July 1993

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Commercial Sailing

On the Finger Lakes


Richard F. Palmer

Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer

Part III

On July 4, 1814, people gathered from miles around to witness the launch of the schooner Robert Troup in Geneva. The Geneva Gazette of July 13, 1814, carried this account of the event:

The 4th of July was celebrated in this village in a handsome style. The artillery and Light-Infantry companies, commanded by Captains Goundry and Sweeney, paraded at the Hotel in the morning, formed a line, with the Standard in the centre supported by officers, and, preceded by the Marshal of the day and followed by citizens, marched to the lower extremity of the village, where a large concourse of people had collected to witness the launch of the new schooner built by Mr. Spaulding, called the Robert Troup. Immediately after she reached the water, her name was announced, followed by the discharge of one gun from a field piece attached to the artillery company, a detachment from which was stationed on board.
The schooner came to at Horsen's wharf, took on board the uniform companies, and stood off and on while the troops fired a national salute, which, from its novel appearance (being performed on water) attracted much attention. The military then disembarked, partook of a dinner at the Hotel, and dispersed.
The Robert Troup is a handsome, well-built schooner, 50 feet keel, and will carry 60 tons; she is the largest vessel ever floated on the waters of the Seneca Lake.
Lyman Spaulding, whose father, Erastus, built this schooner, recalled the vessel was built to carry plaster from Geneva to the head of the lake, where it was sold to farmers. "The ship carpenters came from Rhode Island specially to build this schooner," he said. "She is a very pretty craft, and I made several trips in her up the lake, to bring down wood to sell in Geneva. I have forgotten what disposition was made of the schooner, no doubt she went to pay debts."11

The Geneva Gazette of May 23, 1879, carried an interesting letter from a "W. Ansley" of Addison, New York, that describes the launching of the Robert Troup. The vessel was named for a well-known land agent for the Pulteney Estate that held large tracts of land in the area.

A Reminiscence of the Past

It is natural for the aged to recall the past and to draw from memory's casket circumstances that were more particularly of a character that make lasting impressions on the mind. One such circumstance of a novel character took place in Geneva, as near as I can recollect, about sixty-five years since, viz: the launching of a schooner at the foot of Seneca street. Notice being published, there was a general turnout from the surrounding country to witness the novel sight, as was also the case a few years subsequent when Gen. Lafayette passed through Geneva. My father, living five miles south of Geneva, on the pre-emption, gave his family the opportunity to attend. On our arrival the schooner stood high and dry on timbers prepared for her exit into her natural element. It took considerable time to unloose the fastenings and arrange matters for the grand slide.
When all was ready a cannon was taken on board and the deck filled with men who, by their actions, were to precipitate the schooner into the water. After several attempts in jumping up and down by those on deck, the schooner at last shot down the timbers, but came near proving disastrous, as one of the timbers on which she slid broke, but the schooner was so far advanced she went safely. When a sufficient distance from the shore the booming of cannon and the hurrahs of those on deck denoted in unmistakable acclamations the success of the enterprise. While those on board were in the successful tide of enjoyment, those on shore, being a promiscuous assembly, were entertained by a few nude persons displaying their antics in the water. I do not mention this circumstance, however, as being in the programme of the day's proceedings. I believe the schooner was built for the wood and lumber trade. When the schooner had fulfilled her destiny, my memory is at fault what became of her. I presume there are numbers still living in Geneva who were present on the occasion alluded to.

Shipwrecks also occurred on the Finger Lakes. At about 1 pm on March 22, 1822, a tremendous gale from the south developed on Seneca Lake. A schooner laden with lumber and some furniture filled with water opposite the glass works just south of Geneva. Although the vessel remained upright, it became unmanageable, and was at the mercy of the high waves. The crew, consisting of four men, lashed themselves to the mast for self preservation. The waves ran high and breached the ship.

When first spotted, the schooner was about two miles out in the lake. The storm continued with unabated fury. Eventually, a pleasure boat was launched and six lifesavers went to the rescue. Even the rescue boat became almost unmanageable. Eventually the gallant crew reached the ship and rescued the four men who were suffering from exposure and exhaustion. The boat returned to shore where the crew and passengers received a hearty welcome from those on shore. The lifesavers were commended for risking their lives to save those of others.12

Presumably, the ship was lost. More than one cove on the Finger Lakes became the final resting place of commercial sailing vessels and their crews who were swept from the deck in storms.

A lighter story concerns the schooner Lyre of Tioga, built at Mills Landing at Montour Falls (then called Havana) during the winter of 1826-27, and financed by local businessmen. Coincidental with this was the construction of a draw bridge over the inlet to Seneca Lake, also known as Catharine Creek. When completed, the new craft was loaded with locally-produced commodities to be taken to eastern markets through the canal system. But the Lyre could not pass through the narrow drawbridge gap where the creek entered the lake. Pleas to widen the gap had fallen on deaf ears, and the owners faced financial ruin with their boat.

The boat owners solved the problem coincidental and in keeping with the Fourth of July. They placed a cannon on the prow of the schooner and loaded it with broken andirons. When a convenient distance from the drawbridge, one well-directed shot made kindling wood out of the span and the Lyre sailed on its merry way. It is said the "attack" on the drawbridge was made at night so the law was never able to prove who destroyed the bridge. A new bridge was soon built of a more accommodating size to allow passage of boats.13

Troubles faced by early businessmen are reflected in a letter to the comptroller dated June 24, 1826. Explaining why the Hector and Catharine Turnpike Road and Bridge Company had no income to report, Samuel S. Seely, the president stated:

"...Soon after the Road and Bridge was completed and the prospects successful, a number of envious, designing rioters, living in the adjoining country, who pretended the Bridge obstructed the navigation of the inlet of the Seneca Lake (over which the Bridge and Road was made), and in their wisdom took the Law in their own hands, cut, burned and totally destroyed the Bridge, which has not been rebuilt nor can be, before about the close of the present year."14

Apparently the bridge was rebuilt and operated successfully for many years. In 1840 the company reported tolls of S435.37 collected and $344.80 profit after paying expenses. Net the following year was $297.87 on $494.37 received. Reserves for depreciation were not considered in those days so 4'/2% dividends were regularly paid to holders of the company's 200 shares of $25 stock.

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


11. Recollections of the War of 1812 and Early Life m Western New York by Lyman A. Spaulding. Niagara County Historical Society Publications, No.2, Lockport, N.Y., 1949. p. 12.

12. Geneva Gazette, March 27. 1822.

13. The Lake Country by John Corbett, Rochester, 1898, pp. l33-35.

14. Letter to W. L. Marcy, Comptroller of New York State. (If this is correct, then the date given by local historians of this incident is erroneous-or a year off, as they state it occurred on the Fourth of July. I thank Schuyler County Historian. Barbara Bell, for this information. Occasionally. there is a thin line between truth and fabrication. R.P.)

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