The Crooked Lake Review

May 2008

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Book Review

It Started With a Steamboat

An American Saga

by Steven Harvey, AuthorHouse Publishers, 2007, 312 pp.

reviewed by

Richard Palmer

The history of steamboat transportation on the Finger Lakes is skillfully chronicled in It Started With a Steamboat, An American Saga, written by Steven Harvey.

Fittingly, the author begins at the beginning, with Robert Fulton and his new steamship traveling up the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. Establishing the beginnings of steamboat travel in the new country, he shifts very quickly to the topic of the book, steamboat use on the larger western Finger Lakes namely Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes. The smaller lakes are not covered.

What is surprising is how early steamboats were used on the lakes, with the first one being launched on Cayuga Lake in 1820. This boat, the "Enterprise," traveled between Ithaca and Cayuga Bridge, creating an important trade route that connected the lower regions of the state to the new Erie Canal. For the first thirty years of its use, the Erie Canal crossed the Seneca River by lowering boats into the river. Until the Cayuga Canal was built in 1827, boats could leave the canal and travel up river to Cayuga Lake if they wished or visa versa. Once the Cayuga Canal was opened, the river part of this journey was eliminated and the canal boats could enter the lake directly at Cayuga. In either case, a steamboat traveling up the lake, in effect, could extend the canal journey by another forty miles. Soon after, all the larger lakes had steamboats of one size or another, offering passenger service, cargo transport or the towing of canal boats that had used the new Cayuga, Seneca, Crooked Lake and Chemung Canals.

The book also goes into the interplay and competition between the steamboats and the new railroads that were built along the shores of the lakes and as feeders to the lakes. At first the railroads were built as to complement the boat service, connecting the lower regions of the state to Ithaca and Hammondsport. These villages became important transfer points, where cargo could be taken off the trains and placed on boats. As the railroads grew in size, they then became direct competitors to the boats.

In addition to speaking to the interplay between the lakes, canals, and railroads, the book gives a good description of what the steamboats looked like and how they worked. The photographs and drawings are somewhat limited by the small size of the book. I found the maps particularly difficult to read, but I am a map person, and I feel that the inclusion of detailed maps always can make a good book better. I also felt that the entire story was not told as the book does not speak to boat use on the eastern lakes. But after thinking about it, I realized that these lakes did not have large villages or cities on both the north and south end, such as Geneva and Watkins Glen on Seneca, and Ithaca and the Erie Canal on Cayuga, plus all the connecting canals, which added to the traffic. However this in no way detracts from the overall enjoyment of learning about the lakes and steamboat history.

The book ends with a discussion of Glenn Curtiss and his work on the airplane and motorcycle. This is fitting as the work done by Curtiss signaled the end of steamboat and canal transportation and the beginning of a new era of transportation.

It greatly benefits from research by our own steamboat authority, Don Quant of Port Byron. He perused local newspapers looking for articles relating to steamboat use on the Finger Lakes and this research is evident throughout the work.

The author was born at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1950. Son of Midwesterners he was educated in Florida and joined the Navy in 1969. It was during this time that he became a steam mechanic aboard the USS Forrestal. Harvey has a life long fascination with the history of steamboats. He has produced steamboat models for the Glenn Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport and the New York State Museum at Albany.

Harvey lives near Benson, N.C. He created most of the steamboat drawings contained in this book.

The book is available from bookstores in the Finger Lakes region and from online booksellers.

Poster courtesy of Bill Hecht, Union Springs.
© 2008, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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