August 1993

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Commercial Sailing

On the Finger Lakes


Richard F. Palmer

Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer

Part IV

To most, a 16-mile-long lake in central New York State seems an unlikely place to find a two-masted schooner similar to those found on the Great Lakes in the 19th century. This writer, though a native of this region, did a double take when chancing upon some old photos depicting a schooner on little Skaneateles Lake.

Research revealed something even more astonishing-that the schooner had been converted from a worn-out steamboat! There were three known schooners on this lake that had been converted from old steamboats.

The first commercial sailing vessel on Skaneateles was the schooner Constitution that started life as the side-wheel steamboat Independence. This vessel was launched on July 4, 1831, and made its first trip on the lake on July 22, 1831. She was between 80 and 100 feet long. William M. Beauchamp, historian, wrote:

On July 22nd the Steamboat Independence made her first trip, and tradition relates that the village fathers had a specially jolly time on board, expecting wonderful results from the boat, which did not follow. I remember her well, built in the style seen in old pictures, painted yellow, with a quarter deck and a cabin below. On August 17th she caught fire opposite Factory Gulf, but without serious damage. Captain Wells, who commanded, was part owner, but sold his interest to Charles Pardee, Nov.21,1831.
In April, 1832, she was carried in the ice four miles up the lake and anchored off my father's orchard. She was not a financial success and eventually became the schooner Constitution, which, with the Sloop Union, Captain Randall, long carried on the wood trade on the lake. In her latter days old Captain Fowler used to have to get up nights and pump to keep her from sinking. Even as a schooner, however, she sometimes carried parties of pleasure, and I remember well a fair company that thus visited Glen Haven before it had that name. Two of the ladies climbed the old log way. Who would undertake it now? The Independence took a gay party of 44 ladies and 19 gentlemen to the head of the lake Sept. 7, 1831, most of whom I knew later. The Auburn band of 20 pieces went along.15

The editor of the Auburn Free Press was one of the invited quests on this occasion, and he wrote in the issue of Oct. 8,1831:

Skaneateles Lake — On Friday last, we were exceedingly gratified with an excursion to the head of this beautiful sheet of water, on board of the steamboat Independence. Although the weather was not so pleasant as might have been desired, yet the gentlemanly deportment of Captain Wells, the beauty and grandeur of the scenery to be found upon the banks of the Skaneateles, together with the charm of novelty, attached to the idea of wafting over the surface of our native lakes with the aid of steam, all served to render the scenes of the day among those upon which in other years we shall be disposed to look back with increased pleasure. We had intended to glean a few sketches from our rough notes relating to the various incidents of 'The Day," but have only time at present to advise all those who wish to enjoy the pleasure of a jaunt upon the water, to gaze upon some of the most romantic scenes to be found in this region of hills and waves, of rocks and trees, or who wish to breathe for once the health-inspiring breezes of the mountain, and at the same time suitably to encourage the spirit of enterprise so laudably exhibited by Captain Wells, to make a party of our citizens, and upon the first fair day accomplish all these objects in the manner in which we have suggested.

(If the editor is correct, by perpetual calendar calculation, this trip would have been made on Oct. 1, and not Sept. 7, 1831).

In most cases, contemporary newspaper accounts are more reliable than reminiscences.) Whether the Independence was a true schooner may be questionable as the term was used rather loosely to describe a sailing vessel. One source states the vessel was actually sloop-rigged and carried lee boards to keep her up to the wind when close hauled.16 The next "schooner" was originally the steamboat Highland Chief, which is said to have been brought from the Hudson River. Some sources state this vessel was built in 1824, and was the first steamer on Skaneateles Lake. Her skipper was William Fowler. She was brought by canal, probably as far as Jordan, and then hauled to the lake by a large number of oxen. It was 40 feet in length. It is said this was a "very uncomfortable craft for pleasure parties, as it was liable to careen and upset."17

Records of commercial sailing vessels on this lake are fragmentary. The Skaneateles Press of Jan. 25,1866, reported:

We understand the sloop George Washington which was loaded with wood for Skaneateles was sunk a few days ago, some 5 miles above here, on the west side of the lake. It seems in a gale of wind she broke her bow chains and drifted out in the lake where the heavy waves soon swamped her and she went down in some 20 feet of water. A portion of her cabin and her masts only remaining in sight. A notice was posted in the Post Office for the purpose of building a dock at Borodino landing by the inhabitants. "Weather permitting we hope to see good turnout of men and teams so we can have a dock for the steamboat which now is being built in Skaneateles." Tte steamboat mentioned in this item as being under construction was the "Ben H. Porter," named for a local Civil War hero. About 10 years after she was built she also became a two-masted schooner.

The Porter was the first of the more "contemporary" steamboats on Skaneateles Lake. She was propeller driven, about 45 feet in length, and was constructed by Charles Hall of Brooklyn. She was launched on Aug. 6, 1866, and made her maiden voyage two days later. William Bailey was captain. He and Charles Isabell were the original owners.

The builder, fearing her machinery would sink too deep in the water, varied the boat's construction from the model so that it took eight tons to bring her down to what was designed to be her waterline. She was sold eventually to the Skaneateles Railroad in 1870. She was laid up after the 1875 season, her engines removed and installed in the new steamer Glen Haven which was launched June 21, 1876.

An old timer, George H. Williamson, recalled the Porter "was cranky and had not power enough to keep the steerage way, when the wind was heavy." The railroad company sold her in a drawing in 1876 for $129.18

The Skaneateles Democrat of Jan. 16, 1879, states: "The only mechanic's lien in the town of Skaneateles recorded in the county clerk's office is the one for $19 on the schooner Ben H. Porter. The schooner is safe at the bottom of Skaneateles Lake." This is the only documentation found to back up less reliable accounts that the vessel was converted to a schooner. It is said she was sunk at Spafford Landing, on the east side of the lake, for use as a dock.19

Another commercial vessel on this lake was the sloop (also called a schooner in some instances) Wildfire. The Skaneateles Democrat of Aug. 6, 1877, reported:

The schooner Wild Fire arrived in port on Friday, loaded with a general assortment. She came to anchor about 6 p.m. after a most successful trip. The wind during the entire passage was directly aft, and the trip was made like Cooper's famous craft, wing-on-wing. We observe however that this famous schooner needs overhauling. A little paint, to make port-holes, and cannon mouths more discernable, would be a great improvement. We make the suggestion to our ancient shipper without expectation of reward, and without charge.

The same paper on March 8, 1878, noted "Wild Fire sank Saturday night in 6 feet of water. It was anchored off the Roosevelt dock."

Apparently she was raised, for on Sept. 12, 1878, the newspaper noted "Wild Fire is loaded up with tile for Gillet's yard."

Another sloop, the Onandaga, was built in 1867 to haul wood from Glen Haven to Skaneateles. She was of scow design and was owned by Samuel Morris of Glen Haven. In December, 1875, she became caught in the ice near Skaneateles and was partially burned by some boys who were skating nearby.20

© 1993, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer


16. Skaneateles Democrat, Aug. 11,1910; Beauchamp, op. tit.

17. History of Skaneateles by E. Norman Leslie, N.Y. 1902, p. 77. An advertisement dated Aug. 3, 1831, shows "Highland Chief making tri-weekly trips on the lake in each direction, between Skaneateles and Rossville (Glen Haven). The round-trip fare was 75 cents.

18. Syracuse Journal, May 18, 1866; Skaneateles Democrat, Aug. 23, 1910; undated clipping from the Skaneateles Democrat, New York Railroad Commissioner's Report, 1876, P. 864. Skaneateles Free Press of April 15, 1876, states: "We learn that the engine now in the Ben H. Porter will be put into the new boat as well as some of the shafting."

19. Syracuse Post-Standard, April 14, 1929, article on Skaneateles steamboats.

20. Syracuse Journal, Nov. 11, 1867; Dec. 12, 1874.

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