Ferries, which have not been seen on the Merrimack River since the mid-19th century, could be making a comeback in what officals are calling a “back to the future” initiative.

Merrimack Valley Transit received a $4.2 million federal grant to develop a seasonal, commuter ferry service between key points along the Merrimack River aboard two partially or fully solar-powered ferries. While initial plans are looking at ferry service between Haverhill and Newburyport, MassTransit, an online transit trade journal, reported MeVA Administrator Noah Berger has not ruled out extending the service to Lawrence and Lowell.

“We’re looking a few years out before we have something operating,” Berger said. “We’re still working on the logistics, but the first thing is to develop the vessel.”

In an email Tuesday, MeVA spokesperson Niorka Mendez said the ferries would be no larger than 20 to 27 feet long and will travel at speeds up to 15 knots.

“Ferries were one of the original forms of transportation that shaped and defined the Merrimack River—and as evidence of this, every Ferry Street in the region used to end at a ferry dock,” Mendez said. “We anticipate service being operational in about two years.” 

Ferries started working on the river in 1742, but they were initially not for travel: they were for crossing the then bridge-less river. Later, there were ferry pick-up and drop-off points in most towns and cities along the Merrimack.

Ferries started being phased out on the Merrimack River in the 1820’s, as more bridges were built and ground-based transportation improved.

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) secured the $4.2 million in federal funding as part of a package to improve ferry service in Massachusetts. The package announced last month also includes $6.6 million for the MBTA to bolster its ferry services.

“Whether traveling by bus, rail, train or ferry, Massachusetts families and visitors deserve safe and resilient public transportation that connects our towns and cities,” Markey said in a statement last month.

Photo: The ferry service would initial service the stretch of River between Haverhill and Lowell shown above (Credit: Doc Searls – https://www.flickr.com/photos/docsearls/2538070893/sizes/o/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12164717)

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