Irondequoit Bay: One Man’s Story

In my preteen years, I explored the Irondequoit and Webster shorelines and got to know both sides pretty well. They were wilder places then, teeming with wildlife and not heavily developed or populated like they are today. – John Adamski
Story and photos by John Adamski

I grew up near Sea Breeze, where Irondequoit Bay empties into Lake Ontario. Shaped much like a small Finger Lake, the bay is 4 miles long, a half-mile across and more than 70 feet deep. But unlike any of the Finger Lakes, it has a number of secluded coves, back bays and several islands. It’s surrounded in places by steep sandy slopes, fractured here and there by wooded ravines, carved by tributary streams that have been feeding the bay for a hundred centuries. Its primary inlet is Irondequoit Creek, which originates in West Bloomfield in Ontario County and runs northward into Victor and through the Monroe County towns of  Mendon, Pittsford and Perinton before flowing into the south end of the bay in Penfield. What we know as Irondequoit Bay today was once the mouth of the Genesee River before glacial recession rearranged the landscape.

In my preteen years, I explored the Irondequoit and Webster shorelines and got to know both sides pretty well. They were wilder places then, teeming with wildlife, not heavily developed or populated, and there was no Route 104/Irondequoit Bay Bridge spanning the middle of the bay. An old-timer gave me an abandoned 12-foot flat-bottomed wooden rowboat and after some scraping, sanding, caulking and painting, I managed to stop it from leaking.

With an old pair of mismatched oars, I spent many a summer day rowing around the bay, sort of Huck Finn style, fishing or just exploring intriguing places like Big and Little Massaug Coves, Devil’s Cove and Birds & Worms where a sportsmen’s lodge named for the grouse hunters and fishermen who stayed there, once stood. Other resorts on the bay dated back to the mid-1800s and included the Newport House, Glen Haven, Bay View and Point Pleasant hotels, whose guests were ferried from Sea Breeze first by steamboat and later by gasoline motor launch. Several have long since burned down but the Newport House was demolished a dozen years ago in favor of a bayside condominium project – after being extensively rebuilt at great expense a dozen years prior. Sea Breeze Amusement Park, founded in 1900, sits on a hillside at the north end of the bay on the Irondequoit side and offers fun and an outstanding view of Lake Ontario.

I christened my vessel the “Skum Skimmer,” for reasons that I will explain, and emblazoned the moniker in silver paint on both sides of its dark green hull. I kept it overturned and hidden among the reeds and overgrown willows behind Hot Dog Row in Sea Breeze, where the bay water came up to the restaurant parking lots, making it easy to get to by bike. If my parents had only known. There were a half-dozen hot dog stands there in those days and the state Marine Park and Route 590, now called Sea Breeze Drive, didn’t exist yet.

The bay’s outlet into Lake Ontario was constricted by two low parallel bridges – one a 130-foot single-track railway span built in the late 1800s – and the other a shorter two-lane highway bridge that linked Culver Road in Irondequoit to Lake Road in Webster. The highway was built alongside the railroad grade in the early 1900s when automobiles started gaining popularity. As I recall, most of the time the shallow channel flowing beneath those bridges wasn’t much more than 50 feet wide.

Historically, Irondequoit Bay’s natural outlet into Lake Ontario had been a half-mile expanse of open water, reaching from Sea Breeze in Irondequoit to Oklahoma Beach in Webster, and hyphenated by a string of sandbars. But in the mid-1870s, when tracks for the Hojack Line were laid along the lakeshore from Red Creek to Charlotte, that half-mile stretch was filled in with a manmade isthmus built on top of the sandbars so trains could cross a narrower channel on a short bridge. It turned out to be a blunder that effectively choked off the bay’s natural outflow. When Lake Road was built, the isthmus was widened and the outlet was narrowed even more. Soon squatters began building seasonal cottages on both sides of the highway and tracks; many of which eventually evolved into year-round homes. Today those properties, along with several waterfront restaurants and a marina, are properly deeded.

Plugging up the outlet had cumulative adverse effects on the bay. Unable to naturally cleanse itself over the course of a century, its water quality gradually deteriorated and algae, sediments, contaminants and pollution – which often included raw sewage and road salt – accumulated in its once-pristine waters. The effects of eutrophication caused turbidity that turned the water so green during the summer that it resembled pea soup. Even the rooster tails from passing motorboats were green; hence my boat’s name, the Skum Skimmer.

I was not inclined to swim in the bay, preferring the clearer water and sandy beach on the lake side of the tracks instead. But I did like to fish there. On gusty summer days when whitecaps rolled in on the lake, the sheltered bay waters remained calm and safe enough for my small boat. I caught bullheads, perch, sunfish, and bass along with a few northern pike and the occasional prehistoric-looking longnose gar. Despite the turbid water conditions, fishing was pretty good.

In 1978, the Hojack Line was abandoned, the tracks were taken up, and the railway bridge removed. Only the highway bridge remained. But in 1985, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demolished that bridge as well, as part of a plan to open Irondequoit Bay to marine traffic from Lake Ontario. The project included dredging a wider and deeper navigation channel and constructing two rubble-stone jetties that extend more than a quarter-mile out into the lake to prevent the channel from filling in with lake sediment. It was all part of a combined federal, state, county, and three-town initiative to establish a safe harbor and encourage economic development of the bay.

After the Depression, development around the bay did not boom again until it was reopened to Lake Ontario in 1986. Unrestricted boat travel between the lake and the bay stimulated new interest and started a rush for shoreline development. Several new marinas with hundreds of boat slips soon appeared. The watery turn-of-the-century summertime playground, which had long ago lost its luster, was once again a hotbed of activity.

The sedimentation on the bottom of Irondequoit Bay consisted mostly of high levels of phosphorous, which accumulated over decades and promoted the algae growth that turned the water green. In 1986, Monroe County and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) teamed up to implement a plan to seal off that bottom sediment by applying a layer of aluminum sulfate, or alum, which was methodically spread by boat. The treatments reduced the phosphorous levels by up to 75 percent almost immediately. In 1993, a program to deliver large-scale oxygen supplementation to some deep water areas of the bay was executed to further reduce phosphorous levels. Today, five solar-powered diffusers deliver oxygen to the deepest parts of the bay during the summer months.

The Irondequoit/Webster highway connection remained severed for 12 years until the controversial Irondequoit Bay Outlet Bridge was built; controversial because the swing bridge pits commuters against boaters for seven months of the year while it remains permanently open to boat traffic only and the highway remains seasonally closed. Studies are underway to devise a better solution, but so far none has surfaced.

In 1986, after a 30-year absence, I returned to the waters of my youth aboard a new 30-foot cruiser, equipped with my U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license and plans to operate a charter fishing service from one of the marinas on the bay. By then, the DEC had established a world-class Lake Ontario trout and salmon sport fishery and I wanted in on the action. I bought my teenaged kids a 14-foot aluminum boat and 4hp outboard motor, which we kept near my slip. My daughter wasn’t interested but my son left his own wake in the bay by fishing and exploring the same places that I did as a kid – without having to row.

Irondequoit Bay will never be restored to its historic pristine condition, but its water quality has certainly improved since my days aboard the Skum Skimmer.

John has been a published writer/photographer for 40 years and is a 4-time award-winning member of New York State Outdoor Writers Association. Two of those awards were for these "Life in the Finger Lakes" articles: Plight of the White Deer and From the Brink of Extinction.

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