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Remember the days? by James F. Leiner

Nyack’s Last Ferry

Robert M. Lee had a dream. All he needed was to find a diesel-driven boat that could operate in nine feet of water, carry passengers and cars—and didn’t cost a quarter of a million dollars. Such a boat was, however, even rarer than a new car in 1942. Until he could find his dream boat he knew people would have to use the Yonkers ferry or drive across the Bear Mountain or George Washington bridges to reach their jobs in Westchester or New York City. Bobby Lee was an optimist, and he was sure with the war on he would be able to find the right boat and folks who wanted to cross the Hudson River from Nyack to catch the trains in Tarrytown would use his ferry service and not have to drive the long way.

In March of 1941, the old Nyack car ferries were taken off the river by the North River Ferry Company because they didn’t pay. At least that was the reason given by David Smith, the last of the Smith brothers who owned the company. When the ferries between Nyack and Tarrytown stopped running a service that had carried on for 101 consecutive years ended.

Along came Robert M. Lee and his dreams in October of 1942. After a trial run of the Dolphin, a boat he rented for a month to see if Nyack-Tarrytown ferry service was really needed, there was never any question in his mind as to the need for a ferry, but to those financial backers who wanted it to be a paying venture, there was a considerable question. Lee’s ferries were launches—passenger boats—and they did not carry cars as did the larger Manadanock, Nyack and Reading ferries that had been operated by North River.

Lee’s first two boats were the Robert M. Jr. and the Fairway. A year later he added the Kathleen and an excursion boat the Sea Cub. His passenger ferries were a hit as Nyackers found them the quickest and most convenient way to reach Nyack and
Tarrytown. I was surprised to learn that one of the Robert Lee’s biggest financial backers and supporters was Nyack’s Superintendent of Schools, Kenneth R. MacCalman. Nyack schools were turning out hundreds of skilled war workers and the Eastern Aircraft Company in Tarrytown was in need of those workers. There had to be a way to bring these two together and a new Nyack Ferry was his answer.

There were other passengers too, hundreds of them in the summer who went across the river just for a ride. Nyack moms would take their children and their sewing and spend the afternoon riding back and forth across the cooler river. Quick to appreciate passengers who enjoyed the beauty of the Hudson, the new company adopted a policy of only charging for a one-way fare and treated them to a free return trip. There were also many soldiers waiting shipment oversees at Camp Shanks who took a young lady from the USO, located on North Broadway, on a moonlight ride on the river for only thirty-five cents each.

By the end of the war, if Mr. Lee had saved a dollar for every passenger his small ferries carried across the Hudson since October of 1942, he would have the price of a new boat as they carried a quarter of a million passengers since the day they started, but Bobby Lee’s dream never materialized. His company never came up with the funds or financial backers to purchase a new car ferry. He did continue his passenger service and his ferries made the three mile trip from Nyack to Tarrytown eighteen times a day starting at 6:20 and ending at 12:15 in the early morning. On weekends the Sea Cub would leave Nyack at 10 in the morning for an all day trip up river to picnic at Indian Point for only $2, and they took a few laps around the “Mothball-Fleet” ships moored off Tomkins Cove.

As the war ended and the fifties started, it seems folks were busy getting their lives back to normal and the lure of the Hudson River trips was lost. With the opening of the Tappan Zee Bridge, ferry and excursion service on the river ended in May of 1956. Bobby M. Lee left Nyack and took his dreams with him.

The Nyack Villager thanks Jim Leiner for help-ing us all ‘Remember the Days .’