The Story Behind Each of the Eleven Finger Lakes – Part 1


Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice and Honeoye

by Kyra Bean

The Finger Lakes Region is a 9,000-square-mile area, roughly the size of New Jersey. Within this region are many streams, rivers, canals, ponds and yes – lakes. Contrary to what some may believe, the Finger Lakes are not just five lakes like fingers on a hand. There are, in fact, 11 of them.

Kyra Bean, a recent graduate of Ithaca College, has written about each of the lakes. Her articles were originally published on our website and were received with such enthusiasm that we decided to republish her pieces here.

Working from west to east, this issue features Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice and Honeoye Lakes. The September/October issue will feature Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga. The last three – Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco Lakes will be presented in the November/December issue.
These issues will surely be collectors items, containing so much good information about each lake.

– Editor


Lake 1 - CONESUS LAKE - The Westernmost Finger Lake

Flowing south to north, Conesus is the westernmost Finger Lake, at 42 degrees 46 minutes north latitude and 77 degrees 43 minutes west longitude. Though the lake formed some 10,000 years ago, the first settlement around the lake was established in 1792. It holds around 48 billion gallons of water. Compared to the other Finger Lakes, it’s on par in terms of height and width, but it’s one of the smaller Finger Lakes in terms of area and length, and it’s the second shallowest. Due to these lower statistics, Conesus is considered one of the minor Finger Lakes. Because of its shallow nature, it also retains its water for the second shortest amount of time out of all the Finger Lakes before flowing out through its outlet into the Genesee River.

But just because it’s smaller doesn’t mean it’s not as striking as the other Finger Lakes. Every year on July 3 at 10 p.m., residents around Conesus Lake participate in the old Seneca Indian tradition of setting flares all around the shoreline. The Seneca Indians would do this to celebrate the beauty and abundance of the lake. In fact, the name “Conesus” comes from the Native American word for “always beautiful.” (Other accounts claim it comes from the word for “berry place” after the sheep berries that grew along the shore, or that it meant “medicine lake.”)

Conesus Lake almost always freezes over in winter, making it ideal for ice fishing, skating, or snowmobiling. Fishing tournaments like the Tuesday Night Working Man Tourneys are popular in the warmer months. Vitale Park hosts free summer concerts on the lakeshore every Sunday, including music from well-known local Finger Lakes bands like the Sim Redmond Band. Long Point Park offers a beach with a lifeguard for swimming during the warm season along with other park facilities.

Beautifully mysterious turtle-like stones, or Conesus stones as they are known in many parts of the world, can also be found at Conesus Lake, As Mrs. Joseph Lang wrote in her 1962 “Conesus Lake Folklore” article for The Livonia Gazette, these stones were formed in the ice age when glacial debris 10,000 feet thick created dams that built the Finger Lakes, and they’ve even been found as far as Siberia and Iceland.

Conesus Lake is also home to the legend of the Phantom of the Lake, which has been circulating for over 150 years. Native American Chief Big Tree, a leader in making treaties during the American Revolution, was asked to go to the towns along the Genesee Valley and gather Senecas to join the cause. Shortly after his visit in 1778, he died. As the legend goes, a Native American chieftain ghost has been sighted through the fog over Conesus Lake in a birch bark canoe, calling for help. Some stories say he is Chief Big Tree, while others say he is one who ran off with a warrior from another tribe and came back to look for his wife. In the 1950s, this legend was revealed to have been created by Colonel S. Tooey, who was inspired by the fabrication of the Silver Lake Sea Serpent legend. It has also been rumored that the U.S.S. Lady of the Lake, a schooner that fought on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812, lies at the bottom of Conesus Lake (though this, too, is likely fabricated, as the lake is rather shallow).

Conesus Lake touches the towns of Livonia, Groveland, Geneseo, and Conesus and feeds the public water systems for the villages of Avon and Geneseo. It overturns its water twice yearly during spring and fall. On a trophic scale, one that measures how productive a lake’s ecosystem is, Conesus ranks high, meaning it has plenty of nutrients to support plant life. For the eager fisher, the fish most common to Conesus Lake include warm-water species such as alewife, bluegill, brown bullhead, largemouth bass, northern pike, pumpkinseed, smallmouth bass, tiger musky, walleye, and yellow perch, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation says. Access to Conesus Lake by boat can be reached through the municipal launch at Conesus Park.


Lake 2 - HEMLOCK LAKE - A Source of Drinking Water

Hemlock is the second Finger Lake running west to east. As the only lake that did not keep its Native American name (“Onehda Tecarneodi”), it was named for the hemlock trees that grow around it, which prefer cool, moist locations and tend to grow under taller trees. Warblers like to make their homes in hemlocks. Compared to the other Finger Lakes,  it’s one of the smaller ones in terms of length and area, and it’s the second narrowest. For this reason, it is considered one of the minor Finger Lakes.

Up until the late 18th century, the Seneca Native Americans lived around Hemlock Lake. In 1779, Gen. John Sullivan captured this land, and the first white settlers arrived in the 1790s. These settlers built their homes out of wooden slabs, giving the name “Slab City” to the area surrounding the lake for a while, and they used the lake to shuttle logs across. In the 19th century, Hemlock was known as the “blue blood” lake and sat surrounded by many wealthy summer homes and recreation facilities.

In 1872, the City of Rochester identified the lake as a water source and it was identified as a source of public drinking water in 1876. “Glory! Hemlock Water at Last!” a January 1876 newspaper headline announced. In 1895, the city began acquiring properties around the lake to protect the water, gradually demolishing physical structures until it was back to wild land. In 2010, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation purchased Hemlock Lake from the City of Rochester.

Known for its peace, quiet, and closeness to nature, Hemlock is one of the only Finger Lakes whose shoreline is undeveloped, and it will remain so, leaving the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest as its major attraction. A 415-acre portion of the forest on the southwest end of the lake has old-growth trees, meaning they have not been cut down by settlers – some of these trees are thought to be more than 500 years old. This is one of the largest old-growth tracts in New York.

Since it is Rochester’s source of public drinking water, several restrictions have been in place to keep the lake clean. In addition to restricting shoreline development, boats are limited to 17 feet and 10 horsepower, and swimming is not permitted. Boating and fishing are completely prohibited in the northernmost part of the lake. Hemlock Lake also supplies water to Henrietta, Rush, and Livonia. With Canadice Lake, it supplies the City of Rochester with 37 million gallons of drinking water per day.

Because the natural area is so well preserved, it is a popular spot for canoeing and kayaking. In fact, Hemlock Lake is so connected with its wildlife that in 2016, a man named Matthew Garrity filmed a black bear swimming across the lake right in front of his kayak. Hemlock Lake Park also offers a recreation area with picnic tables.

This Finger Lakes has been noted an important bird conservation area. In the 1970s, the last wild bald eagle in New York was found nesting here at the south end of the lake. Bald eagles continue to nest in the area as well as other at-risk species including sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers, red-headed woodpeckers, horned larks, cerulean warblers, and vesper sparrows.

Hemlock Lake is known for its landlocked salmon population and lake trout. Other cold-water fish include brown trout and rainbow trout, and the lake is also home to warm-water fish like smallmouth bass and significantly sized chain pickerel. Most of these fish have been stocked. Weed beds grow in large patches along the south end of the lake, with milfoil as the main vegetation. Boat launching sites are located at the northeast and southeast corners of the lake.

Canadice Lake is connected to Hemlock Lake at the north through a spillway. A patch of land known as Rob’s Trail, named after conservationist and Finger Lakes advocate Rob van der Stricht and completed in 2016, runs between the two lakes and provides hiking access to both in addition to gorges and a waterfall.


Lake 3 - Wilderness and CANADICE LAKE

Canadice Lake may be the smallest of the Finger Lakes, but it’s rich in the wonder and mystery of its historical, untouched wilderness. From its longstanding annual strawberry festival to modern curiosities about what lurks in the woods surrounding the lake, it has enough character to justify the ironic Native American phrase behind its name – “ska-ne-a-dice,” or “long lake.”

As the third Finger Lake from west to east, it’s the shortest in length, smallest in area, and narrowest in width – yet it is the highest in elevation, isolating it in its remote pocket of nature. Because of its high elevation, it doesn’t require any pumps to transport its water supply, relying on gravity alone. It’s the only Finger Lake that lies completely in one town, Canadice, and it holds 11.5 billion gallons of water.

Every June since 1879, the Canadice United Methodist Church has hosted the Canadice Strawberry Festival. It was held on the lake at the Slouts’ resort until 1916 when the City of Rochester purchased all 7.2 miles of shoreline to use the lake as public drinking water. As Mrs. Maud Van Duyne wrote in her 1954 “A Brief History of the Canadice Strawberry Festival” article for The Livonia Gazette, Mr. Slout would greet the townspeople and ask if they would be attending the festival every year and made sure they all had a good time. Since 1916, it has been held at other homes and at the church itself.

The first white settlers around the lake arrived to farm in the first years of the 19th century. The area around the lake was known as the “stealth town.” In 1951, the last cottage on Canadice Lake, the Moose property, was auctioned off and then stripped of all buildings to ensure the purity of the lake’s water, though you can still spot some of the ruined cottage foundations around the lake. With Hemlock Lake, it serves as Rochester’s source of public drinking water. The area is now quite remote and similar to the wilderness of regions like the Adirondacks; the woods surrounding the lake are known as second-growth forests, which means they were old farmland reclaimed as forests.

Like Hemlock, to which it is connected through a spillway and hiking trail, its shorelines are undeveloped and its wilderness preserved. It shares the same activity restrictions as Hemlock Lake – boats limited to 17 feet and 10 horsepower, and swimming completely prohibited – to protect the water supply, and access is completely forbidden in the northernmost part of the lake. They also share the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest. Unlike Hemlock, there are no facilities at all around Canadice Lake.

The eastern and western shores are rather steep, which makes it difficult for much vegetation to grow there. This steepness also protects the lake from wind, making it calm for boaters most of the time. It’s a popular spot for kayaking, and Canadice Lake Outfitters serves as a rental outlet. Every Thursday at 6:30 p.m., they offer guided tours in kayaks or on paddleboards through the lake to learn its history while enjoying its calm beauty. Wild roses and raspberries can be found along the edges of the lake.

Rumors about bigfoot sightings around Canadice Lake have circulated from time to time. A 2013 article in The Democrat & Chronicle written by Leo Roth asserted that the Northern Sasquatch Research Society had been doing research around the lake after two fishermen supposedly saw a creature resembling bigfoot that left unidentifiable footprints at the north end. Many have also claimed to have seen cougars roaming the area.

Other interesting creatures make their homes around the lake, including bald eagles and waterfowl. In addition to plenty of lake trout and smallmouth bass, large snapping turtles have been seen lurking just beneath the surface. Other fish include warm- and cold-water varieties like brown and rainbow trout, chain pickerel, brown bullhead, bluegill, black crappie, and yellow perch. The best fishing spots are off the trails on the west side, and boat-launching access is provided on the eastern shore.


Lake 4 - HONEOYE LAKE - The Working Man’s Lake

One would think that, as the shallowest of the Finger Lakes, Honeoye Lake has little to hide. Yet tucked into its peaceful, recreational cottage culture, surprises like river otters pop out to remind visitors how much the Finger Lakes have to offer. Its name is said to have come from the Iroquois Native American word “ha-ne-a-yeh,” or “lying lake,” because it lies north to south, though other legends say it is named so for a man whose finger was bitten by a rattlesnake and had to be chopped off.

Honeoye is the fourth Finger Lake from west to east. It’s the second shortest and smallest in area behind Canadice Lake, and it’s thought to generally have the warmest water during the summer – which adds to its recreational appeal. It also has the shortest water retention rate as water enters the inlet and exits into Honeoye Creek in 10 months.

With 235 lakefront-access cottages around the shoreline, it is known as the “working man’s lake.” As Emily McFaul reported for her 2009 article “Celebrating the ‘cottage culture’ of Honeoye Lake” in the Canandaigua Daily Messenger, the cottages were designed modestly as a resort area for middle-class workers who wanted affordable lakefront vacation property. Many were built in the 1930s during the Great Depression, and their residents gradually built renovations onto them. Over the years, more residents have been staying year-round.

Residents around the lake use it as a base for many of their seasonal celebrations. Over Labor Day weekend, they mark the end of summer with “Ring of Fire” flares around the perimeter. In the winters of the 1950s and 1960s, since the lake freezes over completely in the winter, people would come together on it for a large winter festival.

Around 600 BC, a small settlement of Native Americans occupied the northern shore of the lake, relying on the surrounding habitats to hunt and gather and fish the waters with fiber-woven nets. For a long period following

their settlement, the lake went uninhabited. Up until 1779, various Native American settlements came and went from around the lake, some participating in their own agriculture to sustain themselves. Around the 11th century, the Seneca Native Americans settled here. When General John Sullivan’s Continental Army arrived, they found the Seneca villages deserted.

River otters now inhabit the waters of Honeoye thanks to reintegration efforts as part of the River Otter Project in 2000. Though they were once regular members of the Finger Lakes ecosystems, they had been absent for almost 100 years due to habitat loss before the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation relocated 279 of them into Central and Western New York from the Adirondacks. Fifty-eight of these otters were released throughout the Southern Tier. One of the most likely spots to see them is in the Honeoye Inlet Wildlife Management Area, which sits at the southern base of the lake and is open for recreation year-round. Other wildlife found here include wild turkeys, raptors, waterfowl, grassland birds, and furbearers.

While the shores are tightly lined with cottages, minimal activity occurs around the lake, making it a peaceful spot to relax and take in the surroundings. It’s ideal to bike around because the perimeter is 19 miles around and relatively flat. It has the most forested lands and least agricultural land in its drainage basin out of all the Finger Lakes. At the northern end of the lake, Sandy Bottom Beach offers recreational facilities including a skateboard area and supervised swimming. During the summer, this site is closed for boat launching.

Because it’s so shallow, plant life thrives. Rooted vegetation like eelgrass, Eurasian milfoil, and water stargrass enrich the strong fishing environment of the lake. The Department of Environmental Conservation stocks walleye annually to add to the other sportfish including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and chain pickerel. Currently, they’re maintaining a high density of predator species. Winter maintenance of both public access sites – Honeoye Lake Public Boat Launch in the southeast corner of the lake and Sandy Bottom Beach in the northwest corner – allow for convenient ice fishing.

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