About This Location
The Chappy Ferry is an iconic sight on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. It is also the oldest business operating on the waters of Martha’s Vineyard. Chappy is short for Chappaquiddick – the name of the island which the ferry brings visitors to and from.
Chappaquiddick Island was formed during the last ice age by the same ice sheet that formed the rest of the Vineyard around 21,000 years ago. After the ice retreated into Canada about 12,000 years ago, the first settlers arrived from Asia. The sea advanced quickly as the ice melted. Water had surrounded the islands of Martha’s Vineyard, Chappaquiddick, and Nantucket by 6,000 years ago. The surging Atlantic filled the shallow waterways that are now known as Vineyard and Nantucket sounds, separating the two islands by approximately eighteen miles. It also filled what is now Edgartown Harbor and Katama Bay, separating the Chappaquiddick and Vineyard landmasses by only 527 feet.
Chappy stood out from the rest of the Vineyard from the start, a wild and buffering outpost of hills but few plains. Chappaquiddick protected much of Martha’s Vineyard’s eastern half from coastal storms while also bearing the cost of these gales. The first houses on Chappy were constructed around 1750. The first “ferry” between Chappy and the Vineyard was a simple rowboat, which had been in use since at least 1807. There were only a few homes, a few farms, a meetinghouse, and a one-room schoolhouse on the island.
In the spring of 1935, the first genuine car-and-passenger ferry entered service. The majority of visitors were looking to visit the beautiful beaches on Chappaquiddick. People also liked the island’s outback feel and how much more laid-back it was than Edgartown and the other towns on Martha’s Vineyard. By accident of geography and the quiet determination of year-round and seasonal residents, Chappy remained just challenging enough to reach that it retained its wilderness feel well into the twentieth century. The houses that remained were few and dispersed. There was no expansion or spread of a business district.
On the night of July 18, 1969, all of this changed. The next morning, a sedan belonging to Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy was discovered underwater, upside down, in a narrow channel on Chappy’s eastern side. Rescuers discovered the body of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, who had previously worked for the late Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. They had both been to a party the night before at a Chappaquiddick cottage. Mr. Kennedy stated that he planned to drive his guest back to the ferry before it closed at midnight. He drove off the main road, down a long dirt road, and off the Dike Bridge into the channel. He failed to report the accident until the next morning, leaving a trail of unanswered questions and mysteries that continues to this day. Chappaquiddick was transformed overnight as a result of the accident. What was once a little-known island outside of New England was now one of the most debated and researched locations on the planet.
The Chappy Ferry also rose to fame when it was featured in a pivotal scene in the iconic 1975 movie Jaws. On the ferry, Mayor Vaughn tries to convince Chief Brody it’s not smart to close the beaches on the 4th of July. The ferry was also used as a camera boat for the movie.
Today, there are two ferries that transport cars and passengers between Edgartown and Chappaquiddick. Because the ferries have no set schedule (and thus cannot be “late” or “early,” the twin ferries On Time II and On Time III are always “on time.” Except late at night, ferries run whenever cars and passengers need to cross the channel. During the summer, especially on weekends, a large number of cars and passengers line up to take the ferry. All fares are round-trip and must be paid in advance before boarding the ferry in Edgartown. The car and driver pay, as do the passengers on the ferry.