LOWER TOWNSHIP - The ticket agent at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry didn't really know what to make of Neil Jackson.
The ferry service from New Jersey to Delaware had been in operation for only two weeks when the skinny 15-year-old arrived at the terminal in North Cape May on his trusty Columbia bicycle with its wide Goodyear tires.
It was July 14, 1964, and Jackson was on a mission to surprise his grandmother in Lewes, Del. He had ridden all day from Barrington, Camden County, only to arrive before the startled worker.
"I remember pulling up and getting to the gate and asking the lady there, 'How much?' She said, 'I don't know.' She left and came back and said, '50 cents.'"
Jackson, now a 60-year-old retired auditor living in Forest, Va., told the story Tuesday on the 45th anniversary of his youthful adventure.
The ticket-taker didn't know the price that day, when Jackson became the first to ride the ferry with a bicycle, because bikers were not even on the ferry service's radar screen in 1964. Now the ferry service is promoting its use by bicyclists.
The link between the two states, envisioned since Colonial times, had finally become reality on July 1, but the three steamships and one diesel-powered vessel were expected to serve only passengers and motor vehicles.
The ticket-taker ended up charging Jackson the passenger fare at the time, which was 50 cents (compared with $9.50 today). The bicycle, as back then, is still free.
It was no problem for Jackson. He had a roll of dimes he carried with him to call home and to buy soda along the way. He gave the lady five of them and then did something you can't do today.
"I rode my bike onto the ferry," Jackson said.
These days, bikers walk them onto the vessel. The ferry service is hoping more of them do so, which is one reason they found Jackson and are celebrating the 45 anniversary of his feat.
The ferry gets about 300 bikers per month in summer, but its operator hopes to increase the business with new bike paths in Delaware from the Lewes terminal to Rehoboth Beach. It also has plans for a bike path on Ferry Road here from the North Cape May terminal to link to Route 9 and Seashore Road into Cape May. Delaware-bound passengers can even put their wheels on a bike rack on the shuttle bus from Lewes to Ocean City, Md.
"You can get to Rehoboth now without getting on Route 1. Delaware has done a lot to improve bike trails, and we have plans to improve Ferry Road with a bike path separate from vehicles," Director of Ferry Operations Heath Gehrke said.
Ferry Road? Jackson didn't have that luxury in 1964. It wasn't built yet. Today's maps show a route of less than 100 miles from Barrington to North Cape May using roads such as the Atlantic City Expressway, which does not allow bicycles. Jackson said his bike odometer read 125 miles when he arrived.
Jackson recalls pedaling the Black Horse Pike, Route 50 and Route 9, and then going through residential areas to find the gravel parking lot at the ferry terminal. Lincoln Boulevard had not been extended yet to Route 9.
The trip almost did not happen. He was supposed to go with eight friends but they, or more likely their parents, backed out the night before.
"I said to hell with them and I went on," Jackson recalled.
Kenneth and Marjorie Jackson let their son go it alone.
Jackson said if a police officer came across a 15-year-old today pedaling by himself 125 miles on busy roads, "the parents would probably be incarcerated."
"I'm pretty lucky they let me go. I don't even remember an argument," Jackson said.
His father had already gone to work when he left the house at 6 a.m. He had been riding the single-gear Columbia from 30 to 50 miles per day to prepare for the trip. Jackson hoped to follow the trip with jaunts to Williamsburg, Va., and to the Worlds Fair in New York, plans that never quite realized.
"I went to the World's Fair but I went by bus," Jackson said. "I did a lot of small trips around New Jersey. That was my largest trip, and I did it primarily to surprise my grandmother."
Lewes resident Ethel Jones was surprised. She didn't know her grandson was even coming, according to a July 20, 1964, story in a Wilmington newspaper.
"They wouldn't tell me because they knew it would worry me," Jones, who is now deceased, is quoted as saying.
Jackson took only a light jacket, a change of clothes and a tire-repair kit, which he didn't need. One reason he owned this bike is it had big Goodyear tires. His father worked for Goodyear and the tires were deducted from his paycheck.
"My friends all had money, so they had English bikes with three speeds. I couldn't afford that," Jackson said.
In another bit of history, Jackson took a steamship that day to Lewes that the ferry service had just purchased from the Kiptopeke-Cape Charles, Va., line. It had suddenly been made available due to construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
There had been talk for years of a bridge or tunnel to link North Cape May with Lewes. It never happened. Jackson, the first to take a bike on the ferry, is happy about that.
E-mail Richard Degener: