Rich Hilliman sat on a bench of his Queen City Bike Ferry early Tuesday afternoon, as the 50-foot vessel pulled out of its Canalside berth into the narrow Buffalo River, headed for the Outer Harbor.
Mostly blue skies and the welcomed return of the sun, following a couple of gloomy days, made for a glorious, picturesque scene. As the boat reached the middle of its roughly 300-yard voyage, Hilliman looked back, at Canalside, at the USS Little Rock, at the downtown Buffalo skyline and marveled at the sight.
“When people see Canalside from across the river, when they see Buffalo from across the river, they say, ‘Wow,’ ” the ferry operator noted. “It puts it all into perspective, how much work has been done and how big Canalside is.”
A lot of people are getting that view this spring, as a result of Buffalo’s newest nautical toy. The ferry has attracted more than 9,000 passengers in its first three weeks of operation. By the time it ends its season on Labor Day, it should have ferried about 40,000 passengers across the Buffalo River, or twice the size of a capacity crowd at First Niagara Center.
While there is a lot of double counting on the ferry, especially with most people making a round trip, it still means that thousands of people, many bringing their bicycles with them, are using the quick 4-to-6-minute ride to explore the latest treasure on Buffalo’s waterfront, the Outer Harbor.
“I expected it would be busy, but not this busy,” said Hilliman, who operates the ferry along with his wife, Kate. The Hilliman family had the ferry built over the winter in Florida.
Riders are charged $1 apiece for the one-way trip. The ferry operates from noon to 8 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. The ferry, which can hold 49 people or 25 people with their bikes, usually leaves one of the two docks about every 15 minutes.
At Canalside, the dock is alongside the Naval and Military Park Museum. At the Outer Harbor, it docks at the First Buffalo River Marina, where passengers are escorted to Fuhrmann Boulevard, providing easy access to bike trails or walks to the Buffalo Main Lighthouse, Wilkeson Pointe and the Times Beach Nature Preserve.
“I feel that this service has opened up the waterfront,” Hilliman said. “People are used to just the Inner Harbor being the waterfront. Now people are starting to realize that the waterfront includes the Outer Harbor as well.”
The first riders of the day Tuesday, Mary and Gary Jerge of Hamburg, got on at the Outer Harbor, offering one often-overlooked asset of the ferry: it provides a cheap, hassle-free way for Southtowns residents to visit Canalside.
“We thought it would be easier to park (at the Outer Harbor) and take the ferry across, instead of coming down over the Skyway and trying to find parking,” Mary Jerge said.
Both Jerges agreed that the roughly 2-mph ride seemed quick, easy and smooth.
“It kind of makes you feel like you’re on vacation, even when you’re close to home,” Gary Jerge said, before quipping, “And it didn’t sink.”
The ferry has attracted serious bicyclists, cruisers, hikers, joggers and sightseers.
Rich Hilliman has been surprised by how popular the ferry has been on cloudy, even rainy, days, although any potentially dangerous weather idles the boat.
On Monday, for example, a foggy, dreary day, the ferry had 143 passengers.
“Our cyclists are typically a hardy bunch,” he said. “When they decide to go on a bike ride, the weather of the day is the weather of the day. They’re out for a ride.”
But Hilliman is proudest of the ferry’s creating an increased awareness of the Outer Harbor, with its previously somewhat hidden treasures, including the lighthouse, built in 1833, and Wilkeson Pointe, a family-friendly waterfront site with clean restrooms.
“There are many passengers we take across who had no idea what’s out there,” he said. “They say, ‘I had no idea. That was great. I have to come back with my friends (or family).’ ”
In their first three-plus weeks on the water, crew members already have heard some interesting reactions, from young and old alike.
One older passenger told boat captain Paul Schneeberger that he remembered, decades ago, taking a ferry ride for a nickel.
“He said it’s still a deal,” Schneeberger said.
And Leah Voit, the boat’s mate, remembered one little boy returning from the nature preserve with a small garden snake that the ferry operators weren’t going to let on board.
“His mother was freaking out,” she recalled. “I said, ‘That snake needs his mommy.’ ”
But the most poignant reactions may have come from older Buffalo-area residents wowed by what’s happened to the waterfront.
As Schneeberger said, “A lot of older people say, ‘I didn’t think I would see this in my lifetime.’ ”