The Bemus Point-Stow Ferry should be in good condition for at least another decade after the vessel underwent extensive repairs and upgrades as part of a state-mandated 10-year inspection, operators say.
''The ferry is in shape to run another 10 years as far as I'm concerned,'' said Ellery resident John Cheney, who was instrumental in getting the ferry back up and running in 2006 and seeing it through this year's inspection.
The Sea Lion Project Ltd., the non-profit group that oversees both the ferry and the drydocked Sea Lion, spent a considerable amount of money to get the ferry in good enough shape to pass inspection, according to Cheney.
Work included an extensive paint job inside and outside the hull, replacement of the I-beams and struts and upgrades to the pulley system. Luckily, though, the engine - which was donated by Cummins several years ago - as well as the drive chain that propels the vessel through the water were in good shape going into the inspection process.
''An awful lot of work had to be done. When we got the list from the state, it was three pages long,'' said Paul Stage, who volunteers with the Sea Lion Project Ltd. ''We were hoping it would be a two- or three-week process, and it ended up being a two-month process.''
That's why the ferry was out of operation for much of the summer. Mayville village officials allowed the group to station the ferry at Mayville Lakeside Park, where it underwent repairs.
For the last couple weeks, though, the ferry has been back in operation at the narrows of Chautauqua Lake, carrying pedestrians and vehicles between Bemus Point and Stow in the middle of the almost 20-mile-long lake. The only other connection is the I-86 highway bridge, which is closed to pedestrians and bicyclists.
From now until Labor Day weekend, the ferry will be operating Friday evenings and Saturdays and Sundays. Operators don't charge a fee for trips, though the group relies on donations to keep the vessel operating - and they also rely on volunteers to operate and maintain it.
''By state standards, there's no way we could pay the required wages for captains and engineers on the ferry and make money at all,'' Cheney said. ''We've got six people who are the backbone of the whole deal.''
The ferry is said to be the one vessel of its kind that has continuously operated the longest. It has been operating since 1811, though it was at risk of being scrapped when the I-86 bridge was completed in 1982, according to an account of the ferry's nearly 200-year history.
That same year, the ferry was acquired by the group operating the Sea Lion, a working replica of a 16th-century, three-masted, square-rigged British sailing vessel that remains drydocked in Barcelona along Lake Erie and is in the process of being restored.
The lake's other historic vessel is the Chautauqua Belle, said to be one of only two genuine steamships in operation east of the Mississippi River. It has been under private ownership for the past two seasons, and Mathew Stage, Belle captain, brings it down to Bemus Point on a regular basis.
On those occasions, when both the Belle and the ferry are operating, it allows for a glimpse into history, says the younger Stage. In the old days, when trollies ran all the way around the lake bringing people to and from places like Celoron Park, the many steamships on Chautauqua Lake would continuously travel through the narrows past the ferry.
''It's really neat,'' Stage said of the joint appearances by both the Belle and the ferry, ''because when we go through our narrative, we say how a hundred years ago, all the steamboats had to blow the whistle when going through there.''
Reprinted from Jamestown Post Journal
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