-6 p.m. and makes five round trips daily. Tickets are $3 per car and rider and $1 for each additional rider. Children under 12 ride free. Large vehicles like motor homes pay more. It’s not unusual to see a farm tractor using the ferry.
About 20,000 people and 10,000 vehicles ride the ferry annually, Aguirre said. The trip is just more than 2 miles and takes 15-18 minutes depending on the current.
Aguirre said HMS proposed the ferry’s conversion to electric power, which was funded through a $1 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant matched by $765,000 from ALDOT.
“Converting to electricity required us to add three-phase power to the landings,” Aguirre said. “The Boykin side is powered by Pioneer Electric Cooperative, and Alabama Power services the Camden side. We also had to get easements from area property owners to run the new lines.”
A charging system is at both landings. Even though a single charge can power the ferry round trip, batteries are typically “topped off” at each landing stop, Aguirre said.
The first ferry between Gee’s Bend and Camden ran on cables in the 1930s. It was shut down in 1962 and is on display at the Gee’s Bend Nutrition Center, a short drive from the Boykin landing. In the 1990s, Congress allocated money to pay for ferry service and operating costs. The ferry reopened in 2006.
Camden native Travoris Woods, 34, is at home on the river. He’s a senior deckhand on the ferry — a job he’s had nearly seven years. He said he enjoys helping people and being on the river every day. In addition to guiding motorists and pedestrians safely aboard, he keeps an eye on passengers, cargo and river conditions.
The scenery along the river can be spectacular, he said.
“We see all kinds of wildlife, and just being so close to nature is the best part of my job,” he said. “We see alligators, eagles, all kinds of birds — it’s beautiful out here.”