Along the Outlet
of Keuka Lake
The Penn Yan Waterfront
In 1799 when he died, David Wagener owned much of the land upon which the future village of Penn Yan would grow. He had purchased a sawmill and its water rights a few years previous, built a large and modern gristmill and was—legend has it—inspecting the milldam and pond when he accidentally fell in, contracted a cold and died of it.
His will divided his extensive property among his numerous children. His elder son Abraham inherited much of what is today Penn Yan north of the Outlet; his younger son and widow got the part that lay south of the stream, including the new gristmill.
Abraham Wagener himself said many years later that his was an unpromising inheritance, consisting as it did of near-swamp and a few scrub pines. Nevertheless, he moved onto the property and promptly built a rival gristmill of his own, and a house on the slightly higher ground to the north.
A road had been laid out by David Wagener before his death to link his mill with the growing community at what's now Benton Center. A tavern already existed near where this road crossed another. Before too long several more taverns sprang up and with them a store or two and a few dwellings. A fairly raucous little community developed, usually called Unionville by its inhabitants; but more often Pandemonium by its neighbors. Sometime about 1808 a compromise was reached—most later chroniclers remembered a drinking party associated with it—and the settlement was named Penn Yan.
Squire Wagener, as he was usually called, lived in lonely splendor about halfway between the crossroads settlement and his mill. Encounters with bears and wolves were not uncommon; two events occurred that changed all this forever.
The first was the selection in 1823 of Penn Yan over Dresden as the county seat. Abraham Wagener himself donated the land for the new county buildings, near the north end of his property. Five years later the Crooked Lake Canal was surveyed and the businessmen at the crossroads began to think about moving their establishments closer to the waterfront.
Abraham Wagener was a farmer. In 1816 he erected a fine new house near his mills, so fine it was called without exaggeration the Mansion House. He had begun to sell some building lots around the periphery of his property as early as 1805, but eventually, like many farmers after him, he gave in to the economic pressure. He built himself a spectacular new mansion at the tip of Bluff Point and sold most of his land in Penn Yan for development.
A road had been opened about 1810 to link Wagener's Mills with Samuel Lawrence's just downstream. The road within a few years was inelegantly nicknamed Rag Street. A tavern and rooming house that served Wagener's millhands and at least one distillery were operating here as early as 1818. The highway was officially named Canal Street and much later during the 20th century was renamed Seneca Street.
Horace Miller ran the Rag Street tavern in a building built, it is said, of the timbers from Wagener's first mill, erected in 1801 and burned in 1824. The place was later called the Canal House but was better known as "The Owl's Nest," from the lively nocturnal activities of its inhabitants.
Warehouses were built along the Canal for transshipping goods from the Keuka Lake basin to the rest of the world. At that time upstate New York was the wheat growing center of the country. Merchant mills boomed. Fruit, both fresh and dried, also found a ready market.
The south bank of the Outlet remained relatively inaccessible as far east as Samuel Lawrence's sawmill. Jeremiah Jillett had purchased the old Wagener gristmill on the south bank in 1812 and gradually his estate filled up with housing. Much of it was let to the large influx of Irish immigrants drawn in by work on the Canal; the area became known as "Dublin".
Even before the railroad was built along the old Canal right of way in 1884 changing markets affected the commercial buildings along the waterfront. A coalyard lay along the abandoned canal in the 1870s, and in the year the railroad was built Oliver Shearman—a grandson of David Wagener—tore down an old warehouse and built an enormous brand-new malthouse in its place.
Malting was big business in Yates County during the second half of the 19th Century
© 1989, Frances Dumas
The work of developing and maintaining the Keuka Lake Outlet Preservation Area and the Outlet Trail goes on. Anyone wishing to help out is invited to contribute. Individuals who donate $10 become "Friends of the Outlet" and receive a periodical newsletter and members-only guided tours of sites along the trail. Those who donate $25 or more are special patrons. Checks should be made out to the KLOPA Commission and mailed, c/o Yates County Historian, 110 Court St., Penn Yan, NY, 14527.