When Lake Boats Rules Our Waves

After being used to quarantine smallpox patients, the Onondaga was declared to be a health hazard and had to be blown up. Postcard Images Courtesy Mark Brown

Travel by boat on Seneca Lake had been a way of getting from point A to point B for years. The Indians of the Six Nations traveled by canoes on water, on trails by land, and had established trade routes.

Early pioneers arrived by water routes. Many were soldiers who were with the Sullivan Expedition, which swept the Indians from the area in 1779. Soldiers marveled at the beauty and productivity of Indian land. They came back to claim bounty land offered to take the place of army pay.

By the 1790s, settlers cleared land, built houses, and took up farming or a trade. Commerce and industry looked to water to run mills and transport goods. Travel by boat was a way of life.

An impressive list of hotels on both sides of the lake attracted summer guests for several years, particularly in the 1890s. Most were in verdant rural settings, ranging in size from luxurious hostelries to comfortable wood-frame establishments. A standard feature was a wide wraparound porch with a row of cushioned rocking chairs where groups met to socialize and enjoy the spectacular sunsets over Seneca Lake.

Individuals with traveling companions and entire families arrived with trunks full of clothes and gear sufficient to see them through the various sports, outings and social activities offered by management.

A bustling era
Boatyards were busy building boats along the lake in Geneva, Long Point, Dundee, Penn Yan, Starkey, Lodi Landing, Watkins, and Mills Landing, now Montour. Sailboats, ferries, scows, tugboats, passenger boats, full-masted schooners and steam-propelled excursion boats plied the waters of Seneca Lake. The era of the lake boats was an exciting time of enterprise in history.

The Steamboat Era was a period of over 90 years, from the 1830s to the 1920s. Lake boats ran on regular schedules, zigzagging across the lake, going from Geneva to Watkins in about four hours with several stops along the way. A 25-cent ticket made it possible to take the trip for business, shopping, visiting friends, or just as an enjoyable ride on the classic crafts.

By the early 1900s, a congenial group of Geneva families had established a small summer colony south of Lodi Point. They built rustic wood-frame cottages, with most of the materials coming by way of lake boat from Geneva. The “roughing it in comfort” cottages all had front porches. Over the years owners have enclosed the porches for additional room, and most have been renovated for year-round homes as well. One or two cottages survive in their original state and style. The cottages along the shore north of the Point have also been altered or replaced with modern improvements.

In the lake boat era, Lodi Landing was a very busy commercial location, with entrepreneur John Demott conducting a thriving trade, sending produce and farm goods to New York City by boat and receiving shipments in return for sale in his general merchandise store. Lodi Landing had its own post office for a few years.

It was the custom for the Geneva businessman to take the lake steamer to his office for the usual day’s routine. One family dog was known to accompany his owner each day. To request a stop, a white flag was put out for daytime and a red flag for evening.

Excursions were popular during the summer. Silver Thread Falls, one of nature’s scenic wonders above Lodi Landing, was a frequent place to visit. Groups took picnic lunches and made a day of it. Silver Thread Falls is now on private property.

Legendary lake boats
A chronology of famous lake boats begins with the Alexander, later renamed Seneca, built in 1796 for Charles Williamson, land developer for the Pulteney Tract, by Thomas Hathaway in Geneva. In 1800 the Sheffield was launched. The Seneca Chief, built by the Rumneys, renamed Geneva in 1833, was exploded in 1847 as part of a July 4th celebration. Many of the boats made of wood burned or sank.

The Nautilus, built in 1893 in Geneva, was the famous steamship at the Willard State Hospital. It had a great career, carrying mail and passengers, and taking patients on excursions. The smartly uniformed Willard Hospital Band frequently gave concerts in the summer, playing on the boat deck for the enjoyment of patients and townsfolk assembled on the shore, as well as hospital employees who were housed in the nearby lakeside hotel.

The Laura A. Darragh and the Otetiani were favorites for many years, until the Otetiani sank in 1909. The Onondaga was a beautiful sidewheeler, 175 feet long, with a 25-foot beam and a 9-foot hold. It accommodated 400 passengers, or up to 800 on special excursions. There were spacious staterooms with separate cabins for ladies and gentlemen, wide promenade decks and an elegant dining room. When a troupe of traveling players in Geneva came down with smallpox, the health authorities decided to isolate them, and they were quarantined on the Onondaga. The ship was declared a health hazard and had to be destroyed. On September 14, 1898, watchers came by the hundreds for the touted event. The ship, loaded with dynamite, was towed into the lake, and then began drifting toward shore before it exploded with a shattering blast heard 15 miles away.

Names of the boats frequenting the waters of Seneca Lake are echoes of the past. They include the Robert S. Troup, a two-masted schooner built in 1813 by Spaulding, the Seneca Chief in 1828, followed by the Richard Stevens in 1834. The Chemung, a towboat built in 1839, sank in 1850 and then was raised and repaired for more service. In 1846 the Geneva boatyard of William Hawthorne and Benjamin Springstead built the Kanadesaga, which sank at the Dresden dock in 1849, was rebuilt and then dismantled in the early 1860s.

The Ben Loder was a big timer of 1849, 250 feet long, with a 500 horsepower motor. When passenger service ended in 1851, it was converted to a towboat, towing a record 68 canal boats. It burned in 1861 at Magee’s dock, a fine craft lost.

The Elmira was built at the B.W. Springstead yards in Geneva in 1862 as a replacement for the Ben Loder, using two of its engines. It rotted at a Geneva dock in 1883. The John Arnot, built in 1854, was lost when it burned at the Watkins dock in 1857. The Duncan S. Magee, launched at the Charles W. Brown boatyard in Dresden on June 27, 1860, was remodeled in 1861 for additional service. The Colonial came along at the end of the passenger runs, and ran from 1906 to 1914 only during the summer months.

The Manhattan made daily trips from Geneva to Watkins in 1915, managing to hold on as the railroads took over. It went to Cayuga Lake, where it later sank.

Coming to an end
The era of the lake boats came to an end with the expansion of the railroads, providing faster and more efficient methods of transportation. The excitement of the steamship arriving at the dock, passengers trouping down the gangplank, more passengers boarding, the activity of the ship departing with whistle blowing as it headed for its next stop was all replaced by the whistle of the “iron horse.” A new era also came and passed into history.

The Protodora, built in 1909 by A.W. Springstead for Captain Frank S. Tower was 43 feet long with a 30 horsepower Fay and Bowen gas-powered engine. It was at the end of the line. Service ceased in 1923, and the handsome craft was sold to New Yorkers who bootlegged liquor on Lake Ontario during the prohibition years. Revenuers seized the rumrunners and ordered the craft to be destroyed.

Lake boats are still around, as the lure of the lakes attracts hundreds of tourists to the Finger Lakes. Marinas accommodate present day boats as tourists check in at the many state parks near the lakes.


by Alta E. Boyer
This article has been adapted from Boyer’s recent book, A History of Lodi Point. For years she wrote feature articles and had a weekly column for the local Free Press in Trumansburg.