Former EKU VP’s retirement job: piloting the Valley View Ferry

August 16, 2015
James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties.  Photos by Tom Eblen

James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

VALLEY VIEW — Some executives dream of retiring to a big boat on a big body of water, and that is just what James Street did.

Since retiring as Eastern Kentucky University’s vice president for administration in July 2013, Street and his wife, Stacey, have spent a lot of time on their 34-foot Beneteau 331 sailboat on Kentucky Lake and their Catalina 22 on Cave Run.

But several days a month, Street pilots a less glamorous craft: the Valley View Ferry.

The ferry is a small tugboat lashed to a barge and tethered to an overhead cable. It goes back and forth across the Kentucky River more than 100 times a day, carrying a maximum of three vehicles between Tates Creek Road in Madison County and Tates Creek Road on the Fayette-Jessamine line.

Valley View, the last of dozens of ferries that once plied the river, is Kentucky’s oldest continuously operated enterprise — seven years older than the state itself. The ferry’s first owner, John Craig, got a charter in 1785 from Virginia’s governor, Patrick Henry.

The three counties bought the ferry from private owners in 1991 and operate it with local and state government funding. Passengers are a mix of tourists and commuters crossing to jobs in Lexington, Nicholasville and Richmond.

“I’ve always wanted to be a captain since I was a little kid,” said Street, 60, who got his first sailboat at age 19.

Street last year earned Coast Guard certification to pilot ferries and charter boats. So Roger Barger, a Madison County magistrate who pilots and manages the ferry, asked him to help when he could.

“Oddly enough, you still need a full license to pilot a boat on a rope,” Street said.

Piloting the ferry is a 14-hour workday — 12 hours of operation and an hour on either end for maintenance.

Usually, the pilot has help from a Madison or Jessamine jail trusty, who secures the barge to cleats on each shore’s ramp so cars can load and unload. But when a trusty isn’t available, the pilot does that in addition to running the boat and recording each car’s license information and number of occupants.

Piloting the ferry is very different from the fast-paced, high-pressure jobs Street had at EKU for two decades. And that is what he likes about it.

“I don’t miss answering the phone and email and text messages,” he said, noting that Valley View is a cellphone dead zone. “It’s a real change-up from what I did for most of my professional life.”

Before joining EKU, Street was Lexington’s commissioner of public works.

“I actually administered the purchase of this boat,” he said of the John Craig, which was filling in for a newer tug, the John Craig II, which was having mechanical trouble. “Talk about coming full circle.”

Street prefers chatting with ferry passengers to wrestling budgets, employees and deadlines. “I grew up in Madison County,” he said, “so I see people here I’ve known all my life.”

The free ferry carries 200 to 400 vehicles a day, operating 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. It often is shut down for days at a time because of high water in the spring and summer, and ice in the winter.

What Street enjoys most about this job is the beauty of Valley View. Some mornings, especially in the early fall, the river is shrouded in fog until the sun rises from surrounding hills to burn it off.

“I love getting down here and watching the dawn break,” he said. “There’s a subtle palette. The light is never the same; the mist is never the same.”

Between the morning and afternoon rushes, there are times when Street is alone on the river. He shuts off the tug’s noisy diesel engine and enjoys the silence.

“It’s so peaceful here,” he said, nodding toward a flock of geese swimming nearby with their goslings. “I enjoy watching the geese grow up.”

As the morning rush subsides, Street and I talk. He suddenly realizes it has been 10 minutes since his last trip. He steps into the pilot house and kills the engine — just as a car appears across the river looking for a ride.

“Almost had some silence,” he said with a sigh as he restarted the engine.

James Street piloted the Valley View Ferry across the Kentucky River for Madison County commuters on their way to Lexington before sunrise on Aug. 7.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street piloted the Valley View Ferry across the Kentucky River for Madison County commuters on their way to Lexington before sunrise on Aug. 7.

James Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry. Street has always loved boating and earned his maritime licenses, so since he retired as an Eastern Kentucky University vice president he has worked a few days a month piloting the ferry across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street looks out from the pilot house of the Valley View Ferry.

When James Street, a former Eastern Kentucky University vice president, pilots the Valley View Ferry, he usually has help from a prisoner trusty from Madison County. When they are unavailable, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

When Street pilots the ferry, he usually has help from a jail trusty. When one is not available, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.

Valley View Ferry pilot James Street waved to a friend driving onto the ferry. He grew up in Madison County, where he retired last year as a vice president at Eastern Kentucky University, so he knows many of the patrons.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street waved to a friend driving onto the ferry. He grew up in Madison County,  so he knows many of the regular passenger.

When James Street, a former Eastern Kentucky University vice president, pilots the Valley View Ferry, he usually has help from a prisoner trusty from Madison County. When they are unavailable, he must do everything, from piloting the boat to helping vehicles on and off.  Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street secures a safety rope on the ferry between trips.

While piloting the Valley View Ferry, James Street records the license information of vehicles that use the free service across the Kentucky River between Madison County and Fayette and Jessamine counties. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Street records the license information of vehicles that use the free service across the Kentucky River.


Kentucky realizing conservation can be economic development

November 16, 2013

IRVINE — Kentuckians are beginning to realize that developing natural resources means more than looking for things to chop down, dig up and export.

In some cases, economic development can be as simple as thinking about what you like about your community — a beautiful landscape, an interesting culture — and figuring out how to attract more people there to enjoy it.

One great example is the proposed Kentucky River Water Trail. The idea is to clean up the 256-mile river and make it more accessible for paddling, fishing and other kinds of outdoor recreation. And figure out how communities along the river can profit from it.

watertraillogoThe Kentucky River Water Trail Alliance, which is organizing the effort, met last week in Estill County. The meeting attracted about 75 citizens in addition to state, local and federal officials.

“I’ve always thought the Kentucky River was one of the greatest natural resources Estill County has,” said Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor. “It’s something we need to better utilize.”

The idea has gotten a boost since Gov. Steve Beshear nominated the river trail as one of two Kentucky projects for America’s Great Outdoors, a federal initiative to bring a “21st century approach” to conservation and outdoor recreation. (The other Kentucky project is the Dawkins Line Rail Trail in Johnson and Magoffin counties.)

From three Eastern Kentucky forks that meet at Beattyville, the Kentucky River flows into Central Kentucky below Lexington, through Frankfort and into the Ohio River at Carrollton.

From pioneer days until railroads took over in the early 1900s, the river was a vital commercial artery — taking flour, whiskey and tobacco from Central Kentucky to New Orleans, and later timber and coal from Eastern Kentucky to the Bluegrass.

But for decades, the Kentucky River has been mostly ignored, aside from its role as a water supply. Locks and dams that turned the free-flowing river into a series of 14 pools more than a century ago were all but abandoned until recently, when the Kentucky River Authority began rebuilding them.

Many people think the river has enormous recreation and tourism potential because it is so scenic, especially around the limestone cliffs south of Lexington known as the Palisades.

“I’ve probably traveled 10,000 miles by water all over the country,” said Jerry Graves, the Kentucky River Authority’s executive director, “and the Kentucky River Palisades is as pretty as it gets.”

Attracting more visitors will involve several steps: cleaning up the river through volunteer efforts such as the annual Kentucky River Clean Sweep, the third Saturday of each June, and water-quality monitoring by Kentucky River Watershed Watch. Counties must build ramps, docks and portages for canoes, kayaks and fishing boats.

Another key element is adding and promoting visitor services — restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns, outfitters and other stores, plus museums, historic sites, craft shops and cultural attractions. The final step is providing information about all of those things through websites, field guides and signs.

The Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet has a Trail Towns program to help communities figure out how to generate business by catering to visitors at nearby water, bike, horse and hiking trails. A couple of towns have gone through the program, and several more have applied, most recently Hazard.

Elaine Wilson, who directs the state’s Adventure Tourism program, explained the concept at last week’s meeting by citing the example of Damascus, Va., which was a declining lumber town until it built a new economy around the nearby Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper bike trail, a former railroad line.

That example resonated with me, because about 15 friends and I went to Damascus last summer during a week-long bike trip in Virginia and North Carolina. We had a great time — and made a healthy contribution to the local economy. We plan to make a similar trip every summer, and it would be great if we had some Kentucky destinations to choose from that are as developed as others in the Southeast.

Damascus could provide a good example for places like Irvine and adjacent Ravenna, which have struggled since the Louisville & Nashville Railroad went away. Irvine already has a charming old downtown beside the river, historic resources such as Fitchburg Furnace and Estill Springs and delicious, down-home cooking at Rader’s River Grill.

The state’s Adventure Tourism initiative makes a lot of sense. Some people criticize the effort, saying it’s no “big solution” for depressed rural economies. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

Big economic-development solutions are few and far between. Small-scale, entrepreneurial industries may be the best hope for Kentucky small towns and rural areas hoping to built sustainable, post-industrial economies.

Extraction industries run out of minerals to extract. Factories move away for cheaper labor. But natural resources such as scenic rivers and mountains can pay long-term dividends if wisely developed — and protected.