Since 1982, there’s been a very easy way to get across Chautauqua Lake from one side to the other. It’s the I-86 Bridge. But, there’s another way to get across that’s much more historic and much more fun.
It’s the Bemus Point-Stow Ferry. This particular ferry has been crossing Chautauqua Lake every year for the past 92 years. But, vessels called the Bemus Point-Stow Ferry have been connecting the communities of Bemus Point and Stow for the past 212 years. There’s been at least 12 of them. The ferry service goes back to 1811…the year Chautauqua County was established.
“The very first order of business of Chautauqua County was Thomas Bemus getting a license to operate a ferry,” says Jay Kuntz, a volunteer at the ferry.
The Bemus family owned farmland on either side of Chautauqua Lake and supplies and animals were transported by the ferry. Walking 23 miles to the other side of the lake would have taken three to five days. The Bemus family operated the ferry for 77 years. The service was then taken over by a corporation headed by a man named Alton Ball.
Ball died near the end of World War II. The service was so important, the county took over its operation. Cars were now prevalent in the area and the ferry was still the fastest method to get to the other side of the lake. Well, usually.
“They would count the number of cars in line. I believe the magic number was 19,” says Jay. “If you were 19, it was probably going to be quicker to drive around.”
Then came 1982. The I-86 Bridge was built. Motorists could now get across the lake in about a minute. The need for the ferry was gone. But, a group of volunteers did not want the service to die. There was too much history. They took it over. Tourists and locals still drive their cars on board. They get out and just enjoy the scenic ride. What a nice way to experience beautiful Chautauqua Lake.
There’s no fee for riding the ferry but donations are appreciated and needed. The ferry operates on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Fridays 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 9 p.m.
The ferry could not take passengers from 2018 to 2020 but it still crossed the lake, at least once, to keep its continuous operation alive.