• Bonnie Hawk Barney

Part 1: Our Lady Keuka

Acquaintance with the Finger Lakes invariably spawns affection. During the American Revolution, General Sullivan spread the misery and destruction of his punitive warfare through the region, but not without reports of the blue lakes in deep valleys, the hilltop pines tall enough for a ship’s mast, Indian clearings where apple and peach trees were breaking down from weight of fruit. Writing fondly of the beauty here, Arch Merrill described Keuka as the "lady" of the lot.

While this "lady" stemmed from the same geologic changes which produced Seneca, Cayuga, and Canandaigua, Nature made her different. The downgrade glacial erosion of her south-flowing peneplain left the mark of two merging valleys, her "Y" shape. The dividing promontory, Bluff Point, rises seven hundred feet from the lake surface, and affords a view of dozens of lakes in seven counties, and Keuka’s sixty-mile shoreline.

To the Seneca Indians she was "canoe landing," and "crooked lake," their fishing paradise. The famous Indian philosopher, Otetiani, better known as Red Jacket, lived near Branchport, at the extremity of the western arm. Jemima Wilkinson, the Universal Friend, formed the first settlement in Genesee country here with her religious cult. At the end of the eastern arm the Pennsylvania Dutch and New England Yankees settled their sectional squabbles by changing the name of their community from Unionville to Penn Yan. From there to Hammondsport, at the south end, there was steamboat traffic rivaling any in the state, fostered not a little by Hammondsport’s wine industry, created in 1861.

In the setting of beauty and idyllity, mansions were constructed which complimented the surroundings: in 1833 Abraham Wagener, then first president of Penn Yan, built his mansion atop "Ogoyago," the promontory. It was constructed of stone at a cost of $6,000. A spring of clear cool water rose at this point from unknown depths. In 1838 John Nicholas Rose of Geneva built his Esperanza, Hope, overlooking the west branch. The huge hand-hewn beams of white pine were cut on the property; the finishing was Greek Revival. The Aisle of Pines, at Wayne, began her vigil overlooking the lake in 1860. On the water the most complete private yacht in the state, the sixty-five foot "Mascot," plied the west branch for the pleasure of George Weaver, Esq., of Albany.

The lovely lady Keuka, a century ago, was courting many lovers. The increasing attention paid her had fostered ferries, cargo steamers, private yachts, and passenger steamers. In 1872 the new ship "Yates" was under construction at the foot of Liberty Street in Penn Yan, soon to join the Steuben II (formerly the George R. Youngs) and the Keuka II plying the waters. The Bath and Hammondsport Railroad was being constructed, to open in 1874, relieving the burden of cargo shipping through a crumbling "Crooked Canal" from Penn Yan to Dresden. The summer of 1872 had been a dry one, and the normal draught of 4 feet in the canal had been reduced to 2 feet clearance over the old mitre-sill of the first of her 27 locks. By 1875 the canal would realize $126.09 in tolls against $7,710.15 in necessary repairs.

In Penn Yan in 1872 fifteen interested sailors had joined themselves as the Keuka Yacht Club, paying $1.00 initiation fee and $.50 annual dues, then voting in 34 additional honorary members. Contests were being held for a Championship Cup, purchased for $43.00 plus $7.00 for engraving, among ten boats handicapped for their size, ranging from 13 feet to 20 feet in length. Minutes of those early meetings, recorded by Charles Elmendorf, secretary, (or a secretary pro-tem when proceedings lasted later than Mr. Elmendorf’s hour of customary retirement), are still extant.

Photo from 1883. In the foreground is Dido, skippered by W.H. Whitfield, TOM (21) was skippered by TF Tuthill, and the cat boat Wild Rose was skippered by James Meade.

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