When I was a boy, in the 1950s, my father’s parents had a summer cottage on Hadley Bay of Chautauqua Lake. As everyone knows, the word “chautauqua” is Seneca for “bag tied in the middle,” a reference to the narrow point in the middle of the lake, and it was there that the Bemis Point-Stow Ferry took us across the water, while still in our car, which was so cool, and one of my happiest memories.
The ferry began its trips in 1811, originally just a flat bottom raft propelled by oars and poles. This was followed by the use of ropes stretched between the shores, then a series of pulleys and ropes powered by horses on the shore. By 1887, steel cables were in use, the ferry cranked by hand. A steam engine came in 1902, followed by a gasoline engine six years later.
From 1943 to 1983, the ferry was operated by the Chautauqua County Highway Department, but they let it go when a bridge was built across the lake, a honking-big bridge for the Southern Tier Expressway that cast a modern shadow over the Hadley Bay of my boyhood, over the water where we rowed in my grandfather’s ancient wooden boats held together by innumerable coats of gray paint and kept afloat by constant bailing with Maxwell House coffee cans, over the sandbar where Aunt Marie took us to swim and play.
Also, if you’d like to see video of the ferry in 1936, click here.