Grand Island-Tonawanda ferry service is a blast from the past

Grand Island-Tonawanda ferry service is a blast from the past

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A ferry to carry pedestrians and bicyclists between Grand Island and the City of Tonawanda will launch in early August, the first such service in 80 years to offer passengers a leisurely way to cross the upper Niagara River there.

"We will be like the Uber on the water," said Niagara River Cruises owner and boat captain Robin Hoch.

The $15 round-trip ferry service will run only on Sundays, beginning Aug. 6 and continuing through Sept. 10, providing travelers a way, at least one day a week, to avoid the traffic jams on the Grand Island bridge.

The 42-foot Queen of Peace ferry will leave Grand Island near the old ferry landing at the River Oaks Marina and dock in the City of Tonawanda across from the Long Homestead Historical Museum at the nexus of the Niagara River and Erie Canal. That's close to shopping across the Main Street bridge on Webster Street in the City of North Tonawanda and a short bike ride to the Rails to Trails path.

The boat can carry up to 45 passengers.

Tickets must be reserved online in advance. Reservation services will begin on July 21 and times will be posted.

Before the north and south Grand Island bridges opened in 1935, ferries or private boats were the only way to get from Grand Island to the mainland. Pedestrians, horses and buggies and eventually cars traveled on open scows that were towed by tugboats, although Jacob Hensler offered a ferry powered by horses on a treadmill, Hoch said.

Those ferries were expensive, according to the Grand Island Historical Society. At a time when a loaf of bread cost 10 cents, a round-trip ride on the ferry in the 1930s cost 50 cents for cars and 20 cents for pedestrians. A team of horses pulling a load of hay was $1 and heavier trucks were charged more. Schoolchildren regularly crossed the bridge to attend Tonawanda High School, because the island had only an elementary school. Freezing weather could  mean that no one could cross to sell or receive goods – or get to school.

Fast-forward to 2017, and residents of Grand Island pay less than the cost of a loaf of 1930s bread – nine cents – in tolls to cross the bridge, while non-residents who are not EZ Pass holders pay $1, the 1930s "team of horses loaded with hay" rate.

Shirley Luther, a Grand Island bridge history buff, said her uncle took the ferry to go to high school. Her grandfather, Henry W. Long, was supervisor of Grand Island from 1918 to 1924 and was one of those who went to Washington, D.C., in 1898 to fight for construction of the bridge.

Luther, 93, said by the time she began high school in 1938, the ferries had closed and she was riding the schoolbus over the new bridge to Tonawanda High School.

"Back then you just stayed on the island," said Luther, a member of  the Grand Island Historical Society. "One time in 1933, for two or three days, the river froze over and no boats or anything could get through from either end of the island."

She remembers going over on the ferry with her family in what would now be an antique car with running boards, to visit her grandmother who lived in Tonawanda and to shop.

Before the bridge was built, there were 630 residents on the island. Now there are more than 20,000.

"People eventually discovered Grand Island," laughed Luther. "I just love it here. I wouldn't live anywhere else."

Niagara River Cruses wants people to slow down again and discover the Niagara River, as it once was, Hoch said.

"It's neat that it comes full circle," said Hoch. "The upper Niagara River is stunning, as well as the historically designated Erie Canal. Why not showcase it?"

"It's a totally different ride," Hoch said of the ferry.

She said bicyclists and hikers on the Rails to Trails, which stretches from Buffalo to Tonawanda, can take the ferry over to Grand Island, where there are trails. She's hoping expanded hiking and biking trails, as well as restaurants and shopping in Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, will encourage more people to ride the ferry.

She said this season the ferry will operate for just six weeks to see if there is a demand. If it proves popular, Niagara River Cruises would like to expand the offerings, possibly adding a dedicated vessel. The Queen of Peace also is used for history tours and special events.

Tonawanda Mayor Rick Davis said he's looking forward to the return of ferry service.

"This is an experiment we are hoping to continue to offer during the nicer months," said Davis. He said there's been a lot of interest in the service from biking organizations.

"Right now the only way bikers can get their bike off the island is to put it on their car or ride across the bridge. It's narrow and up high – even good bicyclists don't like to do that," said Charlie Rech, administrative assistant to the mayor. "This is another option and everyone seems very excited."

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