May 1993

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Commercial Sailing

On the Finger Lakes


Richard F. Palmer

Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer

Part I

The earliest commercial sailing vessel of which there is a record was launched at Geneva, on Seneca Lake, in the latter part of 1796. Several thousand people assembled to witness this event, no such circumstance having before occurred to draw together so many from this sparsely settled area. Historian George Conover wrote, "Natives of every State in the Union and of every nation of Europe, were to be found in the assemblage, all ambitious of the one object, the aggrandizement of the Genesee country."

While the sloop was still on the stocks, at Mile Point, a sailor named Allen climbed the mast and stayed there during the launch. As the sloop swayed from one side to the other, the sailor amazingly hung on for all he was worth. Everyone thought he was foolhardy and would be injured. But the sailor knew what to do and he kept his position, his goal to astonish the 'landlubbers.'1

The sloop was built by Brown and Sheffield, and cost $2,303.28. She was christened "Alexander" for Alexander Williamson, but about 1800, the name was changed to "Seneca." For several years the vessel transported people and cargo between Catharine's (Watkins Glen) and Geneva, and other points between. It had a burden of about 40 tons and carried a sail of 50 by 25 feet.

A story is told of Major James Cochran, then a young man, who came to witness the launching. That night the young people wanted to dance. Having a fiddle with him, Cochran, who was an amateur performer, was pressed into service. In commending him for his performance, a man at the supper table said, "He is fit for Congress." Years later, Cochran was nominated and elected to a seat in Congress. To those who knew him, he once said, "I fiddled my way to Congress."2

In the early days, logs cut from surrounding hills were fashioned into rafts. A single makeshift sail was raised, and the "captain" sailed his craft by the seat of his pants to his destination at the other end of the lake. Since most of the Finger Lakes have outlets, those skilled in navigation followed the current to a certain degree, using a homemade tiller. This sort of rafting was more successful on calmer waters and usually didn't entail great distances, usually less than 40 miles, the distance of the longest lake. In later years rafts were towed by steamboats.

Casual references are made to commercial sailing craft on Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes. Steuben County historian Guy H. McMaster wrote: "The first navigators of Crooked [Keuka] Lake carried their cargoes in Durham boats of six or eight tons burden, which they poled along the shore, or when favoring breezes filled their sails, steered through the mid-channel. These primitive gondoliers have lived to see the end of their profession."

About 1807, George McClure, an old settler, built a schooner of about 30 tons burden near what is now Hammondsport, to transport wheat from Penn Yan, on the north end, back to the head of the lake. "I advertised the schooner Sally as a regular trader on Crooked Lake," McClure said. He erected storehouses at each end of the lake, the entire enterprise having cost McClure $1400. He said, "The whole, as it turned out, was a total loss, as the lake was frozen over at the time I most wanted to use it. The farmers did not carry their wheat to market before winter."3

There are very few references to commercial sailing vessels (schooners and sloops) on Cayuga Lake, even though it was connected with better advantage to the inland river system than neighboring Seneca Lake. It appears that most of the early commerce was carried on by Durham boats until the first steamboat was introduced on the lake in 1820." In all probability, however, these Durham boats were equipped with a sail to traverse the lake. The following account of a sailing craft on this lake by J. O. Noyes was published by the National Magazine in 1857, and re- published in The Lakes & Legends of Central New York by W. E. Morrison & Co. Ovid, New York:

In October, 1799, Captain Squires, an old seaman, who sailed a rude craft on the Cayuga, called "Betty Morgan," ran down to the Indian Cove for a cargo of brick. It being a pleasant day, with a fair wind, Mr. Burnham, the supercargo, concluded to sail back to Aurora instead of returning on horseback. As soon as they were half a mile out there came on a dead calm. At night Captain Squires strung up a rude ham mock for his companion, into which the latter crawled, somewhat hungry, as he had eaten breakfast before daylight, and there was not a crumb of food on board. Toward midnight a head wind sprung up from the south and soon blew very fresh. Mr. Burnham was aroused to take the helm, which he found him self unable to manage, as the motion of the boat gave him uneasy sensations about the epigastrium. The Betty Morgan sprung a leak, and the water was soon a foot deep in the hold. The supercargo had to pump or die. The pump handle, however, happened to be wanting, so that Mr. B. was obliged to lay hold of the rod with both hands, and work it with main force which he did lustily for six hours, sustaining himself with an occasional draught of water drawn from the lake in a broken jug with a string. After crossing the lake eight times to make a distance of five miles, they reached the foot of Franklin Hill the next day, and went ashore from the rudder. So much for the nautical experience of my venerable friend who has had the double honor of giving the electoral ballot of his district for John Quincy Adams, and, very recently, for John C. Fremont
© 1993, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer


1. Kanadesaga and Geneva by George S. Conover, Mss., 1888, p. 447.

2. History of Ontario County, N. Y. by George S. Conover, Syracuse, N.Y. 1893, p. 266.

3. History of the Settlement of Steuben County, N. Y. by Guy H. McMaster, Bath, N. Y. 1853, pp. 94,101.

4. Cayuga Lake Boating by Bob Robinson, DeWitt Historical Society, Ithaca, N. Y., 1965, p. 8.

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