ByTim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The three remaining Montana ferries across the Missouri River will get a facelift next summer.
Blaine, Chouteau and Fergus counties are working with the Montana Department of Transportation to buy new boats, install new cables and build new cable towers and terminals at the Stafford-McClellan ferry, the Virgelle ferry and the Carter ferry.
Blaine County Commission Chairman Don Swenson said working to upgrade the Stafford-McClelland Ferry between Blaine and Fergus counties was one of the first projects he started when he took office 4 years ago. Most of the money for the $2.5 million project is coming from the Federal Highway Administration, he said.
"We put together an application and wound up being awarded some money to get it started," Swenson said.
Because of the price of the project, Blaine County worked with Fergus and Chouteau counties to share in the cost, and added the ferries at Carter and Virgelle to the project, Swenson said. All three ferries are public, and passengers are transported across the river at no charge.
The money for the project is coming from the Federal Highway Administration's ferry boat discretionary fund. It is used to maintain and upgrade ferry boats and terminals that are publicly owned or publicly operated.
The Highway Administration awarded two separate grants for the project. Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said the counties are providing a match for the first grant, while MDT is coming up with the entire match for the second grant.
Chouteau County Commissioner Harvey Worrall said the match comes to about $30,000 a ferry for the counties.
The Carter and Virgelle ferries are due for some upkeep, Worrall added. Time has taken a toll on the boats and terminals, he said.
"I don't know if we can hold our old ones together," he said.
Cal Danruether, who owns the land the Virgelle Ferry is on, said he isn't sure if the ferry is worth the price tag on the project.
"I think it's a good service, but that's a lot of money to put into something," he said. "If they'd just put it into the roads it would be better."
Martha Steven, who uses the Virgelle ferry just about every day, said she thinks the upgrade will destroy the historical qualities that have made the ferry attractive to tourists. She thinks the ferry should be left as it is.
"I'm sure they will modernize it," she said. "It's the whole thing of the river. They want to modernize it, but they still want it to be scenic and wild."
Jason Giard of MDT said he hopes to have the ferries operating with new boats by July 4. MDT is in the process of ordering the new boats, and will award the contracts for the termi
nals early next year, he said.
The Stafford-McClellan terminal will be a log building, while the Virgelle and Carter terminals will be two-story buildings resembling houses from the period in which the ferries were originally built.
Beverly Terry, who with Jimmy Griffin contracts to operate the Virgelle ferry, said the boat and facilities need some work. The boat works and doesn't leak, she said, but the deck needs to be replaced and she is told it is becoming nearly impossible to find replacement parts for the engine.
"It needs a little TLC," she said.
The ferries, which operate from April through November or December, depending on the weather, stay busy through the summer. Terry said she runs the ferry 15 or 20 times a day through most of the season, and Swenson said the Stafford-McClellan ferry averages about 2,000 trips a season.
The Stafford-McClellan ferry isn't in bad condition, but it is getting old, Swenson said. The boat was last rebuilt in the 1960s, he said, and the ferry needs a better terminal. Right now, the county uses a mobile trailer that is taken to the location in the spring and removed in the fall, he said.
The new terminals will be a major improvement, Worrall said. They will include a visitors area with information about the ferry, and will house the ferry operators, he said.
The Stafford-McClellan ferry can be difficult to reach. The road, which runs through the National Wild and Scenic River portion of the Missouri Breaks, is steep and becomes virtually impossible to drive on if it rains, Swenson said. But because of the Wild and Scenic River designation, not much can be done to improve it, he said. The designation prevents major construction that impacts the view from the river.
Terry said the Virgelle and Carter ferries have good access.
Worrall said part of the reason Chouteau County decided to take advantage of the federal money was the anniversary of the journey of Lewis and Clark. The ferry ride, which is a unique experience, will probably attract a lot of tourists coming through for the anniversary, he said. But Chouteau County wanted to keep the ferry running regardless of the extra tourists, he said.
"It's just one of those dying breeds. We want to keep it alive," he said.