The Busy Bee Ferry Boat
On Cayuga Lake
In the early 1800s a system of turnpikes was developed across New York State. One of these, which was a direct road from Albany to Cayuga Lake, was known as the Fourth Great Western Turnpike. But unfortunately, the Finger Lakes presented a formidable barrier for opening up this region for settlement, and to get from one side of a lake to another was, as old timers used to say, "Like going around Robin Hood's barn."
Before the days of railroads and still later improved highways, numerous enterprising individuals established ferry boats on the large Finger Lakes and this greatly assisted in the development of commerce.
Throughout the 1800s several licenses were granted to individuals by the New York State Legislature, granting them exclusive rights to operate ferries on these lakes. But not too much is known about these early enterprises, other than the fact that one was operated as early as 1800 prior to the construction of Cayuga Bridge at the north end of Cayuga Lake.
The ferry most remembered on Cayuga Lake was the Busy Bee which was operated by Captain James Quick for many years. What follows is an account of this vessel written by Wheeler A. Bassett and published in the Interlaken Review, a local newspaper, on December 4, 1951.
Back in the 'eighties on a summer day two men and a youth set out to attend the Auburn Fair. They drove to Kidders Ferry and there embarked on the ferry boat for King's Ferry. At this point they took a train for Auburn.
Jim Quick was running the boat, a tall, lanky, young man, about in his middle twenties, to whom they plied many questions. Seeing a horse on board, they asked, "What is the horse for?" "That is to run the tread power," he said. "When the wind fails we put him on the tread, and that runs the paddle wheels," and, sure enough, coming home at night, there was no wind, so resort was made to the horse to bring them home.
"I made another trip while you were gone," said Mr. Quick. "A man and his team wanted to come across." "How did you know they wanted to come across?" " I saw the sign out," pointing to a board sign about six feet square, painted white on one side and black on the other. "When the white side is out, that means 'Come over'." That was in June, 1881, to be exact.
The boat proved to be the Polly Ann, the old ferry boat that preceded the Busy Bee. Young Captain Quick was just learning the business, but one would never have known it to see him run the boat that day. Sixty years have passed. Every ferry boat on Cayuga Lake is now extinct. For the first half of that period they throve and performed an almost indispensable service to the public. But inventive man is always seeking something better. Although it travels on land, the automobile, for the last thirty years, seems to have superceded the ferry boat, and thereby romance lost, while speed gained. Interest still persists, however in a certain craft called the Busy Bee, and its captain Jim Quick.
The Busy Bee is now only a memory, but Captain Quick is still with us. It was our privilege recently to visit him in his little cottage beside Cayuga Lake at Kidders. We found him living alone, for his faithful consort of fifty-nine years passed away three years previously. His mind was clear as ever as we reminisced on many things. He was born on a farm off the road not far from McNeil's Church eighty-seven years ago. His father, Henry Quick, moved to Kidders Ferry in the late 'seventies, where he ran the ferry boat, Polly Ann, for a few years until Jim learned the business.
Our main topic was, of course, the Busy Bee. He built her, he said, between his cottage and the lake, a distance of only a few rods. James Bennet, of Sheldrake, an old canal boat builder, was the designer and builder. On April 21, 1886, a license was granted by the Legislature to James V. Quick for twenty years to run a ferry from "the termination of Turnpike Road (King Ferry) to or near the dock or landing place of Myron R. Cole, at Kidders Ferry."
The Busy Bee was equipped for either sail or steam, sixty-feet over all with a seventeen-foot beam; the gunwales were four feet high. She usually came to rest near the steamboat landing, just back of Captain Quick's cottage, with her stern first. The gunwales at this end were let down to rest lightly on the shore so a man or animal could easily walk on board. The rudder was a long, heavy paddle, detachable by hand. The Captain was captain, skipper, mate and helmsman, all in one. With one hand he adjusted sail, with the other he steered the boat, and if by chance he had to leave his post, chains were at hand to fasten to handle of rudder to hold her on a straight course. The distance across the lake is two miles and a fraction, and the captain once made it by sail in nine minutes, he said. With the horse it took an hour, with steam one-half hour. Fare for crossing was for a single passenger, 25¢; single horse and wagon, 75¢; team and wagon, $1.00. Asked what was his biggest load, he said he once brought over a Quaker funeral party consisting of fourteen horses, ten carriages, and eighty-three people, bound for an old cemetery near Jacksonville.
In the cold winter of 1885, the boat froze in fifteen inches of ice. Captain Quick rigged up an ice boat and delivered the mail in three minutes. Genial and accommodating to all, he was liked by everybody. The children loved him for the free rides he gave them. For eighteen years, winter and summer, he met four trains daily, carrying mail and express. At the same time he was Postmaster. An important factor in his life was the summer boarder.
Along in the 80's and earlier there was a trend for people to get out of the city into the pure air of the country, especially the lake country. Cole's Hotel, the Cayuga Lake house, and the Sheldrake House, had regular customers year after year. Some brought their children and stayed all summer; husbands came for week ends. Added to these were summer residents like the Leverichs, the Rappleyes, the Taylors. These persons added to the tempo of life all along the lake and, naturally, Captain Quick reaped some of the benefit. He performed their errands, he took out excursion parties, he met them at trains, and, if I were to ask him, I think he would say that life for him then was at high-tide.
Nothing is more permanent in this world than change, and to Captain Quick change was bound to come. With the advent of the automobile and good roads business fell off so much he ran the boat only from May 1st to November 1st. Finally, the boat wore out, the Captain said. Expenses went up and business did not warrant costly repairs; for instance, the last mainsail and jib cost $300.00. The gallant boat was finally pushed into her last resting place near the dock—there she lay in plain sight for years after, rotting in the water, mute evidence of an era that was past; but Captain Quick lived on, cheerfuly adapting himself to a changed life, while the lake with her ever changing moods and always in sight was to remind him of the conquests he made on her waters with his beloved Busy Bee.
Note. May D. Leverich, now Mrs. George K. Hooper, of Pasadena, California, named the Busy Bee. In a letter to Myron W. Bassette, she says she was an interested spectator at the christening, which was performed by Captain Quick's little daughter, Anna, now Mrs. Albert Haviland, Sr. She writes how the Captain held his daughter, then a very little girl, and helped her break the bottle while she murmured in a tearful voice, "Busy Bee." The time was June 1884.
For 18 years, winter and summer, Captain Quick met four passenger trains daily on the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which had lines on both sides of the lake. He recalled he would make as many as eight or nine trips a day during the busy season.
The advent of the automobile and improved roads cut into this business and it eventually became apparent that the Busy Bee was obsolete. She made her last trip on June 4, 1914, and was tied up on the north side of Kidder's dock. Eventually, she was stripped of machinery and the hull was allowed to lay at anchor until sinking.
Reminiscing about the old days, Captain Quick said that the original Polly Ann was propelled by sail and a treadmill operated by an old grey horse. He said the Busy Bee was actually built by James Bennett of nearby Sheldrake who also built canal boats.
© 1994, Richard F. Palmer