A cable Ferry has been crossing 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.
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 & wagons. The Ferry saved settlers from a 23 mile trip around the lake which would have taken 3-5 days on poorly cleared trails.
After the end of the Civil War, as railroads & the industrial age connected America, people were able to explore the country like never before. Chautauqua Institution & the ensuing growth of that movement along with grand hotels on the shores of Chautauqua Lake made it a destination point for tourists. By 1917 a "short ride on the railroad" from Pittsburgh to Chautauqua took only 11 hours. In 1888, after 77 years as a small business operated by descendants of Thomas Bemus & prominent members of the community, it was organized into a corporation with Alton Ball serving as President & primary pilot. During his lifetime The Ferry became a stable service that was taken for granted.
By the 1920's automobiles allowed many more to travel beyond home. For families living in Buffalo, Cleveland & Pittsburgh a getaway to the beautiful countryside of Chautauqua county became an exciting tradition. Cars now made the pace of life faster & the shortcut across the lake continued to save time. The Ferry also became a routine excursion for the many tourists visiting the region. After the death of Alton Ball, near the end of WWII, The Chautauqua County Highway Department purchased The Ferry recognizing the importance of this service to the community & made it part of the highway system. To meet the growing need, the barge was modified to be able to hold 9 cars & the more efficient paddle wheels were added to move The Ferry forward. The current vessel has changed little since then. It is 66' x 34', weighs 55 ton & can hold a maximum of 50 passengers. On each of the northern corners sits a single person pilot house.
In 1982 a bridge was built across the lake less than 1/2 mile south of The Narrows where The Ferry runs. Many thought The Ferry was destined for the scrap yard. However, a group of volunteers led by John & Betty Lou Cheney, recognized the importance & value of keeping her running as an active connection to the history of Chautauqua Lake. The I-86 bridge may be a more practical route across the lake. "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) Today, The Bemus Point-Stow Ferry is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization maintained & operated entirely by determined volunteers. Donations from riders & support from the generous community of individuals & foundations recognize once something is gone, you can never get it back.
The exceptional longevity of this basic service gives a glimpse into the history of the region & our country. The Bemus Point-Stow Ferry has evolved to serve a society that is dramatically different from when it first began over 200 years ago.
Come ride The Ferry & experience a first-hand connection to history.
Join our Facebook group The Historic Bemus Point-Stow Ferry for information, updates, connections & questions about this unique jewel on Chautauqua Lake.