Past, Present and Future on the Keuka Outlet Trail

10/18/2019
by Gabrielle L. Wheeler

It is autumn and what better way to enjoy the turn of the season than to take a hike and enjoy the colors and cooler weather? Whether you are looking to get away on a relaxing walk alongside a bubbling stream or are interested in the history of our region, the Keuka Outlet Trail offers something for everyone. Stretching from downtown Penn Yan to Dresden, the Keuka Outlet Trail follows the nearly 7-mile outlet stream that flows from Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake.

Historically Rich

Apparent from its rock formation, the Keuka Outlet has been emptying the waters of Keuka Lake into Seneca Lake for roughly 10,000 years. The first record of human occupancy was in 1788 when members of the religious group led by Jemima Wilkinson, the Society of Universal Friends, settled about a mile south of the outlet. Within a few years, the first mills were set up on the stream.

In 1831, construction on the Crooked Lake Canal was begun in effort to connect Keuka Lake with Dresden and beyond. The canal itself was essentially an economic disaster due to the expensive cost of construction and repairs, though it did allow a boom economy to blossom in Penn Yan. Although its service to the region was important, the canal lost its funding from the state in 1877.

“Within the year several of the mill owners formed a syndicate and bought the right of way” with intention to place a railroad in response to the closing of the canal, wrote author and regional historian Frances Dumas on the trail’s website. The new Falls Brook Railroad followed the canal towpath to allow the movement of the abundant goods produced in Penn Yan and the numerous mills situated on the outlet. The tracks were damaged beyond repair by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and most were removed in 1981 when the Village of Penn Yan purchased the land for the outlet trail.

The Trail Today

Today’s Keuka Outlet Trail more or less follows the old towpath and rail bed and also passes through Lock #17 of the canal. Remains of many old mills and canal locks are still visible from the trail. Within village limits, it is maintained by the Village of Penn Yan. Outside of village limits it is maintained by the Friends of the Keuka Outlet Trail, a non-profit organization that strives to preserve, protect and develop the trail.

“The fall is really a beautiful time of year to enjoy the trail because of the changing of the season and the colors of the leaves,” says Gwen Chamberlain, president of the organization. Rated an easy trail, it is open for use for hiking, running, horseback riding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.

“It’s a great place to find a quiet spot to enjoy a peaceful picnic, bird watch, learn about local history, enjoy wildflowers and the hardwoods that shade the trail, and to just sit and soak in the quiet,” she adds. Between the Little League fields and Main Street in Penn Yan, are three separate playgrounds for children and a skateboarding park, as well as the boat access site. Seven outhouses dot the length of the trail, and a few picnic areas and benches for resting also help make it pleasant to visit the trail.

Throughout the warmer seasons, the Friends of the Outlet Trail host events on the trail to invite visitors to experience that natural history and culture of the region. Events can include bird watching, High Tea and Poetry (an event which raises awareness about the trail), and informational sessions about Jemima Wilkinson, among others. The Keuka Arts Festival, which is put on by the Yates County Arts Center, also takes place annually along the edges of the trail between the boat launch and the Main Street bridge in the village of Penn Yan.

History in the Making

The Keuka Outlet Trail has seen many changes over the years, and improvements continue. “Right now, we’re focused on safety and amenities,” says Chamberlain. Projects include more fencing and railings to keep people safe, informational interpretive signs along the trail, a new pavilion at the Cascade Mills site, Little Libraries along the trail, and two bicycle repair stations.

In addition, Penn Yan is making plans to improve its existing businesses, buildings, and public spaces, thanks to a $10-million grant it received from New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Regarding the trail, Mayor Leigh MacKerchar says, “We’ve got improvements planned all the way from the lake down to the downtown area.”

Among the proposed projects are the addition of bridges to connect the two sides of the outlet, create better access to the marsh, and make trail improvements. (The revitalization project doesn’t apply to the trail outside of the village limits.)

Though 200 years is just a blink of the eye for this ancient stream, history continues to flow forward with changes on the Keuka Outlet Trail. With a little something for everyone, in the autumn, it is a pleasant hike or ride full of the colors of nature and numerous historical points of interest.


Points of Interest Along the Keuka Outlet Trail

Gwen Chamberlain, president of the Friends of the Outlet Trail, suggests these must-see sites along the trail. Starting in Penn Yan and following the stream east towards Dresden, her suggestions include both historically rich sites and those filled with beautiful natural history.

1. Downtown Penn Yan – “Once you do get into the village of Penn Yan, you see the iconic Main Street Bridge and Birkett Mills,” Chamberlain says. On Main Street in Penn Yan, Birkett Mills is the oldest continually operating buckwheat mill in the country and is still in operation.

2. Fox’s Mill – With its tall chimney, Fox’s Mill produced 15 tons of paper a day in 1914, and was the last of its kind east of the Mississippi when the dam went out in 1943.

3. Turtle Pond – “It’s where a lot of turtles like to live, in the old canal prism area. You’ll find them on nice, warm days sunning themselves on logs,” says Chamberlain.

4. Seneca Mills Falls – The site of the first mill built on the outlet by the Society of Universal Friends, this spot also hosts the largest waterfalls on the stream. Nearby, visitors can enjoy a pavilion and, down the trail, pass through lock #17 of the Crooked Lake Canal.

5. Cascade Mills Falls – Complete with a viewing platform and picnic tables, the Cascade Mills site overlooks the waterfalls that once powered the mills built there. The ruins of the J.T. Baker Chemical Corporation also call attention; however, Chamberlain reminds, they are safe for viewing, not for entering.

6. Pre-Emption Line Marker – “A railroad tie goes across the trail and signifies the Pre-Emption Line – the correct Pre-Emption Line,” explains Chamberlain. Running from Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario to just west of Geneva and Seneca Lake and then down to the New York-Pennsylvania border, the Pre-Emption Line was first drawn in 1786 to resolve land claims between the colonies of New York, Massachusetts and Native American tribes.

“There’s a whole history and controversy about the placement of that line back in the late 1700s that made some problems for people about the boundaries of their properties,” she adds. “It led to some of the Universal Friends people pulling up their community and moving it to Jerusalem, New York.”


For more information, pamphlets are available at the Penn Yan Chamber of Commerce. Full of historical facts, Frances Dumas’ book, The Outlet Trail, is available for purchase at Longs’ Book Store in Penn Yan.

Additionally, please visit the follow websites
• The Keuka Outlet Trail, maintained by the Friends of the Outlet Trail at keukaoutlettrail.org.
• The Village of Penn Yan at villageofpennyan.com.
• The Keuka Arts Festival at keukaartsfestival.com.