August 1995

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An Excursion on the

Keuka Maid


Richard Sherer

Talk by Steuben County historian Richard Sherer to a group of historians aboard the Keuka Maid.
T ranscribed by Norma B. Crane, Historian for the Town of Woodhull.

Welcome to the Keuka Maid. It's been 74 years since there was a big boat on this lake. The last one was the Mary Bell and it ran its last run in 1921. The reason operations ceased in 1921? The American public had a new plaything called the automobile, and they'd much rather take the daring trip down a highway than go on Keuka Lake in a boat. Today, we can again enjoy seeing the lake from an excursion boat.

As we cruise along I will point out some of the landmarks for you and tell you some of the history of this end of the lake.

There were several steamboats running on this lake in 1835. The first built was called the Keuka. It was 85 feet long, about the same as this boat, but only 16 feet wide. This boat is 40 feet wide and can carry 400 passengers. You can picture that the first boat was not a big boat; it had twin hulls with a paddle wheel in the middle. The Keuka towed barges and hauled passengers.

Following the Keuka there were eight sidewheelers and three screw steamers that ran on Lake Keuka. The Mary Bell, later renamed the Penn Yan, had a speed of 21 miles an hour. It was 150 feet long and 25 feet wide and could carry nearly 1000 passengers.

The Crooked Lake Canal was started in 1830 and when completed in 1833, Hammondsport became the head of navigation for a four-county area! Through the lake and the 26 locks of the Crooked Lake Canal to Seneca Lake and thence to the Seneca Canal and the Erie Canal to the Hudson River you could go all the way to New York City by water from Hammondsport.

Of the several shipping companies in Hammondsport, A. M. Adsit was the largest. He had from one to five barges leaving Hammondsport daily. The barges were moved by tugboats on the lakes but towed by horses along the canals.

The entire wharf at Hammondsport was lined with warehouses. One of the old warehouse books showed that during July and August, the heaviest months of travel, there would be from 20 to 60 dray loads of goods coming and going out of Hammondsport. In old newspaper accounts people recalled wagons lined up for a mile with goods, especially wheat going out after harvest. It was a busy place. From the quiet community that Hammondsport is now, it is hard to realize what a bustling place it was in the 1830s.

Originally the business district was up on the square, where it is today, but in 1833, when the canal was completed and shipping became the main industry of the village, the businesses moved to the lake's edge. I have an 1856 photograph of the waterfront of Hammondsport. There were 14 buildings; 10 of them were bars. It seems that shipping men and canalers drank a little bit, and they were accommodated.

In that era of illumination by kerosene lamps men in bars after too many drinks would get into a fight and someone would knock a lantern off the wall. The entire waterfront burned down about every four years. The buildings didn't last long enough to become dilapidated. Finally the merchants had enough and by 1860 they had moved back up to the square and left the waterfront to the taverns.

Hammondsport was a very busy community when it was the terminal for the grain belt that supplied much of the cereal grain for the eastern seaboard. This was considered to be the West then. Today we think of Kansas and on to California to be the West, but in the 1830s and 40s this was the West.

When Charles Williamson first came here the early settlers took the grain they grew on raft-like arks down the Conhocton River and the Susquehanna River to Baltimore. As soon as the Crooked Lake Canal was completed the grain was moved through the lakes, canals, and rivers to New York City. That traffic ended when the Erie Railroad came to Bath in 1855 and goods could move East faster by rail. A canal with 26 locks required a lot of upkeep. The Crooked Lake Canal never made any money; finally the state abandoned it in 1880. That ended the era of long-distance shipping from the then renamed Keuka Lake.

When the through shipping ceased what could the steamboat owners do? The operators had forseen the railroad coming and taking their freight business, so they shifted to passenger transport and promoted the lake as a tourist area.

The first passenger boat on the lake was the Keuka which had a speed of 6 to 7 miles an hour, depending on the wind. It was not a fast boat, but faster than travel on the dirt roads on either side of the lake. The fare was then $1 for passage from Hammondsport to Penn Yan. From one end to another there were about 19 regular stops to pick up or let off passengers along the length of the lake. Boats would stop if they saw a white flag fluttering at a wharf.

One particular day a man on the east side of the lake put out a flag indicating he wished to be picked up. The boat, perhaps already behind schedule, didn't stop. That man was Charles Halsey. He had enough money to start his own boat line. He did so and lowered the fare to 10. The existing line met his challenge by lowering their fare from Penn Yan to Hammondsport or Hammondsport to Penn Yan to 5. The Hammondsport newspaper ran a headline: "War on Keuka Lake."

There was fierce competition. It was not uncommon for boats to race for docks when they spied, through binoculars, people waiting. The only collision that ever occured on the lake happened because of trying to edge out a competing boat. Within two years Mr. Halsey bought out The Crooked Lake Steamship Line.

The passenger steamers carried thousands of passengers annually. In 1888 the Halsey which was 118 feet long carried 116,000 passengers. 300,000 passengers rode the lake steamers in 1890, the best year.

How did all of the people who rode the steamers get here? Some lived along the lake or came by horse and buggy, but most of them came by railroad.

The Bath and Hammondsport railroad started running in 1875 and by the era of passenger traffic on the lake they were making 10 trips a day to Hammondsport, and in the grape season as many as 12. So many people wanted to get to the lake and a boat, and the demand for empty cars in Hammondsport to fill with grapes was so urgent that the engineer would push a string of cars to the high point between Bath and Hammondsport and cut them loose to roll by gravity to Hammondsport while the engine returned to Bath for another batch of cars. Of course all the cars had to be brought back later in the day, but this daring expedient got more railroad passengers to the lake boats sooner in the morning. People called it "The Gravity Express."

The Bath and Hammondsport hauled as many as 150,000 people a year. On the 4th of July weekend of 1885, 4500 passengers went out of Hammondsport on steamboats.

Some were local riders and some were on excursions. Many came to stay at resort hotels on the lake.The first hotel on Keuka Lake was built at Grove Springs Point in 1867. By 1880 it had grown to accommodate 400 people. Of the eight hotels at one time on the lake, only Snug Harbor remains, and it is now a restaurant. Snug Harbor was built in 1890 by Major Stocum of Bath, it opened July 4th of that year. Lakeside is a restaurant hotel, but it was built as a cottage.

In addition to the big steamers, each of the hotels had their own little steamer to pick up guests. They were 60 - 65 feet long and carried 30 to 40 people. All of these boats were also meeting the trains that were bringing tourists to Penn Yan at the other end of the lake. There were a lot of boats running on the lake then; it was a busy place.

There weren't so many cottages until after 1915. Vineyards came down to the water's edge. The warm lake water protected that land from frost, hence it was valuable for grape culture. The first grapes were grown for table use. William Hastings shipped a couple of barrels of grapes packed in sawdust to New York City and got 40 cents a pound for them. $800 a ton! That is a lot more than today. Fortunes were made in a few years and land values went from $20 an acre to $2000 in just ten years.

Grapes became the principal freight of the lake boats. The grapes were carried by the boats from packing sheds along the lake shore to Penn Yan or Hammondsport where they were loaded into railcars for shipment to cities.

Soon there were more grapes offered than would sell and the price fell to 6 or 7 cents a pound. If the commission merchant couldn't sell a shipment of grapes, the grower didn't get any money and had to pay the shipping charges, too. By that time there were 15,000 acres around Keuka Lake planted with grapes, which is about the same as today. Grapes had been very profitable, but overproduction brought down prices until it was no longer profitable to raise and ship table grapes.

What could be done with the grapes? Some individuals had made wine from grapes, but could the wine be sold? Thirteen grape growers in Pleasant Valley hired a French wine maker and produced wine to sell. In 1865 eight growers along the west side of the lake started Gold Seal winery. They also hired a French wine maker. All the wineries prospered until 1919 when Prohibition began.

The table grape business had already declined by that time because seedless grapes from California came to be preferred to the Concord, Niagara, Delaware, and Catawba varieties grown around the lake. The wineries had paid more for grapes than growers could make selling table grapes, so the market pretty much died out in 1919. Sparse times came again to Lake Keuka during the years of Prohibition.

Between the tourist era and the time of prohibition there was a short boom when Glenn Curtiss was getting his aircraft business started in Hammondsport. At one time, just before the World War I, he employed 2200 people in his factory. There wasn't enough housing in Hammondsport for the people needed in aircraft engine production. Beds were rented by the hour, not by the day or week. Every bed was slept in nearly 24 hours every day. When the war started, Curtiss moved to Buffalo where there were more people to employ. He left a couple of plants, but the town was about dead by 1919. When Prohibition came, there wasn't much left in Hammondsport.

We are coming up on Frey Point now. It was owned by the family that owned the Germania Wine Cellar in Pleasant Valley and produced Imperial brand champagne. This point is also called Imperial Point. These cottages were built in 1917. Maybe you can see across the lake a log cabin that has two wheels mounted on the porch — that is the oldest building on Lake Keuka, but not in the time it has been along the lake. It was built in Wayne about 1800, then in 1916 or 1917 Bill Chadeayne who was a salesman for Curtiss moved it to the waterfront and reconstructed it.

Another Curtiss salesman, Lyman Seely, built an English-style house in 1918 with gardens down to the lake. It was a copy of a house he had lived in when he was in England and selling Curtiss equipment to the British and French governments. He spent $50,000 on the house and sold it in 1932 for $3500.

I'm sure everyone has heard the story about how the road on the west side of the lake was built before the highway on the east side. Back in 1928 or 1929 Governor Al Smith was invited to visit Keuka Lake. People on both sides of the lake were trying to get a new highway and they wanted to show the governor that their side needed a new road first. East side residents planned a sumptuous meal, watered down the old dirt road and persuaded everyone to stay off the road. They had a beautiful repast. On another fine afternoon he visited the west side. The word was passed that every farmer should go to town that day. When Al sat down to his meal everything was covered with a layer of dust. The west side got the first new road, in 1933.

Our trip today from Hammondsport aboard the Keuka Maid went about 6 miles along the east shore toward the bluff, crossed the lake and came back along the west side to Hammondsport.

© 1995, Richard Sherer

Related Articles

Keuka Maid Launched, July 1988
Keuka Lake Grape Pioneers, Richard Sherer, January 1989
Ruby Cottage and the Stocum House, from the Hammondsport Herald, June 1989
The Mary Bell, The Queen of Lake Keuka, July 1989
Grove Springs Hotel, July 1989
The Crooked Lake Canal, Part I, Fran Dumas, March 1990
The Crooked Lake Canal, Part II, Fran Dumas, April 1990
The Bath & Hammondsport Railroad, Richard Palmer, November 1994
Old Number 11 and the B & H Railroad by Richard Palmer, December 1994
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