‘Held hostage’: Drawn-out dispute over White’s Ferry leaves Md. town in limbo

White’s Ferry lies grounded as a dispute between land owners in Virginia and Maryland shuttered the barge in December, 2020. (WTOP/Luke Garrett)

It’s been nearly two and a half years since White’s Ferry took cars across a lazy span of the Potomac River — and residents in Poolesville, Maryland, are still counting the days.

For the small town in northern Montgomery County, the shuttered ferry means a lot.

To Pastor Howard C. Copeland III, who goes by Chuck, an operating White’s Ferry means more time with his grandchildren.

“Three of my four grandkids are right across that water, man,” Copeland said. “It would be so much easier for me to hit the ferry and cruise on over.”

With the ferry closed, Copeland said his commute to and from Leesburg, Virginia, takes him nearly two hours longer.

“Having this thing closed down is like closing our main street,” Copeland said.

To Sandy Wright — owner and founder of Locals Farm Market — White’s Ferry would get more customers into her café if it reopened, especially on weekends. But it’s also about the history.

“It’s part of our identity here,” Wright said. “A lot of Poolesville has to do with our heritage and sense of place, and White’s Ferry is certainly a really important element of that.”

Established in 1786, White’s Ferry was the last remaining ferry crossing along the Potomac River. More than 100 ferries used to crisscross the river between Maryland and Virginia, taking goods to and from the C&O Canal.

Before the pandemic hit, White’s Ferry carried as many as 1,000 cars a day between Poolesville and Leesburg.

A private dispute drags on

White’s Ferry stopped running in December 2020 after the boat’s cable broke. The severed line also revealed a deeper break in the relationship between the ferry’s two owners: the Devlin family, which owns the Virginia landing site, and Herb Brown, who formerly owned the Maryland land and the ferry itself.

Since then, Brown sold the Maryland landing site and the ferry to the owner of JK Moving Services, Chuck Kuhn. With the sale, Poolesville and nearby Dickerson residents, such as Wright and Copeland were hopeful the ferry would reopen.

“When Mr. Kuhn bought it, he came out to the town and we were all excited,” Copeland said. “And he was like, ‘By the summer of 2022 we are going to have it open.'”

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the new Maryland owner offered the Devlin family $1.1 million for the 1.4 acres Virginia landing site on the Rockland Farm in January — an offer the Devlin family rejected.

“It’s unfathomable that one family is standing in the way of people’s livelihoods,” Kuhn said.

But Libby Devlin said the offer didn’t include what the Devlin family has demanded from the beginning: a one-way 50-cent charge per car, an accurate car tracker and a long-term agreement.

The failed deal caused Kuhn — the largest landowner in Loudoun County, Virginia — to give up on the venture.

“We have run out of options and will now seek to sell the ferry land and operations to Montgomery County so it can work with Virginia to invoke eminent domain and acquire the Virginia landing site,” Kuhn said.

The Devlin family said it welcomes Kuhn’s decision to sell the Maryland landing site to Montgomery County. Further, Libby Devlin told WTOP News that her family is willing to buy the ferry and the Maryland landing site, themselves.

“Mr. Kuhn’s willingness to sell the Maryland ferry assets to Montgomery County is good news,” Devlin said. “If the price is disclosed, Rockland Farm will consider buying the ferry assets for the same price and will bring in an independent ferry operator to get a ferry up and running again without further ado.”

It remains unclear why the Virginia owners and Maryland owners have never been able to see eye-to-eye when both express a desire to reopen the ferry. Regardless, people in Poolesville said they are the ones paying the price.

Public good blocked by private owners

Back in December, nearly 200 people protested on the Maryland side of White Ferry, demanding that the private owners settle their dispute or that politicians step in to take over the land and ferry operation.

Poolesville Commission President Jim Brown and Poolesville Fair Access Committee (FAC) Chairperson Link Hoewing led the charge. And now with the ferry up for sale again, these two are renewing their calls to get White’s Ferry up and running once again.

“We’re at a point now where our town is being basically held hostage by the fact that one of our main arteries, in effect, our main street has been cut off,” Brown said on WTOP’s DMV Download podcast.

Link Hoewing agreed.

“I don’t think finger-pointing is very useful,” Hoewing said. “It’s a private dispute, it has been, but it’s a public service. And that’s why we’re so frustrated, because if the private parties can’t negotiate this out, we think the counties or the states ought to step in.”

When asked why they are hopeful about this sale given that the last one didn’t result in any progress, Brown said history is on their side.

“We’re not going to give up,” Brown said. “And we also have the longevity of 200-plus years of ferry operation. We’re hopeful that we just look back on this as a little blip in time — this is essentially a broken cable that extended for a couple of years — once the ferry gets opened up.”

Hoewing also said that the Poolesville community is not done fighting for White’s Ferry.

“We have a secret sauce here,” Hoewing said. “I think people don’t appreciate that we got a community that is always engaged, always communicates with each other and is very close.”

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett is a D.C. native dedicated to journalism. He is a reporter and the creator, host and producer of the original WTOP podcast, “DMV Download.” The podcast debuted in 2022. On the show, Garrett takes a weekly look at the biggest stories and ideas in the D.C. region.

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