A boat and a house
Published 10:52 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2016
From the book “Truckin’ on the Western Branch”
For years, a river house on pilings was a familiar sight in the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River, across from Cypress Cove condominiums on the Hatton Point waterfront. But few people know that the cabin was originally the deckhouse of the Captain John Smith ferry.
According to Bill Fox, a naval historian, Albert F. Jester, an experienced ferryman, had the ferry Captain John Smith built by the Isaiah Hundley Marine Railway at Battery Park in 1924. With the 65-foot, 60-horsepower wooden vessel, Jester launched ferry service across the James River in 1925 between Surry and Jamestown.
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The $19,000 ferry held 100 passengers and 16 vehicles. His son-in-law, S. Wallace Edwards, founder of S. Wallace Edwards & Sons Inc., producer of country hams, bacon and sausage, was one of the ferry’s original captains.
Jester ran and expanded the ferry system for 20 years before he sold the service to the Virginia Department of Transportation. The upper deckhouse was removed in 1946, while the Captain John Smith remained in service until the early 1950s. Fred Beazley, Portsmouth entrepreneur and philanthropist, brought the deckhouse (20 feet by 30 feet and constructed of juniper and white cedar) to the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River near his Bridgeview Farm to be a boathouse.
Richard Bray, director of the Beazley Foundation, remembered. “I grew up living on the Western Branch and took my small boat out on the river. The boat house was my landmark in the fog.”
Julie MacKinlay grew up in Virginia Beach, but her father, William Lee Whitehurst, owned truck farms in the Pughsville area. She frequently came to Churchland to visit her grandparents, John and Effie Ballard.
“Our birthday parties were often in the Beazley river house. We’d take a few friends out of school for strawberry picking and sleep over,” she said. “I remember when a Nor’easter drove water up into the river house and we had to evacuate.”
In 2003, the rustic old river house did not fit well with the upscale Homearama event taking place on part of the old Beazley property, Bridgeview Farm, renamed the Estates at River Pointe. So just a month before Hurricane Isabel wiped out other river houses, a Surry businessman, Scott Wheeler, had the river house split in two, raised from the river and trucked back home to Surry to crown a new commercial/restaurant center near the ferry piers on the James.
When Wheeler’s project failed to materialize, he donated the structure to The Surry County, Virginia, Historical Society and Museums Inc. in 2005. The cabin was tucked, temporarily, behind the Edwards production plant. Beginning in 2009, grants from the Beazley Foundation and the federal government enabled the society to launch a restoration of the cabin for use as a museum.
Editor’s note: The preceding excerpt from the book “Truckin’ on the Western Branch: A Cultural History of Churchland, West Norfolk, Western Branch and Bowers Hill,” was reprinted with permission of the authors, Phyllis Speidell, John H. Sheally II and Karla Smith and publisher, Suffolk River Heritage. Copies of the book are available at a variety of area locations, including Bennett’s Creek Pharmacy, A. Dodson’s, 18th Century Merchant, Village Florist, Harris Tire and Hair by Andrea. For more information about Suffolk River Heritage and its other historical books about the area, visit www.cehfoundation.org.