Alabama’s Gee’s Bend Ferry to go all-electric

Alabama’s Gee’s Bend Ferry to go all-electric
The Gee's Bend Ferry in Wilcox County will be the first all-electric passenger ferry in the United States. (HMS Ferries)

A joint federal-state project will transform the famous Gee’s Bend Ferry in west Alabama from diesel-powered to zero-emissions, all-electric.

The conversion will make the Gee’s Bend ferry the only all-electric passenger ferry in the United States and only the second one in the world, according to state officials.

The project was announced today during a 10th anniversary celebration for the modern ferry service that crosses the Alabama River, linking the town of Camden with the community of Gee’s Bend. Both are in Wilcox County.

“This is a great project to be a part of,” said Tyler Cobb, a market specialist for Alabama Power, which will be enhancing electric service to the Gee’s Bend Ferry Terminal on the Camden side of the river. The electricity will charge a bank of batteries to be installed on the ferry. The upgrades to the ferry are expected to be completed by mid-2018.

Alabama Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, a native of Camden, and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, were on hand for today’s event.

The project is being funded, in part, with a $1.09 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with $765,350 matching dollars from the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), which oversees the ferry service. It is a part of the National Clean Diesel Funding Assistance Program. Switching from diesel fuel to electric power will not only eliminate diesel fuel emissions, reducing air pollution, it will also reduce the ferry’s operating expenses, Cobb said.

ALDOT estimates each of the vessel’s four diesel engines runs up to 2,700 hours annually.

ALDOT spokesman Tony Harris said it is a feather in the state’s cap to be the first in the nation with this type of conversion.

“It is exciting that the State of Alabama will lead the nation with the use of this clean technology,” Harris said. “This is an opportunity for the Alabama Department of Transportation to showcase innovations, while maintaining this important passenger-ferry service for the people of Wilcox County.”

The Gee’s Bend Ferry is one of three such vessels to carry passengers and vehicles that ALDOT operates in the state. The Gee’s Bend Ferry makes daily runs 362 days a year, with five round-trip voyages each day.

The switch to electric power is the latest development in the colorful and sometimes controversial history of the Gee’s Bend Ferry over the decades.

According to the online Encyclopedia of Alabama, the original ferry ran on cables, providing a vital connection during the early and mid 20th century between Camden, the county seat, and the small community of Gee’s Bend, whose residents were mostly descendants of slaves who had worked on the antebellum plantations of Alabama’s Black Belt.

But in 1962, during the Civil Rights Movement, the ferry was shuttered in an effort to prevent African-Americans from Gee’s Bend from reaching Camden to register to vote. Without the ferry, Gee’s Bend residents were forced to travel 80 miles round-trip to get to the county seat, compared to a 15-minute boat ride.

More than 40 years passed before the ferry service was reinstated, in 2006.

During the ferry’s absence, Gee’s Bend became renowned for the colorful quilts produced by women in the community. Since its return, the ferry itself has become a tourist attraction, drawing travelers and tourists from across the globe.

While the ferry is removed and upgraded to all-electric, the state will bring in another boat so that service is not interrupted, Harris said. The state also oversees two ferries crossing Mobile Bay, linking Dauphin Island with Fort Morgan.

The only other all-electric passenger ferry, according to state officials, is in Norway.

Cobb said a number of other organizations have been involved in the project to make the Gee’s Bend ferry service all-electric. They include Seattle-based Glosten, which conducted the feasibility study, and HMS Ferries Inc., also based in the state of Washington, which operates the Gee’s Bend Ferry for ALDOT. Siemens’ marine division also worked with Alabama Power on the project, Cobb said.

For more information about the Gee’s Bend Ferry and to check the service schedule, visit www.geesbendferry.com.

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