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May 27, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

In a county where locals call themselves grizzled pioneers if their residency predates Disneyland, the Beek family is something of a marvel. Members have been running the same business, in the same place, every day for nearly 70 years.

In Orange County, that's tantamount to being a witness to the War of the Roses, but if there is such a thing as a self-perpetuating institution, the Beeks have it.

They run the Balboa Island Ferry, and have since 1919. That may not be a record for longevity in business, but it certainly shows that the family knows how to hold a job.

"I have a very fond feeling" for the ferry, said Seymour Beek, the president of the corporation that operates it. "It was an adjunct to my life and I've always taken pride in it. We always enjoyed operating it and now it's sort of a community institution. And now, of course, it's unique because there are hardly any ferryboats in California at all."

To residents of Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula, there has always been a ferry, for a boat has made the crossing between the two points since the days when both the island and the peninsula were nothing more than nondescript sand spits. And, not coincidentally, there has nearly always been a Beek living on the island, for if there was one man who can be said to have had the most influence on the development of Balboa Island, it was Seymour's father, Joe Beek.

When Joe Beek rode for the first time to Newport Beach on the Pacific Electric line for a picnic in 1907, there was no ferry to take him to the soggy mud flat that was Balboa Island. An electrical engineering student at Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena (now Caltech), Beek saw an opportunity to develop the island with vacation homes. Two years later, after Beek had begun his development venture, the first ferry service began when W.S. Collins was awarded a city permit.

The first ferry had almost as puny a beginning as the island development. The vessel was nothing more than a rowboat with a tiny outboard engine. Called the Teal, it was captained by a large, rough-hewn man named John Watts, who sang spirituals as he made his crossings.

Other operators took over from Collins during the next 10 years, none of them providing satisfactory service, at least in the opinion of the little island community. In 1915, all 26 residents of the island traveled by boat to a meeting of the Newport Beach city trustees and demanded that an islander be made responsible for ferry operations. Joe Beek, who had become the secretary of the state Senate two years before, was awarded the contract and given a $50-per-month subsidy by the city.

Beek's first small boat, called the Ark, carried only a handful of passengers, but the previous fare of a dime was reduced to a nickel. The Ark was followed by the Islander, which was not much more than the Ark with a top. In 1920, the 22-foot Fat Fairy began making the crossing, pushing an auto barge. The 32-foot Joker appeared in 1922. It could carry two cars and was fitted with propellers and rudders at each end to enable the boat to travel back and forth without turning around.

A one-car ferry, the Square Deal, was launched in 1924, but it was the 56-foot Commodore, which began service in 1930, that foreshadowed the boats in use today. The Commodore could carry three cars and 100 passengers.

The three 64-foot boats that make the crossing from Agate Avenue on the island and Palm Street on the peninsula today--the Admiral, the Commodore and the Captain--were built in the mid-1950s by islander Evan Jones, who worked for Joe Beek from the early 1930s until his retirement in 1968 (Jones' grandson is a ferry pilot today.). The boats have been pummelled by heavy weather, rammed by errant yachts, missed by drunken motorists, have served as background for an Abbott and Costello movie, and have even hosted a handful of weddings.

"They're good boats," Seymour Beek said. "They were built after we had a lot of ferry boat experience. They've endured a lot over the years."

But if the boats are durable, the Beek family is nearly ironclad. As Balboa Island and nearby areas began to grow and develop, Joe Beek became a kind of neighborhood patriarch. He became the commodore of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club and was appointed the city's first harbor master. He directed the Festival of Lights boat parade from 1921 to 1929. He continued to develop the Beacon Bay neighborhood of Newport Beach, as well as properties in Sacramento. He continued as secretary of the state Senate for more than 50 years. He died in 1968.

Beek's wife, Carroll, who died in 1981, became active in nearly 20 community organizations and was best known as an ardent environmentalist and government watchdog. She may be best remembered, however, for founding the Balboa Island Yacht Club, a small-boat sailing club specifically for children, which continues to meet regularly in front of the Beek home on the island across the bay from the Balboa Pavilion.

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