Officials greet car number 1,000,000 to cross on the ferry
By Lauri deGaris
The St. Johns River Ferry will resume operations this week after four months of routine maintenance and completion of improvements, according to the Jacksonville Transportation Authority.
For more than 70 years the ferry has shuttled back and forth across the St. Johns River between Mayport Village and Ft. George Island, carrying passengers and cars. It is the last state-owned ferry in Florida.
The ferry was put in operation as part of the Buccaneer Trail in 1950. Seventeen miles of highway with five concrete bridges, one with a draw span and ferry slips were designed as Florida’s newest seashore highway. The Buccaneer Trail idea was hatched by local civic planners in 1946. They made a plan for the route, financing, and construction then turned it over to the Ocean Highway and Port Authority in Fernandina Beach. The Buccaneer Trail toll project was born.
Financing for the project was secured by the sale of $4,600,000 worth of toll revenue bonds. By 1951, a deficit in construction and operating costs for the Buccaneer Trail caused the State Road Department to take over the project.
State officials believed beautiful beaches and historic attractions along the Buccaneer Trail would bring increased traffic in time. A new state park was planned on Little Talbot Island by the State Parks Board. Officials recalled that other toll roads built in the state had started with deficits but later cleared themselves of their debts. They planned for a similar experience with State Road 105, the Buccaneer Trail.
A campaign marketing the Buccaneer Trail to motorists was created. Photographs of the many historical and scenic sights along the Buccaneer Trail were commissioned. Magazines and newspapers published articles encouraging motorists to bypass Jacksonville traffic and take the new seashore scenic and historic route along the Buccaneer Trail.
In 1951, the Ocean Highway and Port Authority promoted the Buccaneer Trail throughout Florida with this advertisement:
“If you will write to Ocean Highway and Port Authority, Fernandina, Florida, and enclose one dollar you will receive, carefully rolled in a mailing tube, a beautiful full color copy, on simulated parchment, of Ralph Odum’s ‘Ye True Chart of Pirate Treasure Lost or Hidden in the Land & Waters of Florida,’ with illustrations by Warner Sanford. This is the same exciting treasure map about which articles have appeared in national magazines and which is the subject of a color movie recently made.”
A copy of that same map can be viewed here: Ye True Chart of Pirate Treasure
Driving along the Buccaneer Trail was promoted as a tourist attraction. A destination in its own right. The State Road Department secured agreements from licensed advertisers and the Florida Voluntary Roadside Improvement Association NOT to erect signs along the route.
The first run of the St. Johns River Ferry carried students from Ft. George Island to Mayport. They were bound for Fletcher High School in Jacksonville Beach. That was in the fall of 1950. In the summer of 1951, the Miami Herald travel editor Sylvan Cox wrote: “Where once hijackers lurked among hidden coves and pirates buried stolen treasure, motorists now glide over a magnificent highway connecting Mayport with Fernandina.”
By 1960, more than a million people had followed the Buccaneer Trail from Fernandina to Mayport. A special celebration was held and photos taken to commemorate the occasion.
My first ride on the Mayport Ferry was in 1976 with my family and swim team mates. We traveled to Mayport and took the ferry across the St. Johns River then headed north along the Buccaneer Trail to Fernandina. We were going to the city of Fernandina Beach Atlantic Recreation Center for a swim meet. I do not remember how I did in the swim meet, but I do remember riding on the ferry twice that day. And, on the way home, we stopped at Singleton’s Seafood Shack for fried shrimp and hush puppies.
One of the most charismatic individuals to work on board the St. Johns River ferry was BJ Hart. If you rode the ferry between 2012 and 2018, you know who I am talking about. BJ Hart and his enthusiastic voice greeted everyone embarking and disembarking the ferry. BJ had style and loved to make people smile. He dazzled passengers with his unique dance moves and official instructions.
If you were not paying attention to your driving, BJ would call out “no road kill on my watch.” At Thanksgiving time, he reminded all passengers “Don’t burn the turkey!” He had something special to say every day. He told Tampa Bay reporter Jeff Klinkenberg in 2013:
“For a lot of people that take the ferry, well bad things have happened to them, probably. Maybe they lost their job. Maybe, they lost their woman. That is what being human is. We all have disappointments. So, I try to connect with everybody on the ferry and give them a reason to feel better. It ain’t no act.”
BJ Hart passed away in 2020 during the pandemic. His love for life and for the passengers onboard the St. Johns River Ferry will live forever in the hearts of many.
The National Park Service has designated Highway A1A and the Buccaneer Trail a Scenic Byway. And, the ferry is part of the East Coast Greenway, which extends from Maine to Florida as a 3,000-mile pedestrian and bicycle route. Today, the ferry remains a vital link between Amelia Island, Mayport Village and Jacksonville beaches for locals and tourists alike.
Barron, Charles Lee, 1917-1997. Cola salesman on the “Buccaneer Trail” bridge. 1953-06-06. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Florida. – State Road Department. “1,000,000 Car on “Buccaneer Trail.” State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Cunningham, D’Amico, Paxton. “The Hart of the Mayport Ferry.” 2014 Friends of the Mayport Ferry. YouTube Video.