100 years ago, sleek, paddle-wheeled steamers plied the pristine waters of the Finger Lakes carrying people and goods from point to point, until modern roads and automobiles made the same trips possible in a fraction of the time.
No one is alive today who remembers the Otetiana, the Onondaga, and the Seneca, among others. Those boats brought excitement and charm to many a Sunday afternoon excursion on Seneca Lake, the deepest and second-longest of the 11 Finger Lakes.
Today, though, the paddle-wheel tradition is being carried on daily during the summer by Captain Bill’s, a family run company headquartered in Watkins Glen, at the scenic southern end of Seneca Lake. The stars of the show are Captain Bill’s two tour boats – the 49-passenger Stroller IV (yes, there were three previous ones), and the much larger, 270-passenger dining vessel, the Seneca Legacy.
Watkins Glen offers a breathtaking view of Seneca Lake looking north. Captain Bill’s has a front row seat to this beauty, along with its shoreline neighbor, the ultramodern, Florida-inspired Harbor Hotel. Anyone driving through Watkins Glen has probably seen Captain Bill’s ship-themed gift shop right off of Rt. 14. It’s become a tourist destination on its own in an area full of attractions. The newly expanded Corning Museum of Glass is a short drive away and there are 35 member wineries on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail.
For car buffs, Watkins Glen International offers a nostalgic look back at yesteryear. Historic race cars from every era return to the Glen for the Glenora Wine Cellars U.S. Vintage Grand Prix, July 24 to 26. The Grand Prix Festival on September 11 pays tribute to the old course through downtown with “Return to the Streets.” The streets of Watkins Glen will be closed – just like the old days – while cars take laps around the original 6.6 mile course.
The captain’s legacy lives on
In 1963, William, (pronounced Sym-ee-al) purchased an existing sight-seeing company whose Seneca Lake navigation roots date back to 1908. The business expanded in 2010 to include patio concerts and a restaurant with 16-foot fanned ceilings, a wall of windows with a magnificent view of the harbor, and a large, covered, outdoor dining area. Located in a restored old railroad station, now called Seneca Harbor Station, it is, coincidentally, where Bill’s Italian immigrant parents arrived by train in 1910. Salt trains occasionally still rumble along the same tracks that hug the shoreline between the docks and the old station.
Bill Simiele died in 2006, but left a rich legacy. His son Mark, who started out cleaning boats at age 10, now guides the family business. He says his father’s dream lives on every time a passenger steps on board.
“We built the business as father and son, and he allowed me to be a big part of it. It was a great experience,” says Mark. Given that he has six children of his own, four of whom work at the family business, Captain Bill’s could very well be here for a long time.
Mark has his dad’s eye for detail. The boats are always immaculate: every window is cleaned daily so passengers can count on getting the best view possible. Crew members, including the servers, wear nautical-themed white uniforms.
“We tell visitors to leave their troubles at the dock. Sit back and enjoy yesteryear,” says Mark. “Once you depart on one of our cruises, you are instantly in another world.”
The company’s marketing manager, Bill Darrow, a skipper in his own right, adds, “Sometimes passengers even fall asleep. We take that as a compliment.”
Make it a short nap as there are many wonderful things to see on the trip, like majestic, 165-foot Hector Falls on the east side of Seneca Lake, and the Seneca Indian wall art. Stories abound that non-Native Americans actually painted the rocks on the eastern face cliff. The giveaway? Instead of a traditional Seneca longhouse, one image depicts a teepee, a dwelling associated with the Plains Indians.
About the boats
The 50-foot mahogany Stroller IV was built in Summerville, near the Port of Rochester, in 1934. This grand old lady of the lake is entering her 81st year but shows few signs of old age. The Stroller IV embarks on 11 50-minute cruises each day, every hour on the hour starting at 10 a.m. The last one departs at 8 p.m. and lucky passengers get to enjoy a Seneca Lake sunset.
The Simieles brought the Legacy to Seneca Lake in 2006 from Cape Cod, where it served as a ferry for about 40 years between Hyannis Port and the posh summer resorts of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Simiele says he sometimes hears from visitors who took the Seneca Legacy when it ferried people from the mainland.
The Seneca Legacy is casual elegance. It offers full-service, full-course seated dinners complete with white linens and tablecloths. You can expect to find a place card with your name announcing your table if you’ve made reservations ahead of time – how most of the bookings happen for the Seneca Legacy.
Captain Bill’s also hosts wedding cruises, receptions, and just-married couples who just want to have a picture taken in what many would regard as one of the most romantic spots on the lake. Wedding cruises aboard the Seneca Legacy are available from May through October.
“I’ve seen a bunch of down-on-one-knee proposals on board,” says Darrow. “One time, I was asked to participate by the groom-to-be. I had to request that the bride-to-be come forward to where the band was playing. Meanwhile, the groom was around the corner on the bow. When she came forward, the groom ran to where we were standing, dropped to one knee and proposed. She was very surprised and didn’t respond. I was holding the microphone so everyone on the ship could hear. I had to whisper in her ear that not only was her guy waiting, so was everyone else onboard! The entire ship was on pins and needles. Then a big smile came over her face and she said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes!’ It was a wonderful moment.”
Find a Cruise that Fits Your Mood
Two-hour lunch cruises on the Seneca Legacy are $36.99. Three-hour, full-course dinner cruises range from $54.99 to $56.99 plus tax. Both feature themed live music. There’s even a teen cruise on Mondays from 7 to 10 p.m. The cost is $17 per person. One-hour sightseeing cruises aboard the Stroller IV are $16 for adults and $7 for children. Captain Bill’s promises a great variety of dining styles aboard the Legacy from fun, upbeat entertainment cruises to relaxing and romantic full-service seated dining.
by Ray Levato
Ray is a retired news reporter/anchor at WHEC-TV Ch. 10 in Rochester.