Governor drydocks state ferries, eliminates all eight ferry-worker jobs

The Chester-Hadlyme ferry makes its way across the Connecticut River on its first day of operation for the 2011 season on Friday, April 1.  As part of his plan to plug a $1.6 billion state budget hole, the governor today notified all eight Chester-Hadlyme and Glastonbury-Rocky Hill ferry workers that their jobs will be eliminated and ferry service will be halted Aug. 25.
The Chester-Hadlyme ferry makes its way across the Connecticut River on its first day of operation for the 2011 season on Friday, April 1. As part of his plan to plug a $1.6 billion state budget hole, the governor today notified all eight Chester-Hadlyme and Glastonbury-Rocky Hill ferry workers that their jobs will be eliminated and ferry service will be halted Aug. 25. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

The Connecticut River will fall silent to ferry horns and engines next month when the state pulls the Chester-Hadlyme and Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferries off a service they've been providing seasonally for 242 years and 356 years, respectively.

All eight ferry employees - including a husband-and-wife team in Chester-Hadlyme - received notices Thursday that their positions will be eliminated as of Aug. 25, Chester-Hadlyme ferry employees said Thursday.

But don't expect the ferries to run until then; they'll be shut down a few days before that in order to get the boats off the water and store them, likely for good, said John Marshall, master captain of the Chester-Hadlyme ferry.

"If you're going to take it out of service, it needs to go somewhere. It can't just sit," Marshall said.

Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick would not confirm news of the layoffs and referred all questions to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office. The layoffs are part of Malloy's plan to reduce the state work force by about 13 percent to fill a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget.

The state today will unveil what the 6,560 job eliminations - including 884 in the DOT alone - will mean to state services.

The DOT's maritime manager, Chuck Beck, handed to the Chester-Hadlyme ferry's five full-time employees letters detailing the job cuts during a meeting at noon Thursday, said Tom Darcy, one of three ferry captains who has a combined 22 years on both state ferries.

Rocky Hill-Glastonbury's three ferry employees received elimination notices earlier in the day, said Darcy's wife Diane Darcy, a first mate in Chester-Hadlyme with 17 years on the job.

The Darcys had been worried about losing their jobs since last year, when they first got word that the ferries were on a list of possible budget cuts. Diane Darcy's first thoughts upon receiving the layoff notice Thursday were: How would they pay for their daughter's last year of college? Would they be able to afford their mortgage and keep their house on Ferry Road in Hadlyme?

But ultimately, she said, the disappointment Thursday wasn't about the job losses.

"The saddest part of it is, they're going to close this thing, and it's never going to come back," she said. "It's not going to be there for our kids, it's not going to be there for their kids, as it has been for 242 years."

An illustrious past

When Jonathan Warner started running the Chester-Hadlyme ferry in 1769, it was pushed across the river with long poles. The ferry was given its current name in 1882 when the town of Chester took over its operation, according to the state, which began running it in 1917.

The Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry has been around even longer - since 1655 - and is the country's "oldest continuously operating ferry service," according to the state.

The Chester-Hadlyme ferry, which runs April 1 through Nov. 30, is the busier of the two, with 18,890 river crossings in the 2009-10 fiscal year. It cost the state $338,706 to run the ferry that year, but the ferry generated $106,302 in revenue that year, according to the DOT.

The ferry is an established part of the lower Connecticut River area, for both practical and sentimental reasons. Ambulances use the ferry to shuttle patients on the east side of the river to Shoreline Medical Center in Essex, and it's popular with locals who ride the ferry to commute to work, preferring it over both the Interstate 95 Baldwin Bridge and the swing bridge in East Haddam.

Visitors drawn to landmarks such as Gillette Castle and Goodspeed Opera House take it to get from one tourist attraction to the other.

"This thing brings in a lot of money," Marshall said. "It's hard to quantify that, but I can tell you this. On the afternoons and mornings and weekends, and at all times, I'm sending people to Middletown, I'm sending them to Chester, I'm sending them to Deep River, Essex, Old Saybrook - all throughout the Connecticut River Valley. ... We're giving them directions to the casinos, to New London, to Salem Four Corners."

Around Halloween, ferry employees decorate the gates at the ferry landings with masks of ghosts and goblins. Every November, they string Christmas lights on the ferry, send out a holiday greeting card and have an end-of-the-season party on the boat.

A 'bitter disappointment'

Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno said Thursday he wasn't surprised to hear that ferry employees were part of the thousands receiving pink slips from the state.

"They've got to let a lot of people go if the budget is going to balance," Eno said.

But the imminent loss of the Chester-Hadlyme ferry is "a very bitter disappointment" to residents, especially given how the layoffs came about, he said.

"It's a big piece of history," Eno said. "You hate to see that kind of thing go because of a lack of foresight on the part of the people who were voting on the concessions."

Residents and passengers last fall learned that the ferries - frequent targets of budget cuts - were again on a list of possible cuts. Many rallied to save the Chester-Hadlyme ferry, in particular, with a 2,000-signature petition and meetings with state employees and legislators.

The Hadlyme Public Hall Association organized a "Save the Ferry" effort, dedicating $1,000 of its own funds to the effort.

Ferry supporters rejoiced when it appeared the ferries would continue to be funded under the new state budget. But the relief was short-lived, and word quickly spread that the ferries' future was once again uncertain after the Malloy administration failed to negotiate concessions with unions that would have prevented mass layoffs.

The Hadlyme association held a meeting June 28 to re-energize public support for the ferries and plans to hold another meeting at 7 p.m. Sunday at the public hall to "review the situation," association President Curt Michael said.

Tom Darcy said news of the layoffs was rough, but that employees working the ferry that day had to put on a good face for customers.

"I'm not going to curl up in the fetal position here," Darcy said. "It is what it is. You have to carry on."

He said he remained somewhat hopeful that union leaders would be able to work out a last-minute deal with the governor's office.

"It's a real gut shot to read that letter," Darcy said. "But I don't think it's actually over. ... Before I actually have to walk off this boat, I'm hoping that things change and we're able to do our jobs here."

j.cho@theday.com

If you go

Who: Hadlyme Public Hall Assocation

What: Emergency meeting on the elimination of the ferries

When: Sunday at 7 p.m.

Where: Public Hall, 1 Day Hill Road, Hadlyme

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