and Keuka Lake
from Country Margins and Rambles of a Journalist, 1855
Midway between Penn Yan and the head of the lake if Bluff Point, around the base of which the lake sweeps, and which forms a peninsula, separating the east from the west branch of the lake. This point, as it is called, is a hill of some thousand feet in height, rising with a steep acclivity, but cultivated to the water's edge. On the top it is comparatively level, and presenting for some eight or ten miles a beautiful farming country. At the highest elevation stands a pleasant farm house, overlooking the lake and all the country round. Seen from the water, it stands out in bold relief against the sky, like some ancient castle of the barons of old. From Penn Yan to this dwelling, is a pleasant ride of some ten or twelve miles over a plank road most of the way. When there, the traveller will have a view worth a day's ride to look upon. He will be far above the surrounding country. On three sides of him will be the lake with the beautiful scenery that skirts it. To the East he will overlook a country of forest and farms for miles and miles, within which he will see two or three smaller lakes; to the north he will see Penn Yan, and the rich agricultural district that surrounds it, and beyond, the Seneca Lake. Away to the south he will be charmed by the beautiful valley that stretches away from the head of the lake, and is lost among the hills that hem in the valley of the Conhocton; while to the west his eye will wander over a country more wild and rugged, but still rich and beautiful. No traveller should leave Penn Yan without visiting Bluff Point. Nor should he fail to take a passage over the lake in the pleasant little steamer Steuben. In Captain JOHN GREIG he will find an intelligent and courteous gentleman—one who loves his boat and the lake he navigates, and the country and the people round it; who loves to point out the beauties of the scenery, and hear the tourist respond to his own enthusiasm. He is, as I said, an intelligent man, not profoundly educated in scholastic lore, but one who has read and thought a vast deal. Talk about the birds, and you will find him an ornithologist. He will show you his collection of birds, prepared in a superior manner by himself. Among these he will point out to you a loon or northern diver, taken on a hook upon a night line in more than a hundred feet of water. Talk about the fishes, and you will find him deeply conversant with piscatory lore. Talk of the animals that, when the country was wild, frequented the forests in this portion of the country, and you will find him at home on the subject. In whatever relates to nature, and the living things of nature, he is learned as careful reading and study can make a man of his years.
I go up the Lake with him to-morrow, and shall write you again. I go to visit the old scenes of my boyhood. Though everything is changed, though the old land marks that I loved are all gone, yet I love to linger around the spot where my early youth was spent, and call up visions of scenes long, long past. I love to call back the brave old trees, the fields, the fences, the stumps, the gushing spring, and brushing away the houses and the streets, place them as they stood of old. I love to call up the old maples that stood in the meadow between the old log house and the lake, in all their ancient verdure, and talk with the unseen spirits that people their green foliage. I love to tear away the store houses, the docks, and the great high wall that usurp the place of the little bay at the northwest corner of the lake, that shot landward beneath the spreading arms of the ancient elms and oaks, up whose great trunks the wild grape-vine climbed, and creeping out along the branches, covered them with its tendrils like a net work, and spread out its broad green leaves like a thatched roof, shutting out the light of the sun. And yet it is a sad thing to visit these old places and see the mighty change that has come over them.
I am on the Crooked Lake, a passenger in the pleasant little steamer Steuben under the command of Captain JOHN GREIG, of whom I have spoken before. All that I said of him then was true, all that I said of the scenery around this lake is true, unless it be that I have failed to do it justice. I said I was reared upon the banks of this lake, and that as I looked upon its pure clear water, and upon the hills, the gentle slopes, the valleys and the streams that come to it wandering away from the country, a crowd of sad, but pleasant memories come clustering around my heart. It is not now as it was then. Everything is changed. The old forests are gone, the tall pines, the majestic oaks, the maples, the sycamores, the gigantic elms, the lofty lindens, the wild cherry and the butternut trees, old primeval things all, are gone. Let me describe it to you as my memory paints it, before civilization had robbed it of its ancient beauty, as it lay here in the midst of the wilderness, sleeping alone. Let us look upon it as it was years and years ago, when I was a boy. We will talk with the old settlers, the pioneers that first made war upon the forests that stood in primitive solitude about it. They were the vanguard of civilization, and changed by their labor that great wilderness into fruitful fields. True, they have all passed away, dropped into honored graves, but we will call their spirits around us, and they will tell us of the times of old, of the scenes of the early settlements, of their struggles and hardships. They can tell us many a story connected with this lake that has lain here so long unappreciated and unhonored. We will not look upon the beautiful farms, the villages that now are found upon its shores. We will people the fields with the old forest trees, and brush away the houses and barns. We will take away the fences, and remove all these evidences of civilization. Where the flocks and herds are feeding in rich pastures, we will replace the deer and bear, and the other wild animals that roamed there before the woodman's axe frightened them away, or the hunter's rifle doomed them to destruction. We will do as I did more than thirty years ago, when there were but few clearings along the shore, go a voyage around the lake in a canoe made from the trunk of a gigantic pine. I earned my first five dollars by that voyage. I was hired by two English gentlemen to row them round the lake. They were kind-hearted men, for when they saw, boy that I was, that I was weary, they relieved me in turn from the oars. We were four days in making the circuit of the lake, but the guinea they paid me made me richer than I have ever been since.
At the northwest corner of the lake was a beautiful little bay, stretching landward some five or six rods by two or three in width. Above it the branches of tall oaks and elms were intertwined, and the wild grapes that crept up their great trunks, spread their net-work all over the tops of the trees, and made with their broad leaves an arbor through the arches of which the sun never shone. The water of this little bay was clear as crystal, and the white pebbles on the bottom, some three or four feet down in the water, were as visible as though nothing but air was above them. At the head of the bay, a cold spring that came gushing up at a few rods distant, entered. From this little bay I have caught, first and last, hundreds of speckled trout weighing from half a pound to three or four times that weight. But is is all filled up now—stores and shops, and a street, and docks, and a great high wall occupy the place of that little bay, and those old elms and oaks, and that spring, have all disappeared. I killed my first deer as he stooped his head to drink of the water of that little bay. I had watched him from my hiding-place for an hour, as he came browsing along the side of the hill. Just as the sun was going down, he stepped from the thick bushes on to the pebbly beach, and after looking all around him, and snuffling the air, he stepped confidently into the water to slake his thirst. My rifle was upon him, the ball that sped from it penetrated his brain, and he fell dead. Further south, stood a tall sycamore, the roots of which were laved by the water; upon the dead branches, near the top of which, was a favorite perch for the fish-hawk, as he watched for his prey. Occasionally a bald eagle would alight there to plume himself, and watch for the wild ducks that frequented the lake. Further south still, were a few acres of low marshy ground, where the main inlet entered, where the musk-rats built their houses, and the mink and the otter stole along the margin in pursuit of prey. The inlet took its rise some seven or eight miles up the valley, in a multitude of large springs, and it was full of the speckled trout. Let us pause here, and call up some of the old settlers, whose farms extended from this "big creek," as it was called, which flowed along through the centre of the valley, back to the hills. Judge BAKER, I believe, was the first white man who stuck his stake in that valley, and commenced the war against, the ancient forests, that has been carried on ever since with such relentless vigor. His farm is now in possession of his son, and a most beautiful one it is—rich in all that belongs to agriculture, and cultivated to a charm.
Judge BAKER was a most remarkable man, strong in physical strength, one calculated to endure the hardships of a new country, but stronger still in native, vigorous, common sense. I remember him well. In his latter years, when his early industry had relieved him from the necessity to labor, he was a reading man, and was always a thoughtful one. He was the first who explored that region with a view to settling there. He came from Pennsylvania up the valley of the Conhocton, and reaching the place where the village of Bath now stands, struck off through the valley towards the head of this lake. The forest around the lake was exceedingly dense, and before reaching it he climbed into a high tree, to take a look about him. He was not aware of its proximity, and when he had reached the topmost branches of the tree, there it lay within fifty rods of him, its waters calm and still, unruffled by a wave or a ripple. Two Indians were paddling their canoe along the hsore, going down the lake, while several deer were feeding among the grass and water lilies that grew about the mouth of the inlet. I have listened often and often to the old man's description of this beautiful sheet of water, as he then saw it for the first time. How he descended from his perch on the tall old elm, and worked his way to the pebbly beach, and how calm and still it was, how the tall forest trees cast their shadows out over the water as the sun was sinking in the west. How solemn and moveless the hills stood around. How the trout leaped in their gleesomeness from the surface, and schools of the yellow perch made the water boil in spots around. How he shot a deer that was feeding along the margin; how gently but gloomily the night shadows gathered around him; how the fireflies flashed their little torches in the darkness; how he slept on his bed of boughs, in a brush shanty built by himself; how gloriously the sun came up in the morning over the eastern hills, casting his brightness on the rippling waters, and making them glisten in the sunlight, like a sheet of fire. I remember, as I heard him describe the scene, how I thought I should like to have been with him on his exploring tour that time, and looked upon the lake as it lay there all alone, surrounded only by those old forests, and navigated only, by the wild men of the woods. It would have been a thing to remember always.