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Longtime captain of Chester-Hadlyme Ferry retires

Chester — The skies were gray and the trees bare Tuesday afternoon on the Connecticut River. Gillette Castle loomed in the foreground, perched on what Captain John Marshall called the seventh hill of the "seven sisters." 

Marshall, 65, has studied this scenery for the past 22 years from the navigating bridge of the Chester-Hadlyme ferry. 

Tuesday was the last day of the season for the ferry and Marshall's last day as captain before he retires.

"It's a beautiful place to work in the spring, summer and fall. When the colors kick in, it's beautiful," said Marshall, who has spent eight months out of every year steering the Selden III ferry along the 10-minute route that crosses the river.

"When you talk about Connecticut, this is Connecticut," Marshall added about the traditional double-ended ferry built in 1949. It was designed by Connecticut native Winthrop Warner and built by a construction company in Stamford.

Before becoming captain of the ferry, Marshall, who has a Coast Guard license, spent 20 years as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and some years in the Gulf of Mexico on cargo ships. He said those jobs kept him away for months and so he chose the ferry job to be closer to shore and to go home to his family every night.

Ferry has 252 years of service 

Using a succession of boats, the Chester-Hadlyme ferry has been in service since 1769. The Connecticut Department of Transportation took over its operation in 1917.

"The longevity of service and the vessel, we're definitely part of keeping it going," Marshall said.

Marshall said the ferry has changed over his 22-year-long tenure. The crew has done cosmetic work on the vessel, changed mechanical systems and switched the diesel engine to a more environmentally friendly alternative. He said he thinks one day it will be powered by a hybrid or electric engine.

Marshall said the ferry has five employees and each shift has one licensed captain and one deckhand.

Marshall said he has liked the people he has worked with over the years. Also retiring with him this year were Diane Darcy, a first mate who has worked at the Chester-Hadlyme ferry for more than 25 years, and Sal Spatola, who worked for about 22 years, most of it for the state's Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry.

"Our goal has been to stay open safely and provide good customer service," said Marshall. "I'm going to miss these guys and working with them."

Marshall recalled times when governors and state legislatures have tried to end its operation such as in 2011 when the ferry was slated to close as part of former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's budget cuts.

"They have never been successful," he said. "People love the ferry."

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of regular weekday riders, Marshall said the summer and weekends are still alive with tourists and locals enjoying the short trip across the river.  

Jim Jones, the deckhand on Marshall's last shift, said Marshall was "a great guy to work with and a good supervisor."

"He's very knowledgeable about the boat," said Jones. "He's helped keep everything running."

j.vazquez@theday.com

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