When Lisa King settled with her family on the St. Johns River across from Mayport 17 years ago, she was drawn to the area’s natural beauty and the warmth of the community. Their neighborhood was removed from rush-hour gridlock, commercial development and urban sprawl but, with a quick ferry ride across the St. Johns River, it was easily accessible.
“I live about a quarter mile from the ferry landing on the Ft. George side,” King says. “The ferry was one of the reasons why we decided to live there because we just love it. When my kids were little, it was an important part of their childhood. It’s important to our family.”
Since 1874 there has been ferry service across the St. Johns River at Mayport. It was Jacksonville’s first “bridge,” and today it is part of the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile long shared-use trail system linking 25 major cities along the eastern seaboard between Calais, Maine, and Key West, Florida. This green travel corridor provides cyclists, walkers, and devotees of other muscle-powered modes of transportation with a low-impact way to explore the eastern seaboard.
The St. Johns Ferry is also a vital aspect of local transportation and economic development.
“People need to have access to both sides of the river,” Lisa King says. “The ferry is an important part of that.”
The 4th annual St. Johns River Ferry Fest is presented Oct 10 by Friends of the St. Johns River Ferry for area residents to celebrate the ferry with free ferry rides, live music, and a wide selection of food and beverages. The Ferry Fest also presents the Inaugural Timucuan Treasure Quest, a three-stage challenge that requires teamwork to advance through physical and mental tasks along a 1.25-mile trail.
The Inaugural Timucuan Treasure Quest will be held along the banks of the St. Johns River. Teams will be shuttled to Fort George Island where a series of outdoor challenges will be held at the historic Ribault Club. A Trivia Challenge will take place on the Ferry Fest main stage where teams will showcase their knowledge of the Timucuan preserve region including the St. Johns River, historic Mayport Village, and the Ferry. The top two teams will then compete in a final treasure hunt in the Ferry Fest area.
“We are particularly excited about Ferry Fest this year,” says King. “We’re showcasing the point of linkage that the ferry provides to the national parks. By focusing on the ferry, we can show off everything that the region has to offer.”
Not everyone realizes that the ferry provides a critical connection to the beauty of the national parks on both sides of the St. Johns River. Friends of the Ferry recently partnered with the National Park Service to attract more visitors to resources on the north and south sides of the river.
“Showing those linkages is one of the reasons that the ferry has had a huge increase in ridership because people are becoming more aware and are including the ferry into their plans,” says King. “The St. Johns River Ferry plays an important role in the Timucuan Preserve, the A1A corridor, and the tourist economies in which they are entwined. Less known is the important role it plays for the military and civilian personnel at Naval Station Mayport who work on the ships in dry dock at BAE on Heckscher Drive.”
As a Jacksonville native, King has witnessed the city’s evolving relationship with the St. Johns River and its ferry. Years of improvements have helped to mitigate the damage of previous industrial waste disposal. Future plans include the beautification of the embarkation areas on both sides of the St. Johns River.
The responsibility of funding and operating the ferry has changed hands over the years. The St. Johns River Ferry Commission took over ferry operations from JaxPort in 2012 with funding contributions from JaxPort, the Jacksonville City Council, and the cities of Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville Beach. Friends of the St. Johns River Ferry Association sponsored the “Keep the Ferry” initiative to seek long-term funding for the ferry’s continued success. The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is soon coming on board to manage operations.
“The ferry is in a very great place right now. I’m very excited that JTA is going to take over. The ferry is definitely a form of mass transit. If you look at other ferry services in the country, you find that they are operated by a ferry authority or some kind of mass transit authority. Having the JTA in charge of operations makes sense when you consider the linkage that our ferry provides, especially now that there’s bus service in Mayport. The ferry is already heavily used by cyclists going in both directions. As greater Jacksonville moves toward multi-modal transportation, the ferry will play an increasingly visible role in our future.”
Lisa King wears a lot of different hats in her support of the ferry. Professionally, King is vice president of Langton Consulting where her expertise in both the Historic Preservation Grant-in-Aid and Special Category programs has been recognized by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. She has written successful applications for historic resource and archaeological surveys, rehabilitation plans, museum exhibits, and extensive renovations of historic structures.
She authored successful grant applications to secure $5 million to operate the St. Johns Ferry for two years and to cover the cost of slip replacement.
“It’s like my baby. I’m always looking out for it,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons I was a candidate for City Council in the last cycle because I really wanted to work on this whole eco- and heritage-tourism approach in north Jacksonville. People do not appreciate how fortunate we are to have such a robust park system and what an attractor it is for tourists.”
Personally, King has embodied the role of “Ferry Godmother,” serving as Vice President of Friends of the St. Johns River Ferry Association and Ferry Ambassador, greeting riders, taking pictures and sharing her local knowledge with visitors looking for a great place for lunch or historic points of interest.
“That’s where the Ferry Ambassadors really help, because we’re there to answer questions. We work a two-hour shift once a month, and it’s great. It’s not a big time commitment,” she says. “For people who like meeting new people, it’s awesome.”
Friends of the Ferry is working to develop a map to distribute to ferry riders with parks, historic sites, dining, hotel, retail and other destinations along the A1A corridor between Heckscher Drive and Mayport and a downloadable app with the daily ferry schedule and the exact location of the ferry in real time. The app will alert users if ferry service is suspended because of weather or equipment issues. Future upgrades will provide traffic updates so that users can determine the most efficient route to the ferry from their location.
“We’re being really aggressive and trying to take advantage of every opportunity to showcase the ferry and make it part of every activity that happens along the A1A corridor,” she says.
King is grateful for the careful attention paid by the new mayoral administration to the ferry’s maintenance budget, and she is confident that all the critical pieces are finally in place to ensure the ferry’s continued success. “Everyone seems to be on board,” King says. “I’m very excited about the future of the ferry.” This year’s Ferry Fest on October 10 is a great way to celebrate the past, present and future success of our historic ferry at Mayport.