The Story Behind Each of the Eleven Finger Lakes – Part 2


Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga

by Kyra Bean

This second part of the Finger Lakes series features the major lakes that make up the center section of the region. Most people are familiar with these lakes – Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga. They are the four largest of the eleven lakes and have the lion’s share of wineries and breweries dotting their shorelines.

In the July/August issue, we already covered Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice and Honeoye Lakes. Look for the remainder of the Finger Lakes in the final issue of 2019 – Part 3 will feature Owasco, Skaneateles and Otisco Lakes.

Lake 5 - CANANDAIGUA LAKE - The Chosen Spot

Where wildflowers flourish, sunken ships lay submerged beneath the water, and mysterious trails bear the mark of a mythical serpent, it’s no wonder that Seneca Native Americans called this lake “kanandague,” or “the chosen spot.” The tribe’s founders are said to have emerged from this place. It retains such awe today as, opposed to the “Working Man’s Lake,” it’s home to some of the most expensive lakefront property in New York State as noted in the Albany Business Review (2018).

Canandaigua Lake, the fifth Finger Lake from west to east, is the westernmost of the major Finger Lakes as it’s the fourth largest in area, fifth longest, fourth deepest, and fourth widest tied with Skaneateles Lake.

Bare Hill overlooks Canandaigua Lake from the east side. As the Native American legend goes, a boy from a village on the hill found and raised a two-headed serpent until it was too big to keep as a pet. When he released it, it encircled the village, trapping the people inside. Those who tried to escape were eaten. One day, a young warrior shot the beast with an arrow and it slid down the hill into the lake, spitting out the heads of its victims along the way. The large round stones around the lake are said to be these skulls, and little has been able to grow in what is said to be the path of the serpent’s fall. Legend says the serpent still lurks in the deepest part of the lake, and some former residents have claimed to have seen it.

One of Bare Hill’s upper trails leads to a large boulder known as Council Rock where every Labor Day weekend, the Native American traditional ceremony of lighting a bonfire as thanksgiving for peace and an abundant harvest takes place. This signals the beginning of the “Ring of Fire” or “Festival of Lights” as landowners around the perimeter of the lake join in lighting celebratory flares. Throughout the year, Bare Hill Unique Area is open for recreation. Hiking and backcountry camping are popular in this area.

At the bottom of the lake lay the remains of two boats that caught fire and sank. One is believed to be the “Lady of the Lake,” the first steamboat to travel across the lake for commercial service in 1827, which disappeared when passenger business began to decline and supposedly burned and sank near the present Canandaigua Pier. The other is believed to be the Onnalinda, the largest of the lake’s steamboats, considered to be its “Queen of the Steamboat Era.” It launched in 1888 and was eventually dismantled and set on fire, mostly likely due to a decline in business, floating out to the eastern end of the lake to sink. Steamboats carried passengers and goods across the lake to the City of Canandaigua until the last steamboat, the Onanda, was moved to the Hudson River in 1924. Now, a replica steamboat named the Canandaigua Lady offers tour services across the lake.

Lake 6 - KEUKA LAKE - The "Crooked Lake"

Keuka may be the “Crooked Lake” at the heart of the Finger Lakes’ wine region, but its unique Y-shape makes its beauty stand out in so many aspects that it also carries the nickname “Lady of the Lakes.”

The name “Keuka” comes from the Native American phrase meaning “Canoe Landing.” The Seneca tribe called it “o-go-ya-ga,” “the promontory,” in reference to the point where the lake splits into a “Y.” Today, this is Bluff Point. It’s the third largest Finger Lake in area, length, and width behind the two giants of the Finger Lakes, Seneca and Cayuga. It holds around 379 billion gallons of water.

In addition to its shape, this lake is also distinct in that it flows both north and south. In fact, this occurs because of its shape: water from the west branch inlet at Sugar/Guyanoga Creek flows south into the east branch, where it combines with north-flowing water from the Cold Brook inlet at the southern end, and finally exits north out of the outlet into Seneca Lake. Keuka is the only Finger Lake that exits into another one.

The Owasco Native Americans, ancestors to the Senecas, brought agriculture to the area surrounding Keuka Lake around 900 years ago. Though the Senecas had allowed some colonists to reside in the area, full white settlement of the area began in 1787 by representatives of evangelist Jemima Wilkinson. Wilkinson is said to have told her followers she would demonstrate her miraculous powers by walking on the water of the lake as a test to see if they had faith in her.

At the south end of the lake, in 1829, the winemaking industry of the Finger Lakes was born. Rev. William Bostwick began growing grapes here for sacramental purposes and unearthed the secret of how ideal the lake environment was for growing them. In 1861, the Pleasant Valley Wine Company became the first official winery in the area, and by 1900, more than 10,000 acres of vineyards surrounded the lake. Since then, the Finger Lakes Region has blossomed into one of the most popular for winemaking in the eastern United States – thanks to Keuka.

Today, Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery overlooking the lake represents the Finger Lakes with a spot on Men’s Journal’s list of “11 Best Wineries in the United States.” In 2018, this winery earned Winery of the Year at the 33rd New York Wine Classic awards, while the highest award, Governor’s Cup, went to Keuka Spring Vineyards.

Like several of the other Finger Lakes, Keuka is used as part of a ceremony celebrating peace and abundant harvests by setting lights around the shore during Labor Day weekend. This Seneca tradition is called Genundowa, and it can last the whole weekend.
The lake has also served important commercial purposes. The Crooked Lake Canal, opened in 1833, used to carry local goods to Seneca Lake and then on to the Erie Canal. Beginning in 1837, steamboats also carried goods and passengers across the lake, and this traffic aided the development of cottages along the shoreline.

Keuka is considered to be the best fishery in the region, with smallmouth bass and lake trout as its main species. The lake and rainbow trout are completely self-sustaining now, requiring no stocking, and a state record brown trout was caught here in 1979, at 22 pounds and 4 ounces, before the Department of Environmental Conservation began stocking them. Captain Dick offers fishing charter boat trips on the lake through Keuka Big Foot Charters as he has been doing for 14 years.

With so many cottages around the shores, it can be difficult to gain access onto the lake. Public access sites can be found at Keuka State Park, the Village of Penn Yan Site, Indian Pines Park, and the Guyanoga Creek Site.

Lake 7 - SENECA LAKE - At Center Stage

The boss of the Finger Lakes, Seneca Lake occupies center stage and takes its name directly from the Seneca Native Americans, likely because they revered it so much – for its size, mystery, and grandeur.

It’s one of the two giants, competing with its neighbor Cayuga for the superlative statistics. Tied for longest, Seneca is the deepest and largest in area, while it’s the second lowest in elevation and second widest behind Cayuga.

As the namesake of the Seneca Native American tribe, its largeness is more than physical. “Seneca” comes from the Native American word “assiniki,” which means “stony place,” possibly referring to the steep, stony southern shoreline or to the many rocky streams, gorges, and waterfalls that feed into the lake. It’s so deep that the Native Americans are said to have believed it was bottomless. It holds over half the water of the entire Finger Lakes Region. Because of its size, it rarely freezes over completely; the last time was in 1912. The lake’s size moderates the surrounding temperature, making it ideal for the many vineyards sprouting up around it.

It’s known as the “Lake Trout Capital of the World” and it’s home to the National Lake Trout Derby, which takes place every Memorial Day Weekend. Since 1964, it has served as a competition for who can catch the heaviest fish, open to all with a New York state fishing license. Last year, 1,024 people registered; the grand prize this year will be $10,000. The largest fish caught by a grand prize winner was 18.49 pounds by William Ryan Jr. from Auburn in 2016.

Many people hear mysterious distant “booms” across the lake from time to time, known as the “Lake Drums.” Some think they sound like cannon fire, and others think they are a message from the Native Americans or lost Revolutionary War soldiers. The Native Americans themselves are said to have believed the sounds came from evil spirits, drums of their ancestors, or the Great Spirit’s curse on those who violated scared laws. The scientific explanation is that these noises are due to natural gas bubbles escaping from layers of sandstone.

A number of boats that would transport products and people across the lake in the 1800s now lay at the bottom. Scuba divers still enjoy exploring their preserved remains, with many at the southern end. During World War II, Navy sailors were trained here, and the lake has been used to test submarines. The lake is distantly connected to the Atlantic Ocean through a system of canals.

Today, several companies offer relaxing boat rides open to the public. Captain Bill’s Seneca Lake Cruises, a family-owned business, offers both sightseeing cruises and large dinner cruises, some with live music. Schooner Excursions offers more intimate public or private chartered rides, and Seneca Wine Boat Tours offers small tours for up to six at a time.

Like a few of the other Finger Lakes, Seneca has its own legend of a sea serpent lurking beneath the water. Unlike those in the other lakes, one reported sighting of this monster had a large number of witnesses to support its credibility. On July 14, 1899, from his passenger steamboat Otetiani, Captain Carleton Herendeen is said to have spotted a large moving object that turned its head and flashed its sharp teeth as the captain prepared to ram into it. Other legends say there are secret passageways connecting Seneca to Cayuga Lake, through which sea serpents of the Seneca Lake family have spread.

From 1994 until 2006, the Seneca Lake Whale Watch Festival poked fun at the lake’s mysterious depth, humorously wondering if there might just be whales under the surface that traveled in through the networks of canals from the ocean. In reality, the most common fish other than lake trout to inhabit Seneca Lake include smallmouth bass, yellow perch, rainbow trout, brown trout, and landlocked Atlantic salmon. Numerous sites allow convenient public access around the lake, such as Seneca Lake State Park and Sampson State Park in Geneva, Lodi Point State Marine Park, Smith Memorial Park in Hector, and the harbor in Watkins Glen.

Lake 8 - CAYUGA LAKE - The Other Giant

Whether one is looking for treasure, bodies, or salt, the depths of Cayuga Lake are as intriguing as they are naturally wondrous. Just as Seneca Lake was named for the Seneca tribe of Native Americans, so Cayuga was named for the Cayuga tribe. The Native Americans alternatively called it “boat landing” or “tiohero,” which means “clear water.”

As the other giant of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga ties for longest with Seneca Lake and claims the title for widest and lowest in elevation, coming in second for biggest in area and deepest.

Cayuga is the second of two Finger Lakes that have islands. Frontenac Island appears to have been a sacred burial ground, as many bone fragments have been found here. North America’s oldest bone comb was also found here and can now be viewed at the Rochester Museum. Like Seneca Lake, the surrounding climate makes for excellent grape growing, and the route around the lake has been named as an official scenic byway.

From 1800 to 1857, a mile-long bridge stretched across the lake as a more efficient transportation route for goods and people. The Cayuga Long Bridge was at one point in time the longest bridge in the western hemisphere, and it was three-wagon-widths wide. (In fact, it was over a mile long – 5,412 feet to be exact.) The toll house lived on the west end, and a tavern and jail occupied the east end. Other bridges have attempted to take its place since its abandonment due to the difficulty and expense of maintaining it, but none have lasted.

The bodies of 1800s murderer Edward Rulloff’s victims were supposedly dumped in Cayuga Lake. Rulloff was seen carrying a trunk to the lake before his wife and daughter disappeared from his Lansing home; their bodies were never found, and police believed he had sunk them.

Also sunk at the bottom of the lake, an Erie canal boat from the 1800s was found in 2013. Since then, divers have explored the shipwreck hunting for treasure.

Shale palisades, a kind of steep cliff, can be found near Bolton Point on the southeastern end of the lake. These are rare outside the British Isles. The lake also lays on top of the deepest rock-salt mine in North America, owned by Cargill Salt, which is the largest salt product marketer in the world.

Three operational lighthouses decorate the lake in various spots. The Cayuga Inlet Breakwater Light stands in the middle of the lake, north of the southern end, and the Cayuga Inlet Light just a short distance from the southern end. The Myers Point Lighthouse, the most recently built, is located on the east shore and operates between April and November with a six-second flash.

Like several of the other Finger Lakes, Cayuga has its own legend of a sea monster – and this one has a name. Reports of “Old Greeny” sightings occurred annually throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s. In 1974, a teenager reported his arm was broken by a large kind of eel, and in 1979, a local professional diver came across a 35-foot creature.

At the northern end of the lake, Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge serves as a sanctuary for migrating birds. Around 242 species of birds rotate in and out of the refuge. In addition to a resident trio of bald eagles, wildlife such as herons, red-winged blackbirds, foxes, and beavers make their homes here on a temporary or permanent basis. As the refuge is open throughout the year, visitors can watch the migration and habitation patterns of various wildlife.

At the southern end sits the lively town of Ithaca. Up on one of its hills, Cornell University honors the lake through its alma mater, “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” It’s considered to be the most widely copied alma mater – making Cayuga a very special subject indeed.
Public access can be attained in Tompkins County at Allan H. Treman State Marina, Taughannock Falls State Park, Myers Point at Town of Lansing Park, and Stewart Park; in Cayuga County at Long Point State Park, Mud Lock, and Frontenac Park; and in Seneca County at Cayuga Lake State Park and Dean’s Cove State Marine Park.

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