He never takes his eyes off his work. Constantly scanning the river as far as the early morning mist will allow, Paul Anderson watches the boat, the cars, the Ohio River shore.

Progress is slow and steady across the river; Anderson's hand is gentle and steady on the smooth silver tiller. It'll take 12 minutes to cross, unload, load, repeat. By the final crossing that day, as many as 500 cars will be moved from shore to shore.

The Anderson Ferry from Constance, Ky., to Anderson Ferry Road on Cincinnati's west side officially begins crossings at 6 a.m. But Capt. Anderson, 61, will fire up the diesel engine as early as 5:45 a.m. to ensure that drivers already in line get across in time to punch the clock at plants in Hebron or Erlanger or to catch a flight at the international airport.

Morning crossings are quiet. Deckhand Bill Erhart wordlessly guides cars and pickups on and off the ferry.

The practiced movements of his neon orange gloves guide drivers onto the low steel ramp, into one of the three lanes, and to precise stopping points.

Folks cut the engine, read the newspaper or study the river and the scenery.

A couple steps from their car to stand on the deck, enjoying each other, tall cups of coffee and a peaceful start to the business day.

FIFTY YEARS ON THE RIVER

Anderson has been working on the river for half a century. He was a seventh-grader living just a bit downriver on the Ohio side when he started as a deckhand.

Over the years he added Coast Guard, firefighter training and construction to his resumé.

When the ferry came up for sale in 1986, he and his wife Debbie bit. After all, they didn't even have to change the signs.

"I liked the idea of owning my own business. This was something I was familiar with and comfortable with," says Anderson.

And his partner? "Debbie is actually the brains and the boss. She does all the paperwork and all the thinking and all the important stuff," he says, matter-of-factly. The Verona couple will be married 35 years in November.

A RELATIVE OF SOME SORT

The ferry, operating continuously since 1817 when George Anderson took passengers and livestock across the river on flatboats moved by men using poles, is now one of only four left on the Ohio. Is the name more than a coincidence? "I'm confident he's a relative in some way," says Anderson, but he has not been able to track it definitively.

It's not the first time he has been asked the history of the iconic river fixture, and Anderson easily recounts dates, owners and lore. Still watching the lines of cars and the movement of the deckhands, he executes a precision landing. Anderson smiles broadly as he tells how the business was lost in a card game. And lost again. How another owner, Charles Kottmyer, gave up his stagecoach business to get shed of the dust, trading it for the ferry business with a paddlewheel boat in 1865. It was powered by a team of horses walking on a treadmill. The move to steam power came in 1867 with Boone #1, named for Daniel himself. Four generations of Kottmyers plied the river for 120 years.

ADDING TO THE LORE

Movies, weddings, transporting Civil War re-enactors, and a smack from a water skier have given Anderson his own share of stories.

In the movie Lost in Yonkers, the ferry was needed for rollerboarding scenes. They've had weddings aboard but Anderson shrugs off any notion of him officiating. Re-enactors? The troop boarded, horses, cannon and all. The skier? Either "brave or stupid," Anderson figures. He came so close to the front of the boat that he reached out and slapped the apron.

There are also the annual Pearl Harbor ceremonies with 80-100 people riding out into the river to toss wreaths into the water while a bugle sounds. When a boat caught fire, the ferry took a fire truck out on the water and brought the passengers on board. Once, a woman drove an 18-wheeler down the bumpy access road to the ferry and was unable to back up. They put the rig on the ferry, headed out in the water to turn around and returned her, headlights forward, to the Ohio shore.

Cars, pickups, bikes, passengers on foot and the occasional charter bus board the ferry, saving the long drive around by bridge and land. If it is an 18-wheeler, Anderson prefers it be empty.

However picturesque, it's a serious operation. The fleet includes the Deborah A. "pushboat" that pushes the Boone #9; Little Boone that pushes Boone #8; and the self-contained Boone #7 that is used in high water. A radar screen maps the shore, the path, other boats. A Coast Guard radio crackles. The crew trains at river school in Memphis and pass rigorous testing.

The rainy spring slowed business, but it's building back and Anderson hopes to resume running two boats at a time.

Meanwhile, he's piloting every day and living the river dream. It's never the same. The people, the river, the weather are always changing. Now, the mist has lifted and the sky is a brilliant blue.

"I like the morning, early morning, the best. Everything is quiet and still."

Dianne Gebhardt-French writes about the people of Northern Kentucky.
Contact her at (513) 297-6209 or dfrench@cincymagazine.com.