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Ferry’s Three-Year Journey Nears End

Since 1811 there have been stumbling blocks and advancements with the Bemus Point-Stow Ferry.

Part of the legacy of this iconic link on Chautauqua Lake is it keeps moving forward. First one direction and then in the other.

For the past three seasons, the board of directors and volunteers have been disappointed and frustrated. Failing the 10-year hull inspection in 2018 was a punch in the gut. The ferry has been unlicensed to carry passengers since then. However, because of continuing support of fans of the ferry, board members have been determined to get the ferry back in service.

The major problem in getting the license was eroded metal in the hull caused by water and melting snow from the top metal deck leaking into the hull for decades. Additionally, beams on the metal deck needed to be replaced. In 2018 and 2019 crews from Hohl Industries and volunteers scrapped, cut, installed new hatch covers and replaced a lot of steel on the deck that was the source of the leaks.

The cause of the problem was identified and resolved. However, thin metal in the hull needed to be replaced.

As 2020 began the board had a plan and hopes of being back in service to the public shortly before Labor Day. The impact of COVID took that timeline and put it into the trash.

As things evolved in the spring, the “non-essential” status of work on the ferry was lifted and plans began moving forward. Months later than expected, board members began to adapt to a new timetable. Starting in mid-July eliminated any chance of being back in service by Labor Day. However, getting the repair done and approved, renovations to the cupolas, fresh paint and building a new deck became the focus of the board’s goals.

The plan involved lifting the ferry out of the water via crane at the Stow Landing. Water levels/draft were an important concern along with estimate of weight and the reach limit of the crane. Details were important to David Hohl of Hohl Industrial Services. He was project design and lead coordinator of putting the ferry into drydock. She weighed about 10 tons less without the old deck, which was removed and hauled away by volunteers. A target was set for mid-July as Hohl’s team finalized the lift specifications and logistics.

The weather on July 14 was like many picture-perfect days on Chautauqua Lake. The crane was set on the predetermined sweet spot for the reach and arc of the lift. The counterbalance was shy of 500 ton. After breaking the added weight created by surface tension, the Benchley crane operator reported her weighing a sleek 45 tons, 10% below estimates and well within the lift design guidelines. After being precisely set on support barrels the ferry was now ready for the ironworkers to get to work.

Seeing the Flight of the Ferry is indeed a memory all of who were there that day will never forget. The plan was moving forward and the ferry was in one piece.

The design, preparation and execution of doing the lift and dry-dock work at The Stow Landing was almost flawless. Hohl Industries and North Harmony were cooperative resources and made sure the tasks at hand were done right. Unseen in all of the work this past summer were the significant repairs made in 2018-19 while dry-docked in Mayville. Diligence in those years brought the project to a good place.

After the ferry was settled onto her supports, with the bottom about four feet off the ground, her hull was cleaned. Then, Chris Wells and his crew cut an 8-by-13-foot section from the bottom of the boat to repair the largest challenge of the project. Seeing the ferry balanced on land became less startling as work progressed. Standing under the boat with on’es head sticking up through a 100-square-foot hole cut into the bottom was a view no one ever expected to see.

Board members were very surprised to get a generous grant from the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation to help with the expense of repairing the hull. It was made possible by the Helen F. Granger and Molly Ottaway Community Service Fund and Ruth R. Olson Memorial Fund. The CRCF connection validated the board’s efforts of keeping the ferry operating and confirmed the project was important to the community.

In August, after three different tests, four certified inspectors, including the state team, approved the repair. That was worth celebrating. It meant that after the annual safety inspection in the spring the board would be able to get back to a normal seasonal routine in the narrows. Items like fire extinguishers, horn, anchor and paperwork are nowhere near as complex as the hurdles the board has cleared in the past three years.

Still in drydock, the renovation continued. The Burkholder paint crew put a protective coating on the entire hull. The superstructure, paddle wheel covers, railings and signature cupolas all were spruced up with paint brushes flying. The custom design for the new deck had been prepared a few months before by one of the project’s volunteers. The steel hatch frames had been fabricated. The to-do list was getting checked off. Every day we moved a bit closer to our goal.

In early September the launch of the ferry wasn’t as concerning as the big lift. Numerous spectators asked if volunteers had but the drain plug back in! With fresh paint, she looked spiffy and ready to be back into her natural element, moored at Stow Landing. The big splash was the jewel of much of the plan. The work hadn’t progressed in a straight line. But the board and volunteers succeeded in repairs, much-needed renovations and maintenance. However, the new wooden deck was the next step on the plan.

During the past three years the enthusiasm of volunteers, individuals, companies and organizations kept our efforts focused. Discretionary grants from the Sheldon Foundation were another example of that support as well as the ongoing generous contributions by individuals. The money pays the bills but the encouragement behind those donations were motivation to keep moving forward.

An unexpected challenge in building the deck was availability of pressure-treated two by fours. Availability was almost non-existent due to COVID, which drove the price up more than 30%. As has happened in the past in ways large and small, friends helped solve another challenge. The board partnered with Eastern States Metal Roofing to get 10 tons of freshly treaded lumber delivered to Lighthouse Park in Stow shortly after the ferry was back in the water.

The pavilion at The Stow Landing became a fabrication shop where 1,700 pieces of two by fours were built into the components of the new deck. The design included custom covers to allow easy access to the hatches. In the future, this will allow for routine inspection and maintenance. It may appear pretty and new, but the deck is designed for increased longevity. Well over 500 volunteer hours were put into this aspect of the renovation. However, the really impressive stat is that only three band aids were needed.

A bit of local history and ingenuity connected the ferry deck with a much-needed tool. A custom dolly built to haul Norton boats in Bemus became the perfect tool used to move the deck pieces from the workshop to the ferry in Stow. Thank you, Lawson Center! Thank You Mr. Norton! This kind of link to the past was often seen with regional vendors and supporters. It was satisfying to hear the personal stories and relationships with this unique part of Western New York history.

The ferry is currently hibernating at her berth in Stow awaiting the return to her normal task of giving free crossings from Stow to Bemus Point. Or if you prefer, Bemus Point to Stow. Board members are planning for a celebratory Memorial Day weekend opening. Details are to-be-determined and pending COVID regulations. Service hours during the summer are expected to be primarily on weekends. As previously, special requests for groups mid-week will be available.

As any boat owner will tell you, there is always work to be done. Preparing The Bemus Point-Stow Ferry for service in 2021 is something board members are looking forward to. A bit more painting, reinstalling the bell, grease the bearings, inspect the cables and more are yet to be done. All this will be followed with shakedown runs before everybody is invited back for our special tradition that connects generations of families to the waters of Chautauqua Lake.

If anyone would like to get involved or become a licensed pilot of the ferryemail bemuspointstowferry@gmail.com. Donations to Bemus Point Stow Ferry are appreciated and can be sent to PO Box 339, Bemus Point, NY 14712 or made online at www.gofundme.com/f/save-the-bemus-pointstow-ferry.

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