June 1993

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Commercial Sailing

On the Finger Lakes


Richard F. Palmer

Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer

Part II

The Finger Lakes are long and narrow, none is more than four miles wide at any point. This does not allow much sea room for tacking when attempting to sail against the wind. A gaff-rigged schooner might travel twice the distance of the lake to go from end to end. Sloops were more common, and were usually of scow design. Like their Great Lakes cousins, these vessels transported lumber, bricks, potash, salt, sand, and other commodities. Even if the cargoes were going only a few miles, it was deemed cheaper and more efficient to ship by water. The early-day schooners and sloops also transported people on a sort-of schedule. They were loosely referred to as "packets."

As mentioned earlier, rafting was the most efficient way to move large quantities of logs to the mills. The Geneva Gazette of Wednesday, June 1, 1814, carries this item:

RAFT. - On Monday arrived from the head of the Lake the largest Raft ever brought to this place. It is 150 feet long and 50 wide, and consists of 7,500 feet of square timber, 227 large pine saw logs, besides several thousand feet of boards, &c.

There was an abundance of virgin timber in this part of the state in those days, but in a comparatively short period of time, the forests were replaced by farmland. To give an idea of how hard a person could work, an item in the Geneva Gazette of June 4, 1817, states:

On Monday the 2d inst. Jonas Nicholas, with Oliver Moffet, a person employed in his service, Fell, Chopped, Split and Corded TEN CORDS of fine Glass Furnace wood in Eleven hours, and on the same day crossed the lake from Mr. Ben. Dey's to the Glass Factory with a boat load of wood containing twenty-five cords.
I do hereby certify, that the above statement is correct, as I was present during the performance of the labor, and measured the wood when corded.
Wm. Gray
Geneva Glass Factory, June 3, 1817

Readers can be assured that these were the genuine article, and not face cords!

At least three Great Lakes schooners were built on the Finger Lakes, the schooner Sally Ann of 29 tons was built at Ovid, on Seneca Lake, and the sloop Geneva at Geneva, of 37 tons, both in 1814. The 37-ton schooner Lasiter was built at Ulysses on Cayuga Lake in 1816. All of these vessels had to be taken through the existing river system to Oswego as no canals existed at that time. At some points they would have had to have been portaged around falls.

Previous to the completion of canals, commerce was limited to batteaux and Durham boats that could readily be carried around falls and rapids. The Seneca Lock & Navigation Co. was incorporated on April 6, 1813, to establish locks and a channel between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. This private canal, however, was not opened for business until the first loaded canal boat passed through on June 14, 1818.5

The Erie Canal was commenced at Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817, with a large celebration. The middle section, between Utica and Montezuma, was officially opened to navigation in May, 1820. However, a few canal boats are known to have traversed portions of this section prior to the official opening.6 The Oswego branch of the Erie Canal was not completed and opened until April 28, 1829.7

There was considerable commercial traffic on Seneca lake, before and after the Erie Canal system came to this region. In those days nearly every man of enterprise had a boat, or a fleet of them, as water was by far the cheapest mode of transportation. Local fanners grew crops, made cloth and other products for shipment to distant markets. A bit later there were trestles built and warehouses erected for the transshipment of coal from Pennsylvania.

The schooner "S. S. Ellsworth" under the command of Captain Goff, took on a cargo of 180 tons of bituminous coal at the Morris Run Coal Company's dock in Watkins on Saturday, Sept. 11, 1869. The coal was consigned to a firm in Toronto. Passing down the lake and through the canal system to Oswego, the schooner here took on another 120 tons of coal. This is said to have been the first direct shipment ever made from Seneca Lake to a Canadian port.8

A small news item in the Geneva Gazette of July 18, 1827, mentions, "A schooner of about 40 tons was launched on Canandaigua Lake on the 3d inst completely rigged."

Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes are 18 and 14 miles long respectively. While Canandaigua Lake was landlocked, Keuka was connected with Seneca Lake by the Crooked Lake Canal. Although only eight miles long, this canal rose about 277 feet through 28 locks, between Dresden and Penn Yan. The canal was officially completed October 10, 1833, and was in operation until June 4, 1877. Later, a railroad was built on the tow-path.

The Chemung Canal, linking Seneca Lake with the Chemung River, was opened in May, 1833, between Watkins and Horse-heads, 39 miles. There were 53 locks on the waterway. It was abandoned in 1878.9

Owasco Lake a few miles east of Cayuga stretches approximately 11 miles in length from Auburn southward to just short of the village of Moravia. It has always been landlocked to navigation, although several efforts were made in the early 1830s to construct a canal from the outlet of the lake to the Erie Canal.10 No evidence has been found of commercial sailing vessels on this lake.

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


5. Geneva Gazette, Aug. 5,1818

6. Whitford, Noble E., History of the Canal System of the State of New York, 1906. Vol. I, p. 957. A boat tried unsuccessfully to go from Seneca Falls to Syracuse, on Dec. 10,1819. It got as far as Jordan and was forced to return due to the ice and inclement weather-Cayuga Republican, Dec. IS, 1819.

7. Churchill, John C. Landmarks of Oswego County, Syracuse 1895, p. 347.

8. Geneva Gazette, Sept 19,1869

9. Whitford, op. cit, pp 640,645,652-53; Gazeteer of the State of New York by Franklin B. Hough, Albany, 1872, p 78.

10. Whitford, op. cit.

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