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Guest Spot: Before there was a Cross Sound Ferry

You have to hand it to Cross Sound Ferry.

While the company is unlikely to win a corporate popularity contest on the North Fork because of the heavy traffic it often generates on the easternmost part of Main Road — most notably in Greenport, East Marion and Orient — it offers a ferry service that’s pretty dependable. Passengers who book a passage for themselves and their car on one of the many Cross Sound boats operating between Orient Point and New London, Conn., know that as long as they arrive at least 15 minutes before sailing time, they’re sure to have their reservation honored. Ferries stick close to schedule and the ships themselves are, well, shipshape.

But before Cross Sound took over the route, in 1975, the service provided by the predecessor company was primitive by comparison and so unpopular that some customers supported the bid of another company to open a second route between the North Fork and New London. To appreciate the simmering discontent with the then operator on the New London-Orient route, you need only read a New York Times story from Dec. 16, 1973.

Headlined “L.I. Ferry Service Assailed,” the story highlighted testimony by some of the 65 travelers who appeared at a hearing held by the old Interstate Commerce Commission to express their extreme displeasure with the quality of service to Orient Point then offered by New London Freight Lines Inc. 

“At times, I’ve gotten to Orient Point three-quarters of an hour ahead of schedule and then had to wait an additional two hours to make the next crossing,” complained Dr. James P. Johnson of Southampton.

“They are always late and overcrowded and in the long run if you have to wait two hours to use” the service, “there is very little point of going by ferry,” groused Arthur Tyrrell of Orient.

Other witnesses at the hearing, not quoted directly, told of delays at dockside of up to six hours and being unable to get their car on the last ferry of the day. 

The primary reason for the delays and crowding was the limited capacity of the converted World War II landing craft that New London Freight Lines put on the route in the late 1940s. Initially, there were two such ships, the Orient and the Gay Head (the latter being the former name of a town on Martha’s Vineyard, where the ship had sailed for a previous owner). A third vessel, the Plum Island, joined the fleet a decade later. 

The ferries could carry only about 25 cars each and between 250 and 300 passengers. (Just one of Cross Sound’s boats, the John H., the company’s biggest, can carry more than 100 vehicles and 1,000 passengers.)

Ted Webb of Orient recalled in a recent interview that when space was especially tight on the former landing craft vessels, crew members would drive some passengers’ cars up a ramp and into empty truck trailers that were making the trip. “People waiting in line, they’d do anything to get on the boat,” he said.

If the quality of service left a lot to be desired, so did the quantity. Unlike Cross Sound, which operates year around, New London Freight Lines provided a seasonal service that in the early 1970s ceased operating for nearly two months in the winter. 

Moreover, when it did operate, New London Freight offered many fewer sailings. It’s timetable for 1974 shows just 10 sailings in each direction daily in the peak summertime period; by comparison, Cross Sound was offering 23 round-trips on the Friday, Sunday and Monday of this year’s Columbus Day weekend (although for traffic-sensitive residents of the eastern North Fork that level of frequency may be too much of a good thing).

Many witnesses at the hearing said they favored the establishment of another service across Long Island Sound. A Massachusetts-based company had applied for permission to operate a year-round ferry service from Greenport to New London, claiming that there was enough business to support two cross-Sound lines. 

Even the vice president of New London Freight Lines acknowledged in his testimony that there was “a need for improved service.” What had delayed improvements, he said, were proposals in the early 1970s for a bridge across the Sound that would have put his company out of business. And then the possibility of having a competitor operating out of Greenport led New London Freight, by then financially ailing, to put on hold plans for a 50-car, high-speed vessels that they “were about to have built.”

The Greenport ferry service never materialized but in 1974, New London Freight, which was a subsidiary of McAllister Towing — a New York City-based company that’s one of the nation’s largest tugboat operators — approached the Wronowski family of New London with a proposal that would ultimately transform service on the Orient Point-New London route.

The proposal, which the Wronowskis accepted, called for forming a joint venture that would become Cross Sound Ferry and grow into what’s reportedly one of the largest ferry systems in the country. John P. Wronowski became one owner of the new enterprise and J. Brent Lynch, the son-in-law of McAllister’s executive vice president, became the other. (Mr. Wronowski later bought out his partner, who in the 1980s acquired the Hampton Jitney motorcoach line with his wife.)

Although Mr. Wronowski had never run a ferry company, he was no rookie.

As the Hartford Courant once noted, “he practically grew up” on the car ferries his father, John Henry Wronowski (no relation to this writer), ran for more than 50 years between the Rhode Island mainland and Block Island. The son of Polish immigrants, the elder Wronowski, who died in 1997, was a mechanic and electrician credited with making technical upgrades to the fleet decade after decade. John P. Wronowski, a graduate of the California Institute of Technology now in his early 70s, seems cut from the same cloth when it comes to business and technical savvy.

Mr. Wronowski keeps a low profile and efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. But it’s clear from two standpoints that he has presided over a company with impressive growth.

Starting with three ferries Cross Sound acquired from New London Freight Lines (and later disposed of), Mr. Wronowski and his son, Adam, now a co-owner, have expanded the company’s fleet to where it now includes 11 ferries, some often assigned to services such as lighthouse cruises and runs between New London and Block Island. As for its signature Orient Point-New London line, the company long ago blew past a consulting engineer’s 1976 projection to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that envisioned a maximum of 200,000 vehicles a year using the route.

According to press reports, the number of vehicles carried by Cross Sound annually was up to 300,000 by 1995 and 480,000 a year by 2006. It’s a safe bet the number is even higher now.

John Henry is a journalist and author who is a former writer and copy editor for Times Review Media Group. He lives in Orient.