On a misty morning in early October the Deborah A. steals silently across the Ohio River, pushing the Boone No. 9 with two cars on deck. Already, these two boats—together, the Anderson Ferry—have made 12 round trips today; by nightfall they will have made close to 60. For now, though, the workday is new and patches of fog drift slowly through the treetops. A line of ducks swims past, unfazed; on the riverbank, a row of cars comes into view, drivers waiting patiently for the ferry to dock and unload so they, too, can board and make the reverse trip back.
A ferry boat of some sort has been crossing the river from this very same spot, 10 miles west of downtown Cincinnati, for more than 200 years. During that time there have been countless different captains helping shuttle passengers back and forth between Ohio and Kentucky. But for the past 54 years, the person driving the boat has, more often than not, been Paul Anderson.
To say ferry-boating is in 72-year-old Anderson’s blood is not far from the truth; he’s been working the ferry in one form or another since he was 14, when he got an after-school job as a deck hand for then-owner Henry Kottmyer. At 18, he earned his operator’s license. Later, when he went to college and began a career in commercial construction and union carpentry, he worked as a fill-in captain.
When the Kottmyer family decided to sell the business in 1986, Anderson was working three jobs just to stay afloat. After consulting with his wife, Deborah (the Deborah A.’s namesake, who now does all the behind-the-scenes paperwork and keeps the business side of things running), he bought the Anderson Ferry, making steady payments to the Kottmyers over a 10-year span until the couple owned the business.
Today, he’s as comfortable ferrying back and forth across this 65-foot-deep stretch of the Ohio as a veteran truck driver might be cruising along I-71; after nearly a lifetime in this job, he’s also become an indisputable keeper of Ohio River history. As he works, he talks about how ferries were pretty much the only way people could cross the Ohio before the Roebling Suspension Bridge came along in 1866. He talks about the business’s namesake and founder, a former stagecoach driver named George Anderson (no confirmed relation to Paul) who came into ferry-boating in 1817 after developing severe road dust allergies. And he talks about that stretch of time between the Civil War and the early 1900s, when boats like these were so common, there were ferry landings every 10 or 15 miles along this stretch of the Ohio.
“I’m a link in the chain,” Anderson says, smiling, eyes on the water ahead. “The ferry doesn’t hang on me.”
By the time he bought the Anderson Ferry, of course, multiple bridges spanned the river and ferry-boating, though still a lucrative business, was in danger of be- coming obsolete (today, just five other ferry boats operate on the Ohio; Anderson’s is the only one still privately owned). Fortunately, members of the Riverside Historical Society had the foresight to place the Anderson Ferry on the National Historic Register in 1982. “It was one of the best things that ever happened,” says Anderson. “It helped protect the ferry against development and gave it recognition.”
When Anderson took over four years later, he inherited launches on either side of the river, two adjacent parcels of land on each bank, and just one pair of boats—a “push boat,” as he likes to call them, and a passenger barge for cars. As time went by, though, the business grew. Anderson promoted his deck hands to captains and hired a few more on top of that; he also bought two more boats, so he could stay running even if one broke down. Today, he employs 10 people and the Anderson Ferry runs seven days a week, 364 days a year, barring floods, high winds, or thick ice.
In an era of high-tech, high-speed everything, the ferry—topping out at 7 knots and making a one-way trip between seven and 11 minutes—is something of an anomaly. Even so, says Anderson, “very seldom do we sit with no cars. I credit the airport for that,” noting many west-siders use the ferry to circumvent the overcrowded highway system ringing greater Cincinnati (the Kentucky dock is less than 3 miles from CVG). In fact, he says, the flow of auto traffic directly corresponds with the work week, with Monday mornings and Friday afternoons and evenings being the busiest times, bar none.
His favorite part of the job by far is “the rhythm of it all and the slow pace. And [how] it’s always changing,” says Anderson, noting “you have a panoramic view of everything—airplanes, traffic on the highway, traffic on the river.”
A business this old has witnessed its fair share of interesting events. In 1870, as the story goes, a fully intact home floated down river from nobody-knows-where during a massive flood (it’s been settled on the Kentucky side of the ferry property ever since). During Paul’s tenure, two cars with brake failures have careened down the landing road and across the boat’s deck (both drivers survived, but one car is still sitting at the bottom of the Ohio). Once, he even piloted the ferry to the Licking River and shuttled a Tall Stacks Civil War reenactment group, with actual horses pulling loaded canons, across it.
Like any mode of transportation, the ferry has regulars (for these, Anderson offers discounted 10- and 40-ride “punch cards”). It also has annual visitors: a class of preschoolers and their teachers who ride from Kentucky, get ice cream at the UDF across from the Ohio launch and ride back again; and a group of veterans from the American Legion post up the road who commemorate the anniversary of Pearl Harbor each year with a wreath ceremony on deck.
But for all that stays the same on the ferry, lots of things have changed. Under Anderson’s watch the business has weathered the 2008 recession (“You just prayed you didn’t have a major repair or breakdown,” he says); a 300 percent rise in diesel fuel costs, up from $1.25 a gallon in 1986 to $5 a gallon today; and multiple politicians advocating for building an additional Ohio River bridge just west of the ferry— a move that, should it ever happen, could take away some of the west-side airport traffic that helps sustain him. On the plus side, business these days is moving back toward pre-recession levels, Anderson currently employs several female captains—a major change from “the early ’60s, when most drivers were men,” he says—and manufacturers are starting to make electric ferry boats.
Maybe the biggest change in recent years has been to his own schedule. Although Anderson still spends a few days a week at the ferry, he mostly lets the other captains drive the boats. In fact, his son, Justin—also a captain—is thinking about taking over the family business. Either way, Paul and Deborah are hoping to retire soon. Running the ferry has been both a blessing and “an adventure,” says Anderson, but “there’s a few ‘bucket list’ things we’d like to do.”
After so many years at the helm, is he worried about someone else taking over? “I’m a link in the chain,” Anderson says, smiling, eyes on the water ahead. “The ferry doesn’t hang on me.” With 14 prior owner-operators stretching back 206 years, his words are true in theory. Still, Anderson’s are tall boots to fill. “It takes a special person” to run a business like this today, he notes.
After a morning riding the boats, it’s also hard not to think about all that’s changed in Greater Cincinnati since the Anderson Ferry began two centuries ago; then again, the one constant here has always been the river, quietly winding its way through so many rolling hills. Maybe that’s why, standing on deck as the water laps gently against the sides of the boats below, you feel calmer. Peaceful. In step with the endless rhythm of the river, like Anderson says. Not so different after all from the way things used to be.