Captains Recall Legendary Days of Eastern Shore Ferries

Ferry captains

Captain Billy Ray Phillips, Captain Richard Belote, Jan Neville, Butch Baxter, and Ed Lewis at Cape Charles Museum.

Cape Charles Historical Society

December 4, 2013

As a part of the Cape Charles Historical Society’s ongoing oral history project, the Cape Charles Museum hosted a gathering of ferry captains and historical society members for an informal session to interview and record the captains’ personal experiences, stories, and details of what it was like working on such legendary ferries as the Pocahontas, Princess Anne, Delmarva, Northampton, Accomac, Virginia Beach, and Old Point Comfort.

Present were Captain Richard Belote, Captain Billy Ray Phillips, and Historical Society members Butch Baxter, Ed Lewis, Bill Neville, and Jan Neville.

The group spent two enjoyable hours talking with the captains who grew up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and started their service with Virginia Ferry Corporation in the early 1950s. They worked through the transition to Chesapeake Bay Ferry District at Kiptopeke and finally to the Delaware River and Bay Authority in Lewes, Delaware, and Cape May, New Jersey, where they both retired in the 1970s.

Some highlights of the gathering included stories of witnessing the destruction of the “Big D” during the Ash Wednesday storm, which did great damage to the Shore in 1962. (The “Big D” was a huge piece of construction equipment used in building the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The remains of the wreckage still lie on the bottom adjacent to the bridge). The captains also shared interesting accounts of groundings, accidents, rough seas, scuffles with feisty sometimes “liquored up” passengers, and a tornado that went through Kiptopeke while a ferry was docking.


One of the historical society members, Ed Lewis, especially enjoyed some stories the captains told about his father, Elton Lewis, and his uncle Captain Stanley Lewis who had worked on the ferries with Belote and Phillips.

Historical Society member Butch Baxter is a ferry enthusiast who authored the story “Vessels of the Virginia Ferry Corporation 1930-1956,” featured in the Fall 2011 edition of Power Ships Magazine. He contributed greatly to the conversation with his knowledge of the ferries, their operation, construction, and ultimate fate.

Captain Belote shared how he and his wife Rose attended the sinking of the Princess Anne off the coast of Florida, where is was to be used as a fishing reef, and his poignant feelings as he witnessed her final moments.

Captain Phillips told stories of the hazards of ice on the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and the challenges of navigating the narrow channels on the Cape May-Lewes route.

Both captains spoke of the great sense of accountability they felt on becoming captains. They were responsible for the lives of thousands of people and millions of dollars of equipment and had “nobody’s door to knock on.” When things went wrong, it was on them. Captain Belote modestly recalled how he “suddenly felt as if he knew nothing” when he captained a ferry for the first time. Captain Phillips had told him he would feel that way, “that it would always be on them.” History shows that both captains handled their awesome responsibilities very well.

Members Jan and Bill Neville hosted the interviews for the Cape Charles Museum, enjoying the camaraderie and stories of the ferries that they remembered fondly from their youth. There will never be anything else like the fanfare of whistles blowing, black smoke belching, and water churning as the ferries arrived, departed, docked, loaded, and unloaded.

Plans are being formulated to invite all former VFC and CBFD employees to get together for an informal reunion. Readers who know of a former or current employee who might like to attend are asked to contact Bill Neville at 410-651-5505 or [email protected].

Princess Anne ferry departing Cape Charles in the 1940s.

Princess Anne ferry departing Cape Charles in the 1940s.



5 Responses to “Captains Recall Legendary Days of Eastern Shore Ferries”

  1. Erving Gray on December 4th, 2013 3:26 pm

    I worked summers as a deckhand (Ordinary Seaman) on Accomac, Northampton, and Delmarva during my high school and college years from 1954 to 1959. I made many friends among my Eastern Shore shipmates. The job was my first work experience and I learned a lot about life. It was a great experience — one of which I have many fond memories.

  2. Bill Neville on December 5th, 2013 11:43 am

    When I submitted this article I made a mistake on the captains retirement dates. For the sake of accuracy, Captain Belote did leave in 1971 but Captain Phillips remained until 1992. Another thing that I intended to include but inadvertently omitted was that Captain Belote was also instrumental in the rescue of five people from a capsized boat off Cape May.

  3. Tom Hanson on December 5th, 2013 4:42 pm

    I recall leaving Virginia Tech in the 50’s, heading home to Machipongo for the Christmas holidays. It was always a cold hour and 45 minutes crossing the Bay. However, it was much more fun than the Bridge-Tunnel. The summer crossings were, of course, more comfortable and thoroughly enjoyable. Since I normally hitched rides from Blacksburg, it required my wearing the cadet uniform for pick-up success along the highways.

  4. Charles (Ed) Belote on December 29th, 2013 1:53 pm

    I sailed under both Captain Richard Belote and Captain Billy Ray Phillips as an ordinary seaman (OS), lifeboat-man and a able seaman (AB) with the Delaware River and Bay Authority, Cape May-Lewes Ferry System. Both of these captains taught me a lot and my respect for them is of the utmost. I was always proud to be a part of their crews and always felt very safe under their command. Both captains ran a tight ship and were very stern but fair. I did not know anyone that did not like sailing under them. The U.S. merchant marines need more captains like them.

    As a small child living in Willis Wharf, Virginia, I can remember Captain Phillips and of course my father, Captain Belote. One time during a hurricane, my father took us on the ferry so we would be safe from the storm. I have seen many photos of the Virginia ferries and have heard many tales. I also remember when the ferries were taken to Delaware and I do remember sailing on the S.S Delaware and the S.S. New Jersey as a child in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I also remember some of the old ferries that sailed in Virginia.

    I take my hat off to both Captain Belote and Captain Phillips. I appreciate everything both of these men taught me and how their tutelage made me a better person.

  5. Captain Bill Phillips on April 4th, 2014 7:46 pm


    How nice it was to read these comments about your Dad and I. Thank you so much for your kind words and praise. I’m sure your Dad is proud of you. I too have the utmost respect for your father.