ORAL HISTORY: Capt. Bill Evans Recalls Ferryboat Days
February 10, 2014
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Cape Charles Historical Society has for more than a decade been recording oral histories of the area’s earlier days. In 2006, Bill and Jan Neville interviewed the late Capt. Bill Evans. A grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities enabled 15 interviews to be transcribed, and the Historical Society has made this one available for readers of the Wave. All the transcriptions may be read at the Cape Charles Museum.)
Excerpts from an interview with Bill and Jan Neville, March 31, 2006
Today is March 31st, 2006, and we’re talking with Captain Evans, his lovely wife, Grace is here with us, as is my brother, Junius, aka Jan. I don’t know where to start. I guess one of the things I was curious about, did you grow up around here?
No, I come from Pennsylvania. From the coal mines. Shamokin — that’s an Indian name.
(Grace): Tell them what you were in Pennsylvania. Weren’t you known as a bootlegger?
Yeah, I was a bootlegger in Pennsylvania. You go up in the mountains, you dig a hole and you go down and get the coal out. You’re a bootleg coal miner.
My brother-in-law is a coal miner in western Virginia. I didn’t know you mined coal!
My grandfather and my uncles, they were coal miners, authentic coalminers. I was a bootlegger.
When did you come here?
I come here the first day of January, 1938. I was 18 years old. My stepfather had married my mother and they lived in Shamokin for a while and then he decided to come down here. He took my mother and I went to Baltimore and got a job there on a riveting gang. And got laid off there and I started looking for another job and my mother told me to come on down here. So I come down here and that’s how I ended up down here. Yes, my stepfather was from Cape Charles. His name was Bernice Ward. I come down here and I wound up cutting wood for the house. They come got me one day and told me I had a job on the ferry. But come to find out my father’s father had spoke to one of the captains on the boat and that’s how I got the job.
Inside track! So where did you start out on the boat?
Just as low as you could get! Ordinary seaman. I had to get a lifeboat ticket first. Which I did. You had to have a year’s time on deck to get the lifeboat ticket.
So what did that qualify you to do?
A steamboat had to have so many men that had lifeboat tickets. We were a passenger ferry. That qualifies you to operate a lifeboat with a crew. You were in charge of the lifeboat.
What was the first steamer you worked on?
The Princess Anne. I started out on the Princess Anne. But the one I worked on the most was the Pocahontas.
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Do you remember Kirwin Forrest? What was his job?
I knew him very well. He was a chief engineer on a boat. And then he got promoted from chief engineer to boat engineer. In other words, he was on the Kiptopeke side. He really started out as engineer on a boat. As a matter of fact, he worked with me. On the boats they carried a chief engineer and a first engineer and a second engineer. And they carried two water tenders and two wipers. For all steamboats.
Was the Princess Anne a steamboat? I always thought they were diesel.
The Princess Anne was an oil fired steamboat. Diesel was modern. We were a steam engine with pistons, big old pistons. [Shows picture of boat.] This is the boat I was on. See how streamlined she is? This picture looks beautiful. But she was terrible, that smoke would come right down her stack. It was all black and you stayed up there scrubbing everyday. That’s exactly what I did as an ordinary seaman. Scrubbing decks and life rafts, I remember painting them. I got hurt painting them once and wound up in the hospital.
The light that you mentioned. Where is that? Is that electric or oil?
[Looking at the picture] It would be on this mast here. The emergency anchor light. It would be oil, unless you had electric burning. If you had electric, you’d use electric. Then you’d have one here, a little lower.
They could be electric or oil. How did you light them? Did you lower them on a pulley?
They had a pulley and you put things on it. We put our flag on it sometimes. There would be a crew of about 21. I got my deck crew and engine room crew. After a while we cut all that off and had a new structure. Cut it in half.
Did you become captain on this boat or on the Pocahontas? Did you work on different boats or just stay with one boat?
You worked wherever they put you. You had your master license and that’s where they put you. But when I got my pilot license and then after I got my pilot license I had to serve a year as a pilot and then I went up and got my captain’s license.
What did you do as a pilot?
On deck in the pilot house, you had a wheelsman and a pilot and a captain, then you had a first mate and a pilot. Of course, if the first mate was on watch, the pilot would be asleep. And vice versa. The first mate he was on watch like 12 to 6 at night and in the morning. In other words, he went on watch at 12 noon and went off at 6 and then he would come on at night at 12 o’clock until 6. And during the night he would handle the boat if the weather was fit. And the captain could sleep. Otherwise, the captain stayed up, he didn’t get no sleep. Or he’d get sleep for a couple of hours because the boat tied up at 1 o’clock and he got until 3.
How long was a shift?
On deck, the licensed person would work two days on and two days off. And you slept right on the boat. And unlicensed personnel they worked four days on and two days off to start with. And then we decided — when I say “we” I mean unlicensed, which I was at that time — we decided we wanted to see if we could get an extra day off. So we went to the office and asked them if we could work four days and have three days off. And they said, no, we’ll tell you what we’ll do, if you agree to paint and work on Sundays we’ll go along with it. So we did. So Sunday came and we got out there on deck, we always chipped and painted and all that stuff. We started chipping on that deck and I mean, we were making noise! We made a lot of noise and people began to complain so that stopped us from working on Sundays so we still got our four days on and three days off. Yes, all the painting was done while we were underway. We were always painting somewhere. Top deck, bottom deck, bilge area, somewhere.
When the crew and the captain stayed on board, where did they sleep? Behind the pilot house somewhere?
Well your captain and mates, your licensed personnel, were up in there. And your crew was down here. You’re right it was down near the bilge, but it was regular crew’s quarters.
How many engines did these boats have?
Twin screws. They burned oil, thick oil, black oil. We fueled up at Little Creek. They had a big tank there and that carried black oil. And a barge used to come in every so often and bring us oil to put in the tank. And the ferries would take oil at the pier during the night. You’d have to refuel every day. We made at least four round trips every day.
Would you run them at full throttle?
Oh yeah. It all depends. By law, in fog you were supposed to run at half speed. And I know I used to do it, we used to run half speed out the jetty anyhow. So when we got outside the jetty where we could go full speed, I’d tell the wheel, “Half speed ahead,” and he shot it right up! You had to do that to keep a schedule. According to the Coast Guard we were supposed to go half speed. I told them half speed! (laughing)
You were captain out of Cape Charles. What was your first year as captain?
I went on the boats January 1938. Then you serve on deck for three years, then you get your pilot’s license. Then you serve one year as pilot. Then you go get your master license. But you’ve actually got to be a pilot for one year to get your license. I went up and got my pilot license and ran pilot for a year. So this mate on the boat had a friend up there in a barge called Bangor, Maine, and he wrote me up enough time so I was legal for time. That’s how I got my start.
During the war years you were bringing passengers out of Cape Charles. That was a pretty busy time I would expect.
In fact, I remember there one time we were worried about submarines coming in there. The story had gone around that a submarine had been sunk off the coast some time ago and they found some Bond bread wrappers.
They had to come into Cape Charles to get that!
(Grace): Didn’t you do something with picking up troops?
Oh yeah, that was on the Accomac. I used to go up the James River and pick up the troops and take them into Norfolk at the Naval Base there and offload them. They would put them on ships to carry them overseas.
That would have been what in the ’50s or 60s?
(Grace): It was the boys being drafted.
Yeah. My license kept me from being drafted. Back in that day they had to give you equal or better than what you had. In other words, they had to give me a job as master or better. I guess they figured they’d better leave me alone.
Plus you were in a pretty critical job in transportation, I would expect.
This concludes Part 1. To be continued.