The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, known as The Talbot, is for sale to a new owner/operator. Its legacy dates back 341 years. Facebook photo

Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, Nation’s Oldest Privately Owned Ferry, is for Sale

History buffs on the Chesapeake Bay have seen numerous opportunities to own an historic lighthouse in recent years—but how about owning a ferry service that dates back to 1683?

The Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, which shuttles passengers back and forth between St. Michaels and Oxford in Maryland’s Talbot County, holds the title of the oldest privately owned ferry in America. It’s a unique experience for tourists and for locals showing off the beautiful Tred Avon River to out-of-town guests.

Tom and Judy Bixler have owned and operated the ferry since 2002, but as they reach their 70s, they are ready to dial back their involvement and spend more time watching their four grandchildren grow up.

After this summer season, the Bixlers are looking for a successor to keep the 341-year-old ferry alive. It’s been around this long and the Bixlers certainly don’t want to see its run end now.

Tom and Judy Bixler, owners and captains of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry. U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Recruit Isaac Esposito courtesy of the Bixlers.

The service began in November 1683 as a ferry service for “Horses and Men”. The operator, a family member of Tilghman and Poplar islands’ owners, was paid his salary in tobacco.

The ferry was run by a woman more than once during its history, notably beginning in the early 1700s. The ferry was rowed both ways across the Tred Avon River, according to the Bixlers. This “entailed the scow being propelled by a fourteen-foot sweep oar operated at the stern. It required strength and skill few men possessed,” so it was a relief when the ferry was swapped out for a small coal-fired steam tug called the William H. Fisher in 1886.

Today, the ferry the Bixlers operate is a bit more efficient. The Talbot is a steel-hulled, double-ended ferry. The vessel is equipped with two rudders and two engines so the captain never has to turn it around to make a return trip. At 65 feet long and with a 30-foot beam, The Talbot can carry 99 passengers with no vehicles aboard or 82 people with up to nine vehicles aboard.

Judy Bixler says the vessel is in great shape despite being built in 1980 and was restored and painted over the past two years. Its most recent Coast Guard out-of-water inspection found the steel hull to be “as new”. Bixler also notes that the ferry has “a pair and a spare” of most parts. It comes with all the needed equipment, plus a trailer and a shed for storing them.

The ferry’s new owner will receive life jackets, tools, and even uniforms with the sale.

The ferry shuttles tourists back and forth continuously through the summer months. Facebook photo

While Tom and Judy Bixler have served as the primary captains of the ferry for about 3/4 of its trips, the do employ part-time captains. These licensed captains do it for the love of the ferry and they range from retirees to airline pilots (who are especially knowledgeable about steering to the wind) and even a Talbot County lawyer who started as a ferry crew member at age 14 and still enjoys being aboard.

The Bixlers are willing to be as hands-on or hands-off as the buyer wants. “We aren’t leaving the area. We are willing to work part-time with someone. We do have a wealth of knowledge and are happy to share that,” Judy says.

They do acknowledge that the next stewards of the ferry will have to work hard. “It’s a 24/7 job, even though it doesn’t operate 24/7,” Judy says. During the off-season, there’s still maintenance to be done as with any boat and any business.

The Oxford and Bellevue landings themselves are owned by the county and the state, so the ferry owner is not responsible for maintaining those.

One of the important roles of the ferry operators is fostering tourism, the Bixlers say. “The ferry is a mode of transportation, but the majority of the business is tourism,” Judy says.

When the Bixlers first took over the ferry service, there was still a number of commuters traveling between St. Michaels and the Oxford boatyards. But today there is only a handful. For most, it’s a pleasure cruise. It even includes a museum exhibit with photos and information on the ferry’s history.

The ferry boat shuttles visitors back and forth constantly from 9 a.m. to sunset during the summer season. The ride takes 8-10 minutes each way. By water it’s only a 3/4-mile trip, which saves people about 20 miles of driving by going the long way around by land.

The captain serves as an ambassador for the towns of Talbot County. People ask their captain where they should eat and what they should do. Interested kids on board get the chance to come up and see how the vessel is steered. Judy Bixler has positioned herself well over the years as Chairman of the Talbot County Tourism Board and served as Chair of the Maryland State Tourism Board until recently.

As they start their 23rd season running the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, the Bixlers have their sights set on the future. “We really love the ferry and it’s been a wonderful run. We want to find someone to carry on this legacy,” Judy Bixler tells us.

It’s a rare opportunity, seeing that there have only been three different owners of the ferry since the early 1930s. And unlike the rundown lighthouses that come up for sale around the Bay, the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry is a profitable business, making money six months out of the year.

Judy Bixler calls the decision to sell “a bittersweet thing,” but looks ahead to the next person’s chapter.

“It’s been going on a long time and we want it to continue going on,” she says.

For inquiries about the sale of the Oxford-Bellevue Ferry, email [email protected].