The Historic 1811 Bemus Point-Stow Ferry

Celebrating Our 210th Season on Chautauqua Lake

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Bemus Point Stow Ferry History:

A historic cable Ferry has been plying the waters of Chautauqua Lake at the narrows since 1811. In its beginning, a small log raft was rowed or pulled across the 1000 feet from side to side.

It is now is a 60-ton flat ferry with a steel hull manufactured in 1929 and powered by a large Cummins diesel engine. From carrying a couple of family members from their farm holdings in Bemus Point to Stow, pulling hand over hand on a sturdy manila rope stretched from side to side, the ferry soon improved to a hand-hewed wooden raft able to carry cows, sheep, horses and a wagon. After many reinventions of size, shape and propulsion, the current ferry is a 66' by 34' metal barge covered by a wooden deck with a single-person pilot house on each corner. It carries up to 9 cars with many pedestrians and can take as many as 50 passengers without any vehicles.

The Bemus Point Stow Ferry has long been obsolete. Modern 20th century roads encircle the lake and have taken automobiles around easily for decades. When the Southern Tier Expressway (US Route I-86) bridge over the lake opened in 1982, the little Ferry's role as a practical route across the lake ceased altogether. Why wait for the Ferry when you can drive over the bridge in less than a minute? Fortunately, there are still a few "impractical" people left in the world. (The Highwayman Blog, 2011, 15 May)

Chautauqua Lake is part of the water route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. From the Ferry's humble beginnings, she was more than transportation. She was a large part of the lives of those who lived along either side of the lake: a place to meet, a place to move households from one side to the other, a place to court the girls, but most, a place always trusted to be available when needed.

During exploration of the land west of the original 13 colonies and for the new settlers who came west in the early 1800s, the fertile and heavily forested land in this corner of New York was ripe for settlement. The Ferry was a shortcut from one side of the lake to the other, saving the local settlers a 23 mile and 3 to 5-day journey along poorly cleared trails and roads to gain access to the other side of the lake. Until 1982 when the State completed a four-lane bridge across the lake a half-mile south of the narrows, the Ferry remained, for 171 years, the only quick way across the lake for cars and trucks going anywhere.

Bemus Point Stow Ferry is at the Bemus Point Landing date 1906. Folks are waiting for the Ferry to take them to Stow while the City of Buffalo passes through the narrows heading for Jamestown. The Ferry rope and later her cable were vulnerable to the Steamboats cutting it if they passed too close to the Ferry. When that happened, the Ferry floated away and had to be towed back to her home at the narrows.

In 1908 a one cylinder Engine was installed. Bemus Point-Stow Ferry about 1906 coming into the Bemus Point Landing.

Bemus Point Stow Ferry about 1920 with a Model T Ford.

The Bemus Point Stow Ferry in 1944. At this time, she only ran on one cable on the north side with the engine moved to an outrigger to make more room for the cars.

This is the rate schedule from 1944. It still cost less to take a cow across the Ferry than a car!

Bemus Point Stow Ferry underway from the Stow Landing with a full load of cars and passengers. Note the current USA flag as well as the flag used in 1811 (15 stars and 15 bars).

Bemus Point Stow Ferry in the ice at the Stow Landing spring 2020.

The Bemus Point Stow Ferry riding on her two cables into Bemus Point Landing on a busy summer day in the narrows of Chautauqua Lake.

I suggest that you refer to the first book on the Bemus Point Stow Ferry, written by Art Thomas in 2011, A Ferry Tale, available at the Town of North Harmony Building, Stow, NY. It does an excellent job relating the settlement of Chautauqua County and the central role the Ferry had in our history and day-to-day lives.

The cover of the newly published History of the Bemus Point Stow Ferry by Chris Flanders, written to help raise money for the Ferry during the summers as well as at the Lawson Center and other retailers in Bemus Point. It will also be available to the North Harmony Town Hall and Hogan's Hut in Stow, NY. All profits will be donated to the Bemus Point Stow Ferry.

The Bemus Point Stow Ferry making its way toward Bemus Point. The Light House is located at The Stow Landing, dedicated to the late Sally Carlson, North Harmony Town Supervisor. It is a typical day on the lake, with volunteers taking donations and telling some history about the Ferry, one of only a few cable ferries left in the United States. The volunteers are also enjoying Stories told of memories of the passengers of times in their youth of their parent's youth riding on the same Ferry across Chautauqua Lake.

Historical marker at both landings of the Bemus Point Stow Ferry.

The Bemus Point Stow Ferry at the Stow Landing with the gate open to allow cars and passengers to board the Ferry for the next ride across. The Ferry is run and maintained by an all-volunteer organization with service starting at 5 PM on Fridays and noon until 9 PM Saturdays and Sundays. The ride across takes 7-10 minutes and it usually takes another 10 minutes to load and unload. It is the coolest most bug-free place to enjoy during the summers from Memorial Day until a little after Labor Day each year. Come ride with us!

The Bemus Point Stow Ferry underway at the narrows of Chautauqua. 1811-2020

Bicycle rallies, like the Gran Fondo use the Ferry as a rest stop in their figure eight course around the lake.

The Bemus Point Stow Ferry going from Bemus Point (note the Casino in the background) to Stow. Many motorcycles ride the Ferry for fun and as part of motorcycle rallies. Captain Wagner is listening to stories about their day on the road.

It seems like the state of the Ferry comes to a crisis point every ten years, coinciding with the State Marine Survey. Once every ten years, it must come out of the water for an inspection of the hull. Even on the mandatory yearly survey in the water, significant repairs on this old vessel need attention.

Removed from two steel cables and, under her power with a rudder on the back, she traverses the 8 miles to Mayville, where she will be out of the lake for repairs. By 2018, age had taken a complex toll on the Ferry, causing the State Marine Surveyors to deem her unsafe to operate as a public vessel.

The Bemus Point-Stow Ferry, who operates the Ferry as a county historical vessel, gathered their resources-both financial and in the many repair skills of their volunteers to begin the assessment phase of the repairs. After hundreds of dirty, sweaty hours spent and long lists of repairs completed, she returned to her dock at Stow only to find she required much more work done in 2019 before being licensed by the State.

For all who rode her as a child or heard family stories about catching the last ferry home at night, this is her story. If you have only recently had your feet on her deck, the wind in your hair and the sun in your eyes reflected from the waters of Chautauqua Lake, this is her story.

For the rest of the story of the Bemus Point Stow Ferry please go to the Restoration page. We have gone from a Ferry declared unfit for passengers in 2018 to a Ferry that will be going back and forth at the narrows of Chautauqua Lake for many years to come. The volunteers are so proud!