LEWISTON, Maine — Stephen Longley, who achieved notoriety for his paddling across the Kennebec River rather than his Lewiston family’s politics, died Saturday. He was 55.
“He was the most gentle person I ever knew,” his sister, former state Sen. Susan Longley, said Tuesday. He was quiet, independent and found immense peace in nature.
And for 20 years — from 1987 until 2007 — he helped an estimated 19,000 Appalachian Trail hikers cross the Kennebec River.
He became known simply as “The Ferryman.”
“He got more visibility from what he did on the river than anything the rest of us did,” his brother, former Congressman James Longley Jr., said. “He was known from Maine to Georgia.”
On Tuesday, websites devoted to hiking the Appalachian Trail lit up with talk of The Ferryman and his death. Few mentioned his family, including his brother James Jr., his sister Susan or their father, the late Maine Gov. James Longley.
Rather, they talked about the guy who gave them rides across the river or brought ice to swollen limbs.
His death came as a shock.
He seemed fit. Though he had retired from his ferry work, he stayed active working on construction jobs and spent time outdoors. He visited Katahdin in the weeks before he died and his old workplace — the river crossing in Caratunk where he ferried so many people — only the day before, Susan Longley said.
He also shoveled the heavy, wet snow off the roof of his home in Solon.
“He was tired and went to bed early,” James Longley Jr. said.
Stephen died during the night.
“He went to sleep and woke up in heaven,” his sister said.
Stephen was born in Lewiston and raised outdoors.
His father raised him and the whole family to be independent, said James Longley Jr., who remembered a canoe trip along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway with Stephen and his father from the mid-1960s. Stephen was about 9 years old.
“I never saw him so happy,” said James, who is seven years older. “He loved the outdoors.”
Stephen applied the family’s independence to his work on the river, where he was contracted to get hikers across the sometimes tumultuous Kennebec River.
“I may not be a governor or a senator, but I’ll be the best ferryman I can be,” he told Down East Magazine in a 2001 interview.
He did lend a hand to some of his family’s campaigns, though.
Susan Longley recalled getting her brother’s heartfelt, if terse, support.
“When I was running for Congress, he would report to the campaign office every single day,” she said. “They would give him a telephone list and he would go down it.
“He would say this wonderful, wonderful line. ‘Hello. My name is Steve. I am Sue Longley’s brother. She’s a good person and I’m asking you to vote for her,'” she recalled.
Then, he’d hang up.
At the time of his death, Stephen was working several construction jobs. He was also spending time with his longtime partner, Susan Wilber.
“I wish they had more time together,” Susan Longley said.
When he accepted the Maine and New England Appalachian Trail Clubs’ 2007 Partner of the Year award, Stephen talked about the way nature changed him.
Every day on the river, he said prayers: The Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary and Vespers.
“The spirituality of the river became the spirit of me,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Add to this special place all the hikers from every ‘walk’ of life and no one could have been as blessed.”
Susan Longley believes that perhaps he was the wisest person in the family.
“We should all be so smart as to follow our hearts,” she said.