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The finest five minutes in Newport Beach: Balboa Island Ferry

By DUNCAN FORGEY

Ferry arriving

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Submitted photos

The ferry links Balboa Island to the Peninsula via Newport Harbor

In 1910, a young entrepreneur, W.S. Collins, set his sights on a low ridge of sand known as “Snipe Island.” Collins, like an endless number of Newport Beach developers to follow in the coming century, saw an opportunity. Envisioning an island neighborhood unlike any other, he took the sand bar, overrun by birds, dredged it to size and sold lots to visitors from LA and Riverside. He was the original believer in “build it and they will come.”

Balboa Island was soon a reality. An even younger, Joseph A. Beek, was hired to oversee the building of a bridge to this new island. This set in motion a series of events that helped Balboa Island become one of the most unique lifestyles anywhere in the country. With the help of his family, the Beek legacy lives on, over 100 years later.

1921 archive

An early ferry, 1921

Collins wanted to access other parts of the harbor, so he hired Captain John Watts to pilot the first ferry boat in the harbor. The small boat was named “Teal.” His ferry navigated the bay with a repeating and monotonous “putt, putt” of its little single cylinder engine. Locals heard Watts’ resounding voice, singing “negro ballads,” bouncing across the still and silent bay. Truly a unique reflection in Newport Beach history.  

Frank Vallely also ran a ferry in the early years of Balboa. Taking people from McFaddenʻs Landing, before the pier was built, his route went from todayʻs Bayside Drive to Rocky Point (Corona del Mar) to Abbottʻs Landing (Balboa). Vallely was a fixture on the bay. Local lore says he logged more hours on the harbor than anyone else in those pioneer days of the harbor.

Other ferry operators were M.J. Monnette and the Wilson Brothers. It was the Wilson Brothers that gave up the ferry contract in 1918 allowing Joseph Beek to obtain control. A century later, the Balboa Island Ferry is still in the loving control of Beekʻs offspring. This feat is unheard of in a city where businesses are bought and sold as easily as potatoes in a farmers’ market. 

NHHS student

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Newport Harbor High School graduate, Mark Crutchfield, working the ferry

The experience of riding a Balboa Island Ferry ranks high in Californiaʻs list of “must dos.” San Franciscoʻs “Crookedest Street in the World” (Lombard Street), or Mendocinoʻs Skunk Train have nothing on the “Finest Five Minutes in Newport Beach.”

Even as Newport Beach turns into one of the most sophisticated residential and financial centers in the country, the five-minute ride on Beeks’ ferry boats is a guaranteed relaxant. As much a transport function as a tourist lure, the Beeks’ ferry takes the edge off even the most uptight stockbrokers, real estate investors or 21st century professionals. Riding the grumbling old barges, surrounded by architectural newness morphing in every direction, allows blood pressures to drop and smiles to replace frowns. The ride includes giggling children, photo-snapping visitors, ghosts of early Newport, thoughts of lost love ones and visions of dated romances. Memories flood through your mind, easing the soul and removing the hassles of living in todayʻs complexity. Returning past residents, and there are many, cannot wait to hook up with an old ferry just “one more time” so they can feel like a youngster without a care.

ferry with fun zone

A perfect day aboard the ferry, with the Fun Zone in the background

Previous ferries named the Ark, Islander, Joker and Fat Fairy are part of history, but unknown to most of todayʻs guests. It is the Commodore, the Captain and the Admiral, built in the 1950s, that carry cars, bicycles and people into the 21st century. Showing great reverence to these grand old boats, Marine Law gives the ferry ultimate right of way over all other vessels.

So unique in todayʻs wild and ever-changing world, the Balboa Island Ferry represents a calming steadfastness to the millions who have experienced its magic. Ultimately, these wonderful old bastions of a “by-gone era” represent the famous adage – “If it ainʻt broke, don’t fix it.”

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Duncan Forgey, who made his home here in Newport Beach for many years, now resides in Hawaii. He is a monthly contributor to StuNewsNewport.