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  • Bonnie Hawk Barney

Part 3: Annual regattas at the Ark

Industry, transportation, and social life were riding the crest of a wave in Penn Yan and all points whose focus was Keuka Lake a century ago. Whether these demands drew sailors away, or it was the dissension concerning a fraudulent and wrong judges’ decision awarding the Championship Cup to G. F. Gibson (despite consideration of the fact that he failed to round one of the stakes), the reason in any case a matter of speculation, the last chosen president of Keuka Yacht Club, J. H. Smith, was unable to secure a quorum for a meeting in 1873. He presided over a slight rallying of activity the next year, at which point the minutes end. A call for the annual meeting in 1877, noted in a scrapbook kept by the late H. Allen Wagener, again failed to produce a quorum.


The decade of the 80’s witnessed a more permanent establishment of KYC activity on the lake. With a new slate of officers headed by Commodore O. C. Knapp (recorded in a second "the original minutes of KYC" book July 18, 1880), annual regattas of some size and prestige were held. The first regatta, Friday August 20, 1880, at the Ark in Penn Yan, offered prizes of $25 to $3 for the five winning places. By 1884, for the fifth annual regatta, 20 yachts were registered for 2:00 PM races on Thursdays, July 17, 24, and 3. (Quite a gentlemanly time to race...perhaps they were all doctors?)


In 1882, before the start at the Ark, 2 sloops and 10 cat boats.


The sixth annual regatta, 1885, was expanded to five Thursdays in July and August. A rowing competition was added with prizes ranging from $10 down to $3 for four paces. The purse for the sailing competition was extended to ten places, totaling $109. O. C. Knapp served as Commodore during this time, and William Whitfield, forebear of a later KYC Commodore Robert Whitfield, was secretary.


The location of these regattas, known as the Ark, has served as the base for many of KYC’s races during its hundred-plus years. Just beyond the outskirts of Penn Yan, about midway between Red Jacket Park and the golf course, the Ark is noted on all the hand-sketched maps of old. There are two versions of its naming. Alderman Gleason told that it was a very practical matter, as with the naming of Arkport: formerly a boatyard was established on that location, and from that enterprise the reference to arks remained. William Reed Gordon, in "Keuka Lake Memories," proposes a second story. The Crooked Lake Steamboat Company in 1835 launched the first steamboat to ply Keuka’s waters, The Keuka. She was a tunnel-hull boat, 80 feet overall, constructed at Hammondsport. Her wood-fired boilers turned a paddle wheel between the two hulls and attained an eight knot speed in favorable conditions. The Keuka was unfortunately put out of commission after about a decade’s service by an intoxicated pilot driving her aground near the foot of the lake. She was subsequently towed to Penn Yan and dismantled. The pilot house was purchased by Calvin Carpenter for $25 and used by him as the nucleus for a summer resort. This resort, attracting many generations of young people for picnics and courting, became known as the Ark by the presence of The Keuka’s salvaged pilot house.

The Ark


In any case, the Ark was something of a spa, with its everflowing sulphur water. A rustic booth was built over the gusher, with seats alongside. Many visitors drank the waters for a variety of ills; the fumes carried for a hundred yards downwind.


Also referred to as Bimini Springs, the Ark was a steamboat landing. Prior to 1897, in times of the Penn Yan harbor being iced over, this was their northernmost terminus. With the opening of the Penn Yan-Keuka Park-Branchport Electric Railway in 1897, however, the west side landing was favored for the transportation connections, and the Ark was used only when a signal was raised at the pier.


The Ark reached its peak of popularity around the turn of the century when a dance floor and many stalls for concessions catered to the summer trade. In time the structure over the water disintegrated and the land was sold for the use of a well-built cottage on the premises. Today a large old house with fieldstone fireplaces stands on this location.


Interest in establishing a permanent home for KYC was fostered by William H. Whitfield, known as "Skipper." William’s devotion to sailing stemmed from his boyhood when at 12 he and his younger brother haunted the dock at the Roosevelt summer home on Skaneateles Lake. When Nicholas Roosevelt’s tall-masted yacht, The Julia, sailed in, Captain Freeman let the eager lads sail her to her anchorage, making every possible tack to prolong their pleasure. In return, they were to make all secure, furling sails and placing covers, before rowing ashore.


William arrived in Penn Yan in 1866 with carpetbag and aspirations. Heading west, he was taken by the beauty of Keuka and stopped off. He established the forerunner of the Coach and Equipment Company, offering the first fringe benefits in the area: he reduced the 60 hour work week to 55, with pay for Saturday afternoons off. John N. Willys, when in Penn Yan to sell parts to the shop, warned Whitfield that the automobile might be here to stay, but Skipper doubted this salesman whose vision would produce the Jeep. Another associate, William C. Durant, later founder of General Motors, advised him to go into gas buggies.


More than carriages were built in Whitfield’s shop. During off-season, an original shallow-draught boat of Skipper’s design was annually rebuilt. In communication with originators in Canada and the Midwest, Whitfield swapped designs for an ideal skimming dish hull. A "Paul Bunyan" figure in his shop, Ben Reno, helped with this construction when not fishing for lake trout for local restaurants, raising barns, or building his own design fishing boats. This skimming dish, The Juno, was the largest and fastest sail boat on Keuka. Although Skipper’s design was never reproduced, as was the A-Scow which his western colleagues developed, over 8000 guests signed her log attesting to her success over the years.


The Ark as it appeared in 1873 after extensive remodeling.

Fred U. Swarts (with his family above) owned the Ark in the 1890's. This building lasted until 1904 when it was torn down. In 1910 Clinton Struble acquired the property and changed its name to Bimini Springs for its sulphur spa, but locals retained its former handle, The Ark.

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