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Ferry on the Connecticut River carries a load of history

The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry was established in 1665.
The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry was established in 1665.Matthew Bellico FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

GLASTONBURY — The passage takes four minutes and spans 350 years.

The crossing of the Connecticut River aboard the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry is a pastiche of nostalgia and necessity in this parcel of the state. What began just south of Hartford in 1665 remains the oldest continuously operated service in the United States.

Today's tugboat and barge tandem, which reaches capacity when hauling only four cars, is the modern successor to the first raft, powered by an intrepid ferryman working a pole along the sandy riverbed.

But in essence, the journey remains the same for tourists and locals alike. "We take the ferry to get to the other side," says Jen Ziomek, with a touch of irony in her voice. The South Glastonbury resident, along with her husband, John, and so many others, often incorporates this route into the final leg of business or sightseeing excursions into New York — and the contrast between the two locales couldn't be starker. "You know you've arrived when you see water, when you see nature again," she explains.

Closer to home, the ferry landings are a welcome retreat from the ribbons of tarmac that encircle the state capital and weave and worm their way through the region. Taking the ferry can save some motorists 16 miles on their daily commute and ratchet down stress levels considerably.

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Especially when approaching the ferry from the Glastonbury side, it's a scene that clamors for the brushstrokes of a landscape artist. Cornfields stretch through the river's fertile floodplain, so too broadleaf tobacco destined to wrap cigars in the Dominican Republic. Herons dip their bills along the leafy shores, and the dark waters of the Connecticut act as a magnet of sorts. It once drew Billy Joel to film his "River of Dreams" video at the ferry, and today the area continues to pull those searching for a pace measured by sundial, not tracked by cellphone clock.

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I found Main Street Glastonbury draped in American flags, with Colonial and Greek Revival homes professing their ages on small plaques. Here I also found the Historical Society of Glastonbury and Lin Scarduzio, who curates the local museum, housed in the old brick Town Hall dating to 1840.

Senior Captain Larry Stokes has been at the wheel of the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry for 23 years.
Senior Captain Larry Stokes has been at the wheel of the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury Ferry for 23 years.Matthew Bellico for The Boston Globe

She can spin tales of the shipyards that once lined the riverbank, producing nearly 300 other ocean-going vessels that were then steered the 40 miles down to the sea. She also recounted the maritime evolution of the ferry itself, maturing through horse-powered treadmills, steam, and finally diesel.

"We lose a lot of our history regularly," says Scarduzio. "It simply gets pushed aside for modern life. But the individuals who first built this ferry helped build America, and certain things should be held onto for just that reason."

The most recent push to close the ferry came in 2011, when state budget concerns arose, but a movement to save the artery succeeded, with many area denizens rallying to the cause. History was evoked, but so too the approximately 400 passengers who ride it each weekend day, many with their cars, some on bikes, others on foot.

Senior Captain Larry Stokes oversees much of that. A former deep-sea sailor, Stokes is one of three skippers who helm the good tug Cumberland as it shuttles across the river. He's been behind the wheel for 23 years, and while he admits it's not as rousing as crossing the Atlantic, there are some intricacies to the trade.

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"There's a lot of current, both flood and ebb tides, on the Connecticut and plenty of chop when the wind starts blowing against that tide," explains the bearded, bespectacled, khaki-clad Stokes. "You need to keep an eye out and make a soft landing. When you have passengers on board, you need to make it gentle."

He did, with the skill of an old salt, with every crossing I made, about four round-trips each hour. Many were done with four vehicles, especially during high commute times, packing the barge Hollister III from stem to stern with Detroit and German steel. With the flatboat affixed to the tug's side, it's called "towing on the hip," I'm told, and it's quite a load.

Stokes's first mate and deck hand manage the traffic with jovial ease. And never miss a beat when canine passengers are aboard. Dog treats are always at the ready, and those on shore often scurry to meet the barge and snag biscuits of their own. Stokes stocks his cabin with peanut M&Ms for his eight-hour shift. Travelers, however, can head to the Rocky Hill side and Shad Row, a deck and picnic-table establishment that serves overstuffed lobster rolls, po'boys, and other waterfront fare.

Patrons can watch the almost hypnotic progress of the ferry to and fro. If you squint, the decades wash away like so many waves. Farmer Howard Horton grew up around the corner from the South Glastonbury landing and now, at 91, he finds that the journey still resonates.

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"There was no air conditioning when I was in my teens and early twenties," he recounts. "And on hot summer nights, we'd ride the ferry and let the breeze cool us down. We'd ride it back and forth for as long as we could."

Those who ply the waters today feel much the same.

ROCKY HILL-GLASTONBURY FERRY operates along Connecticut Route 160 through Nov. 30. Weekdays 7 a.m.-6:45 p.m.; weekends 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Fee $5 per vehicle weekdays, $6 weekends, pedestrians and bicyclists $2 every day.


Matthew Bellico can be reached at matthew.bellico@gmail.com.