For a first taste of New York’s Finger Lakes, newcomers might want to venture straight through the region’s center. Just follow State Route 14 from the Pennsylvania state line to its northern terminus at the quaint village of Sodus Point on Lake Ontario. Scattered along the way is an enticing sample of the area’s delights – history, lake views, waterfalls, parks, wineries and museums.
Variety is a regional strong suit. Less than an hour after viewing sloping vineyards along splendid Seneca Lake, a visitor arrives in Sodus Point to an ocean-like beach overlooking the vastness of Lake Ontario. Turn around and the Great Sodus Bay, largest along the south shore of Ontario, spreads out with its 20-plus miles of shoreline and summer homes.
Sodus Point’s 900 or so residents are tucked into a village peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. Route 14 swings past Greig Street’s restaurants and shops to its end at a cul-de-sac of pleasant summer homes on the water. “We have to be a trip destination,” says Edie Farrington, a local photographer. “You won’t just happen through Sodus Point on the way to somewhere else.”
A home to boaters and celebrities
Those who take that drive to Sodus Point will be rewarded. Things begin to hum throughout the village, on the lakeshore and around the bay each year as the snows of another upstate winter give way to spring blooms. By mid-summer, a steady flow of boats cruise in and out the channel connecting Lake Ontario with Great Sodus Bay. Craft from yachts and sailboats to canoes and kayaks ply the waters of the special spot dubbed by the Iroquois as “Land of Silver Waters.”
Artists, writers and personalities have long felt the draw of Sodus Point and its great bay. Colorful impressions of the area appear in the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper. The author derived them from his experiences stationed as a midshipman on the bay in the early 1800s, and later a summer spent living there in a rustic cabin. Cooper penned parts of The Last of the Mohicans during his stay on the bay.
World renowned golf course architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. got his start at the Sodus Bay Heights Golf Club serving from 1925 to 1929 as its first golf pro and superintendent. Actresses Audrey and Jayne Meadows spent a decade of happy childhood summers in Sodus Point with their parents.
More than 300 years of history
Sodus Point has a rich history. The area’s first pioneers arrived in the late 1700s. A British raiding party burned the settlement during the War of 1812, but the town was rebuilt and incorporated as a village in 1858. For most of the 19th and into the 20th century, the area served as an important Lake Ontario port. Boats loaded with Pennsylvania coal from a huge trestle, 400 feet long and 40 feet high, sailed steadily from the bay. On popular lake cruises, passenger steamers made Sodus Point a favored stop.
With its port location, and steady flow of Great Lakes shipping, Sodus Point evolved into an ideal “station” for the legendary Underground Railroad of the mid-1800s. No records were kept of such trips, but it is well-accepted that many slaves fleeing bondage secretly sailed to freedom in Canada from “safe houses” in and around the community. A search continues today for a long-rumored escape tunnel beneath the village. Crusty freighter Captain George Garlock was one credited with carrying the former slaves across Lake Ontario in his aptly named schooner Free Trader.
No signs remain today of a World War II camp where 120 or more German POWs were kept from 1944 through 1945. With a wartime labor shortage, prisoners were kept busy working on area farms and picking fruit from expansive orchards up and down the lakeshore. As a young boy, lifetime Sodus Point resident Glen Proseus watched prisoners clearing a local field to play soccer. “They were lightly guarded and well fed at the camp,” remembers Proseus. “A few were so taken with the area they moved here permanently at war’s end.”
Overseen by the local historical society, these tales and other area history are on full display in the 1871 Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum majestically perched on a hillside overlooking Lake Ontario. Until replaced by an automated light at pier’s end, for 80 years a vigilant resident keeper watched over the stone lighthouse, a “can’t miss” spot on any visit to Sodus Point. Museum exhibits depict early pioneer times and continue throughout the village’s rich maritime history. Mannequins in period dress from Great Lakes’ sailors to vacationers stepping off “The Royal Blue Line” trolley from Rochester are spread through its rooms. A museum highlight is the long ascent up winding iron steps to the lighthouse tower’s lens room. Seventy feet in the air, the stunning panoramic view of Lake Ontario from beach to bluff makes the climb well worthwhile.
A magical place
Summer brings an outdoor concert series to the Lighthouse Museum, now in its 27th year. From July 4 through Labor Day weekend, crowds gather every Sunday on the museum’s rolling lawn to enjoy lake breezes and a wide variety of music: choral, jazz, oldies, Big Band, symphonic and more. Concert coordinator Mary Smith believes “there’s not a better place to spend the days of summer than Sodus Point, and the concerts are certainly part of that appeal.”
After a relaxing concert, there’s never a shortage of things to do around town. Village historian Bruce Farrington encourages visitors to “take the self-guided walking tour to truly appreciate why Sodus Point, with its history and abundant activities, is such a magical place and great getaway.”
Wander village lanes lined with classic iron street lamps, strolling past beautiful homes and gardens with a New England feel. Fish the lake and bay for bass, pike, trout, salmon and more. Swim, play and picnic at the village beach. Raise a spinnaker or fire up a boat motor to explore local waters. Wander up and down busy Greig Street with its shops, taverns and eateries. Drive around the bay to view Chimney Bluffs’ sharp pinnacles, one of New York’s most dramatic (and relatively unknown) geologic treasures. Even on a cold winter day people find their way to town for ice skating, ice boating and ice fishing. The Sodus Bay Information Center building, a refurbished yard house from the old coal trestle, is well-stocked with brochures, maps and helpful people to point you in the right direction.
Gazing across his backyard at the ever-changing palette of Lake Ontario, Glen Proseus reflected on his seven-plus decades in Sodus Point. “If you like to keep active or just relax, it’s a beautiful spot to live in any season. And when the pink and white blossoms of the peach, cherry and apple orchards flow up and down the lakeshore … well, it’s a little piece of Eden.”
by James P. Hughes