Back From the Brink

The museum developed this specific program from among thousands of potential Finger Lakes stories because of its significance to the region and New York State and, in fact, its relevance across North America. Beginning this June and extending to September, the series will be presented at three venues, the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Keuka College, and the Finger Lakes Wine Center in Ithaca.

One of North America’s most successful conservation efforts, the restoration of the bald eagle, began in the Finger Lakes at Hemlock Lake. In 1965, the last known pair of bald eagles in New York State attempted to nest at the south end of the lake. Although they were not successful, the same bald eagles would later become the pioneers of a 50-year groundbreaking wildlife management effort.In July 2010 after more than a century of persistent community efforts, this very special place, home to the pioneering bald eagles, was permanently protected. A landmark conservation agreement was signed, creating the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest. The agreement between the City of Rochester and New York State not only protected the “two jewels” of the Finger Lakes, but also protected nearly 7,000 acres of undeveloped land in the watersheds. “This was without a doubt, the most important land acquisition project the state has undertaken outside of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks in more than a generation,” proclaimed Pete Grannis, then-commissioner of the New York State Depart-ment of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC).

The first presentation in the series, “From the Brink of Extinction: The Bald Eagles of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes” begins with the story of amateur naturalist and utility lineman, Tom Rauber, who in 1965 discovered the bald eagle nest on Hemlock Lake. He spent the next 27 years, secretly at first, observing and photographing the eagles. In the mid-1970s, he was introduced to Mike Allen, a new wildlife technician with the NYS DEC. Mike grew up in the Finger Lakes and was one of the first graduates of the conservation program offered at the Community College of the Finger Lakes in Canandaigua. He would later become one of the state’s foremost bald eagle experts.

With images and anecdotes, Allen will tell of the innovative and groundbreaking bald eagle restoration efforts that occurred at Hemlock Lake. A magnificent rehabilitated bald eagle will accompany Allen to help tell the story.

Today, the once-endangered bald eagle population has grown from the lone nesting pair on Hemlock Lake to more than 40 nesting territories in Central New York, well over 200 territories in New York State, and, amazingly, more than 10,000 known nesting pairs across the lower 48 states.

The bald eagle, the icon of the Finger Lakes Museum, is a sentinel or indicator species, meaning that it is sensitive to the living conditions in a particular habitat. That they initially chose and continue to nest in the Hemlock-Canadice ecosystem is testimony to the area’s pristine environment.

Part Two of the series will take us back over 150 years to help us understand how this pristine environment evolved. “Blue Blood to Blue Water: From Cottages, Hotels and Steamboats to Drinking Water for Rochester” will be presented by Lima Town historian Douglas Morgan. Antique photographs taken from 1875 to 1945 will be featured as he tells the tales of early cottage life and the people who came to both Canadice and Hemlock Lakes for recreation and entertainment.

Back then, Canadice was known as the local lake, while Hemlock was called the blue blood lake and was the site for summer homes of wealthy Rochester-ians. At its peak in the early 1890s, five hotels thrived on Hemlock Lake, and steamboats ferried residents and tourists up and down the lake. Today there is little evidence of those grand old days.

In the mid 1800s a deadly water-born cholera outbreak ravaged the City of Rochester. Unable to eradicate the disease from its cisterns and wells, the city looked south to Hemlock and Canadice Lakes for clean and reliable water. Morgan will explain the 135 year history of Rochester’s use of the lakes for its water supply and why the lakes started going wild again for the sake of drinking water.

“Lakes Go Wild,” third in the series, continues the story into the 20th century, which led to the permanent protection of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes. Jim Howe, executive director of the Central New York Chapter of the Nature Conservancy; Don Root, the Hemlock-Canadice Watershed Conservationist for the past 30 years; Steve Lewandowski of the Coalition for Hemlock and Canadice Lakes; and Paul D’Amato, Regional Director for NYS DEC Region 8 were leading activists in this saga and will present this program. They will explain the beginnings of watershed protection that started in the 1890s and tell of the trials and tribulations that eventually culminated with the creation of the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest in 2010.

Their chapter begins when another new hotel and resort was proposed on Hemlock Lake in the 1890s. The planned development prompted the City of Rochester to begin purchasing properties in the watershed to protect its water supply. By 1950, nearly 7,000 acres including all shoreline property and much of the surrounding hillsides were acquired. Hotels and cottages were removed, agricultural land was reforested and development was prohibited.

With the advent of higher federal water quality standards in the 1980s, Rochester was required to build a water treatment plant. Fearing that the city no longer needed to protect its lands with the treatment plant in operation, concerned citizens speculated that the valuable lands would be sold to developers. When some city lawmakers openly discussed the potential sale of the land, a new coalition to preserve both the lakes and the surrounding lands was born.

After a century of dramatic efforts involving local communities, the Nature Conservancy, the Finger Lakes Land Trust, NYS DEC and the City of Rochester, Hemlock and Canadice Lakes are now and will remain “two jewels,” wild and undeveloped. Because of the landmark conservation agreement that created the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest, these lakes will offer visitors, now and for generations to come, a glimpse of the past when all of the Finger Lakes were wild.

Today it’s unimaginable that any of our developed Finger Lakes would go the way of Hemlock and Canadice Lakes, reverting from thriving recreational destinations to forested preserves. However, history may repeat itself in other ways. Not unlike the water-born cholera epidemic that occurred in Rochester in the 1800s, other forces could pose serious risks to the treasured water resources of the Finger Lakes, such as careless and unregulated land development, natural gas drilling, landfills and other pressures. The remarkable history of public vision and collective community action to protect and preserve Hemlock and Canadice Lakes will ideally teach a valuable lesson.

The mission of the Finger Lakes Museum is to document and interpret the very special stories of places like Hemlock and Canadice Lakes, so we may understand our past, be fascinated with the present and celebrate and protect the wonderful Finger Lakes for generations to come.


by Bill Banaszewski and Michele Howland Banaszewski