Cape Girardeau, MO – Missouri's Mississippi County Port Authority has received a nine-hundred thousand dollar US Department of Transportation grant to expand the Dorena-Hickman Ferry. The ferry is one of only two ferries crossing the Mississippi in Missouri, and it's the only direct route between that state and Kentucky. Jacob McCleland of KRCU in Cape Girardeau crosses the river to bring us this report.
The U.S. Department of Transportation will provide over $900,000 in stimulus funding to improve a mode of transportation that conjures images of Mark Twain. The Mississippi County Port Authority will use that funding to purchase a new barge to accommodate more vehicles on the Dorena-Hickman Ferry.
Missouri and Kentucky enjoy the geographic distinction of being the only states that share a border yet are not connected by a road. The only direct route between the two states is a ferry that runs between rural Mississippi County and Hickman, Kentucky.
Tammi Hutcheson is Executive Director of the Mississippi County Port Authority. As we stand on the barge, the ferry takes off across the river on an overcast day. Water is drizzling upon us from both the clouds above and river below. She points to the barge beneath our feet, saying this is the part that will be replaced. A larger barge will help ease space issues for the ferry.
"Right now we can accommodate one 18-wheeler, plus other vehicles around it," Hutcheson says. "But we can't put two on here. There's no way. There's too much weight."
Currently, the barge can hold 12 cars and 149 people. It averages 15 trips per day. Increased space would allow a second 18-wheeler to board the ferry and increase industrial and shipping capacity. Coffee Construction, for instance, located right next to the ferry landing in Hickman, Kentucky, has a construction project in Missouri. Coffee uses the ferry daily to transport equipment and supplies. Increased capacity on the barge could allow more of these industrial uses.
Charles Choate is chairman of the Hickman Recreation, Tourism, and Convention Commission. He says that while the ferry was shut down last year due to high water on the Mississippi, its presence was sorely missed. It's much more than simply a nostalgia kick.
"Any time that you enhance traffic in your area, in your community, with people using the ferry, economic impact is always felt," he says. "Those people will spend money in your community. They'll buy gas. They'll buy food and other things like that. It's definitely a draw for us, and something we need."
Edward Floyd, the ferryboat's captain, says he thoroughly enjoys his job, even though he puts in 12 hour days shuttling the ferry between Missouri and Kentucky. Still, it he can't help but be excited about the work. "I love the water and I love being on the river," he says. "This gives me a chance to earn a little bit of money and do what I love doing." About the larger barge and new engines on the tugboat, Captain Floyd says, "This is gonna' be great. I believe that this is going to be a positive thing for us. It's gonna' be a little bit more tricky trying to get out of here back and forth, but we'll just deal with it when it comes."
East Prairie is the closest Missouri town to the Dorena-Hickman ferry. The nearest bridge across the river is 23 miles to the north of East Prairie or 60 miles to the south. That presents a serious transportation problem, especially when gas prices are high. The town's mayor is Clinton Wolford, and as he sees it, the ferry provides a service that is utilized by visitors and locals alike.
"There's a lot of individuals that just want to ride across the ferry boat," he says. "There are some individuals who use it every week as a mode of transportation. It's just vast, you know, it's hard to pinpoint. But it does have its place for the area."
Wolford notes that the region's history is interwoven with the Mississippi. From Mark Twain to the steamboats that once traveled the great river, the Mississippi has been the sustaining force for the Bootheel. "There's a lot of history and heritage surrounded by the river and the ferry plays a major role in that because it allows individuals to cross the river, to actually play a part in river travel that normally they wouldn't have," he says.
One of the leaders on the Kentucky side of the river who supported new funding for the ferry is Judge/Executive David Gallagher. He sees the ferry as a key element to the region's transportation strategy.
"It's a lifeline," Gallagher says. "We live in an earthquake area. We all know that. If you had an earthquake we'd lose the bridges, but you're not going to lose the barge. You're not going to lose the ferry. So you would still have an emergency, alternate route of travel if necessary between here and Memphis."
While the Mississippi County Port Authority owns and operates the ferry, Kentucky also chips in, according to Judge/Executive Gallagher.
"Kentucky is a major contributor to the operation of the ferry, although they're not owners of it. But they see the economic value of it. So they work very closely with Missouri to keep it going. In fact, we're trying to expand that partnership to include Tennessee."