By: Jack Loftus
From: Wilmington Star-News
When the new Fort Fisher-Southport ferry made its debut recently, one of the passengers was John H. Bowen, 93, one of the last of the old Cape Fear River boat captains.
While making the 45 minute journey from Fort Fisher to Southport, John Bowen vividly recalled his own experiences as a ferry boat captain on the Cape Fear.
Like most good river captains, Bowen was born and raised along the river, and soon it became a way of life. Bowen was born July 15, 1872, son of a Cape Fear River pilot. Long before the Wilmington – Brunswick ferry service began, Bowen was a river captain, navigating tugs up and down the Cape Fear and from Wilmington to Baltimore.
When in 1910 New Hanover and Brunswick counties decided to jointly finance and operate a ferry service to connect the two counties across the Cape Fear, John Bowen was named as the first captain of the new ferry called the John Knox.
Bowen vividly remembers ferrying the first passengers across the river aboard the John Knox, as well as some of the men who worked with him on the ferry. Bill Register and John Brinkley were the engineers, while George Dickie was the other captain.
Talking with Captain Ira Spencer of the new Fort Fisher-Southport ferry, Bowen said that the speed of the new ferry was much faster than that of the old John Knox, but that the John Knox was just as sturdy. He also mentioned the difficulty he had navigating the John Knox in the strong current of the Cape Fear. “The current was bad enough,” he recalled, “but the short distance between Wilmington and Brunswick made it even tougher.”
After several years the two counties bought a new ferry, the Menantic – a side wheeler, and steam powered. Bowen was also the first to navigate this ferry, because he was the only captain in New Hanover County with a steamboat license.
Both ferries docked at the foot of Market Street and soon 20 minute round trip service was established. “This made things a little hectic,” said Bowen. “On slack water the ferry could head right for the opposite slip, but on flood tide the ferry had to travel in an arc. There was not enough water pressure on the rudder of the Menantic to make her come around fast enough, and this was always a problem getting the ferry into the slip on each side.”
Bowen served as captain of the ferry service until the construction of the Cape Fear River bridge and the subsequent ending of the ferry service.
It has been years since the ferries shuttled between Wilmington and Brunswick, but many people from this area still recall them vividly from their childhood. And if, in comparison to the new Fort Fisher-Southport ferry, the John Knox and the Menantic seem to be things of the past. Bowen recalled that in their day “these ferries were just as new and convenient as the new one of today.” Indeed the only ferry service connecting Wilmington and Brunswick before the John Knox and the Menantic was the old hand operated ferries which had been in use off-and-on since 1764.
After the ferry service was discontinued Bowen remained a river captain navigating tugs along the Cape Fear and between Wilmington and Baltimore until after World War I.
“One of the most interesting experiences I can recall after the ferries, was in 1916 when I was bringing a barge down the Chesapeake to Wilmington when I almost ran into a German U boat. I saw him coming and I just couldn’t believe it,” Bowen mused.
Recalling his days as a river captain, Bowen said that the only drawback was the time he had to spend away from home. Yet he feels that in a way he would like to be piloting a boat again. “If my eyes were better, I could be a captain of the new ferry,” Bowen laughed.
John Bowen now lies with his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Summerlin at 6037 Wrightsville Avenue.