Before 1982, there was no bridge across Chautauqua Lake. If people wanted to get from one side of the lake to the other, they could either drive around the lake or take a ride on the Bemus Point Stow Ferry.
The romance of the ferry continued long after its necessity as a means to cross the lake was over. Many a child had a boat trip on the lake on the ferry, as it is known, even when their family had no boat of their own.
Many a family would park their car on the Stow side of the Chautauqua Lake narrows and ride the ferry across for wings and ice cream in Bemus Point, then ride back. Many a teenager had a thrill the first time they actually drove a car onto the ferry for a ride across.
The ferry has been operating every summer since 1811 — except this summer.
“She has some structural wear and tear from years of service,” said Chris Flanders, a board member of the Sea Lion Project, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that manages the ferry which is owned by Chautauqua County.
The ferry’s first trip was on June 25, 1811, when Thomas Bemus was granted a license to run a ferry at the narrows from March 1 to Dec. 1 each year. He charged 6.25 cents for one person, 18.75 cents for a horse and rider and 37.5 cents for a carriage with horses or oxen.
In those days, the ferry was rowed or poled across the 968 feet of the narrows. At the time, it saved travelers three to five days and a 20- to 23-mile trip around either end of the lake.
In the 1820s, it became a flat-bottomed boat that was hard to move through the water when heavily loaded in heavy winds. A rope was passed across the narrows and attached to the ferry by passing the rope through rollers on each end. A man pulled the rope to propel the boat.
The first steamboat, the Chautauqua, started its runs in 1828. The ferry was frequently halted as the growing number of steamboats would cut the rope as they made their rounds. Finally, in 1887, a steel cable was installed. The last steamboat, the City of Jamestown, stopped running in 1958.
The ferry used a hand crank for a number of years, and it was a source of entertainment for the passengers to help the driver pull the cable to make the crossing.
The first steam engine was installed in 1902, making the crossings faster and more reliable. By this time, both sides of the lake had traction train lines to bring people to the narrows.
By the time the ferry celebrated its 200th birthday in 2011, it was one of the few cable ferries still in operation in the United States.
“She is powered by a new diesel engine, donated by the Cummins Diesel Plant in Ashville, New York,” Flanders said. “At one time, she was part of the Highway Department, andGPS systems still try to send cars and trucks across the lake on the ferry in winter.”
These days, the maintenance and operation of the ferry are done by a group of volunteers.
“This year’s repairs are, unfortunately, more complex and structural,” Flanders said. “That is why she did not pass inspection and has been hauled out in Mayville this summer.”
The group has had to hire a marine welder to replace the I-beams and fabricators to produce watertight hatch covers for the seven bilge compartments in the hull.
“Our volunteers can do the grunt work,” Flanders said, “but we need to hire specialists to do the work that is beyond our skill set. We have had over 100 people contribute to our Go Fund Me page: Save the Bemus Point Stow Ferry.”
The group is working to make the ferry lake-worthy for another 50 years.
There is more information on the Historic Bemus Point- Stow Ferry Facebook page.
The history of the ferry can be found in Art Thomas’ book A Ferry Tale.
“The ferry can be back on her cables before the end of summer with enough financial support,” said Flanders, who grew up in Chautauqua County. “It would be a shame if this part of our history did not survive and the ferry had to be scrapped or scuttled in the lake.”