Two hundred years ago, African American Pyrrhus Concer was born into slavery in Southampton. A celebrated East End resident, his most tangible achievement—launching the Agawam Ferry—will sail again this summer.
Born as a slave to the Pelletreau family, Concer was freed when he turned 18 years old. He soon realized his love for the sea and became a whaler based out of Sag Harbor. Concer was aboard the first American ship to sail into Tokyo. Travelling the world in search of sperm whales, the ship, the Manhattan, headed into Tokyo Harbor after rescuing shipwrecked Japanese sailors. The Manhattan was one of the first American vessels to sail into the Japanese port, making Concer one of the first Americans—and black men—to see Japan, as the nation was restricted to foreigners at the time.
In the mid 1850s, Concer returned to Southampton, taking up residence in a home across from Lake Agawam, where he ferried passengers from the village to the beach. The trip across Lake Agawam cost 10 cents for adults and 5 cents for kids. He ran the ferry for nearly 50 years until his death in 1897, and the ferry service died with him.
Beginning July 23, the Agawam Ferry, newly remodeled, will once again take beachgoers from the village to Gin Lane. Service will run from 1–7 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, taking passengers between Agawam Park and Gin Lane. The boat, which is being refurbished at Strong’s Marina on North Sea Road, will have a new canvas awning and Pyrrhus Concer’s name on the back. There will be a special dock and gazebo built at both ends of Lake Agawam for operation. The fee will likely be around $5 per person.
The ferry will leave from the north end of the lake at Agawam Park, then motor almost a mile to the parking lot at the south end of the lake. From there, passengers can cross Gin Lane and go to Gin Beach. Coopers Beach, with bathrooms, lifeguards, snack bars and showers is three-quarters of a mile away. “It’s an interesting aspect of our local history that has been lost a little bit,” co-founder Nick Palumbo says. “It’s a way to remind people that Southampton was and is a seafaring town.”
Manning the ferry requires the captain to be accredited as a full U.S. Coast Guard Boat Captain. Palumbo, a Navy veteran and local businessman, and Mark Parashowner of Sip ’N Soda approached Joshua Belury, a sailing teacher and founder of the local Sea Scouts, regarding training people to run the ferry. (The Sea Scouts is a maritime division of the Boys Scouts of America’s Venturing Program.)
“It’s not like a carnival ride,” Belury says. “It is really a sea captain’s job, so I provided the training. After I had enough people in the program…I organized our Unit to receive classroom training with the US Power Squadron, starting in March 2013.” Among other tests, the certification requires 90 days on the water.
“It’s a pretty big deal for all concerned and a lot of hoops to jump through for these operators,” says Belury. “Anything can happen on the water, whether it’s a lake, a bay or the ocean, so captains have to be trained and prepared.” Out of an initial group of 20, four people—two adults and two teenagers—made the cut. “Besides all the tests and requirements, what it really takes for a captain is to be open-minded and humble,” Belury says.
The successful launch of the long-anticipated Agawam ferry will come just after the Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation has ruled to demolish the Southampton house where Concer lived, despite pleas from history buffs. Though Concer was memorialized with a plaque near the water’s edge a number of years ago, his legacy will now live on as a celebration of the village’s maritime history.
For more information, visit agawamferry.org.