There may not be a sea-faring vessel anywhere in the world as appropriately named as the Seneca Legacy. And if there is, chances are it doesn’t have a history as rich as the 100-ton, 110-foot-long, steel boat that serves as the centerpiece of Captain Bill’s Seneca Lake Cruises.
The ship was named in a local contest when it first sailed into Seneca Lake in 2006. The name primarily honors the legacy of the late William Simiele, the original Captain Bill. But it also pays homage to the Captain’s family, with roots in Italy, boating and tourism in the Finger Lakes, the Erie Canal, even the celebrated nautical history of Cape Cod.
Built in 1963 to be used as a 460-passenger ferry between Hyannis Port, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard, the ship—known then as the Cross Rip—was purchased in 2006 by Mark Simiele, second-generation president of Captain Bill’s. It was put into service in 2007 and this summer is celebrating its tenth anniversary as the Seneca Legacy, specializing in lunch and dinner cruises and special events such as weddings, rehearsals, corporate outings, and the like.
That’s the short of it. The long of it goes back to the early 1900s when two couples from Italy—Philip and Rose Simiele and Dominick and Theresa Roccisano—got off the train in Watkins Glen, ready to start a new life in America. Two of their children, William Simiele and Julia Roccisano, would marry, and William would end up developing the very lakefront location where that train station once stood.
First, though, he was a successful liquor salesman in Rochester until 1963 when the Palmer brothers decided to put their little company, which included a sightseeing boat, up for sale.
As Mark Simiele tells it, his father and five friends and relatives pooled their resources to buy the business.
“They were all going to keep their full-time jobs and do this as a sideline,” Mark says with a laugh. “Over time, the partners dropped out, realizing they couldn’t do both. It got down to my dad, his brother, and a cousin, and dad said, ‘Either you guys buy me out or I’m going to buy you out because it’s got to be a full-time thing.’”
William bought out the others and named the business Captain Bill’s.
Mark, now fifty-seven, came onboard, as it were, in 1986. After graduating from Oneonta State and then working for five years as a sales rep in Florida, he decided to return home to Watkins Glen and go into business with his dad. His sister Gina also helped the burgeoning company.
“My dad was the best. I learned from him,” Mark says. “Some kids played catch with their dad and built model airplanes. Our project was we built this business together. We were very close, and he allowed me to be a part of the business, he made me feel like a part. I probably wasn’t, but he made me feel like I was.”
The business grew—it now includes the dinner boat; a smaller wooden sightseeing boat, the Stroller; a restaurant for landlubbers, Seneca Harbor Station; a gift shop; and a small marina.
“I had a vision, an idea,” Mark says. “So dad gambled and slowly over the years we evolved from an operation with six employees and a single sightseeing operation to what we have today.”
That means 140 employees, including the crew that sails the Seneca Legacy every day the weather allows from Mother’s Day until deep into the fall. One of those employees is Bill Darrow, who is the company’s marketing director and also fills the role of either captain or first officer on dinner cruises during the summer.
“I’ve been lucky and blessed,” Darrow says. “I think every guy always wants to work on a boat.”
Lucky and blessed, in fact, are two wonderful words to describe the Seneca Legacy’s voyage from its original home in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, to the southern tip of Seneca Lake in 2006.
“The process to get it back here was really a feat,” says Mark, who first lined up a crew that included his father-in-law, a cousin, and two captains, including Captain Bill’s’ Tony Compese.
They encountered the roughest seas on the week-long voyage early as the ship navigated Buzzards Bay, Rhode Island Sound, and Long Island Sound before rounding Manhattan and heading north up the Hudson.
“It was a heavy weather day. It was so rough with nine-foot chops coming into the Sound before they got protected,” Mark says. “My father-in-law said they couldn’t even stand up.”
Later, when the crew and ship reached Albany and prepared to take on the New York State Canal System, special measures had to be undertaken. The ship was too tall to challenge the canal’s low bridges, so it had to be cut down. Literally.
“We had to cut the pilot house off and the top deck off to give it a lower profile,” he continues, adding that those parts of the ship were welded back on when it got to its new home in Schuyler County. The crew also had to purposely take on water in a couple of compartments to sink the bow another two-and-a-half feet because the ship still wasn’t low enough to get under some bridges.
Oh, and there was one more crucial step. “We had to pray that it didn’t rain, because the canal system is very volatile as far as coming up,” Mark recalled. “We had very good fortune because that was the driest spring that I can remember, and we had no increase in water level, otherwise we might have been stuck in Albany for the summer.”
Captain Bill had passed away by then, but his son credits him with looking after their voyage from a crow’s nest somewhere up above.
The ship cleared the lowest bridge in the system in the Cayuga-Seneca Canal “by three inches,” Mark says, and then it was clear sailing on down Seneca Lake to Watkins Glen, where workers and contractors spent the rest of that summer gutting the ship and turning it into the 270-seat dining and entertainment vessel that it is today.
Even though his dad died without getting to see the Seneca Legacy put into service, Mark is sure Captain Bill would have been happy with it.
He also would have been happy that one of the workers helping to get the ship ready for its tenth anniversary season represents the third generation of the Simiele family. Will, named after his grandfather and the oldest son among Mark and Michelle’s six children, is expected to carry on this remarkable and charming legacy.