September 1995

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The Story of the

Canandaigua Lake Steamboats

What They Were and Who Captained Them

by James S. Lee
From the August 9, 1922, issue of The Ontario County Times.Provided by Richard F. Palmer

Part I

Canandaigua Lake the Last of the Finger Lakes to Maintain a Regular Boat Service — Exciting Incidents of the Early Steamboating

The Lady of the Lake

Canandaigua lake, alone of all the waters in the Finger lakes region, now has the distinction of possessing a regularly maintained passenger boat line. In view of this fact, and before the transportation service thus maintained succumbs, as has that on other inland waters in this part of the state, to the competition of the privately owned launch and the automobile, it is well to recall something of the history of navigation on the lake.

The First Steamboat

The first craft on Canandaigua lake to seek public patronage was a steam boat called "The Lady of the Lake," which was built through the enterprise of Francis Granger, John Greig, Jared Wilson, James D. Bemis and other prominent citizens of the village. This was launched in the summer of 1827, at a point on the west shore opposite the island, in the presence of a brilliant gathering and under the eyes of the officers of the 13th regiment of militia, assembled by order of their commander, Colonel John A. Granger, for their annual drill. The "light infantry," the local militia company, was also out in its natty uniforms and with its fine martial music. The speech of the occasion was made by Mr. John Greig and the boat was christened with a bottle of wine broken by Miss Sally Morris, the daughter of Hon. Thomas Morris, a former prominent resident of the village.

Isaac Parrish was the captain of the wonderful craft, which however, was not a financial success and had but a brief career. The next lake steamboat, called "The Ontario," was built by a company of Naples capitalists and was launched in the fall of 1845. Her skeleton, too, was after a few years embedded in the sand at the bottom of the lake.

This first "Ontario's" immediate succesor was the "Joseph Wood," a graphic picture of which appears in a painting of Seneca Point, made by an unidentified artist of the time and which now, through the gift of Dr. and Mrs. Albert L. Beahan, hangs in a place of honor in the Historical Museum in this city. The boat was built by Allen and David Wood and for a time was successfully managed by the Standish brothers.

About the year, 1858, Captain John Robinson, afterwards the well known foundryman of the village, built the steamer, "Henry B. Gibson," which after being enlarged and renamed "The Naples" passed into the hands of the Warner brothers. She was later destroyed by ice at Canandaigua. In 1865 the Warners built as her successor a boat which was christened "The Canandaigua," and which for a number of years was owned and operated by the well-known brewers, J. & A. McKechnie.

Canandaigua vs. Ontario

In September, 1867, the Standish brothers completed the building of a new boat christened "The Ontario," the second Canandaigua lake craft to bear that name. This new "Ontario" was launched at Woodville on the 25th of that month with appropriate ceremonies, the traditional bottle being broken over her bow by Miss Julia Phelps of Canandaigua, Manning C. Wells, Esq., delivered the address.

A sharp rivalry ensued between the "Canandaigua" under the management of the McKechnies, and the "Ontario," of which Henry Standish succeeded to the captaincy, but of the incidents of this "war" and of the subsequent history of the lake navigation, we have asked Mr. James S. Lee, of Boston who knew and loved the lake in his boyhood and who has spent succeeding summers as a sojourner on its shores, to tell the story.

In the Centennial year, 1876, writes Mr. Lee, two side-wheel steamboats, already some ten years in service, were engaged in carrying passengers and freight to points on the shores of Canandaigua Lake. These boats, the "Canandaigua" and "Ontario," maintained a keen rivalry for the transportation business of the lake for thirteen years and for seven years longer, until replaced by more modern vessels, run on regular schedules during the season of navigation.

Arrangement of the Old Boats

In general arrangement the "Canandaigua," and "Ontario," as well as all the subsequent side-wheel steamboats on the lake were similar. An open deck at the bow where heavy freight was carried and where horses, cows and poultry were parked during their progress to and from the Naples fair, afforded the place from which landings were usually made. From this forward deck sliding doors led to a housing which covered the remaining length of the boat, within which, amidships, were the boiler and engine, with a passage forward and on either side. Over the guards were arranged a cigar and candy counter, a ticket office, engineer's and captain's rooms, and in the widest part of the boat, the paddle boxes enclosing the wheels driven from the engine by shafts crossing the passageways. Aft of the engine was a stairway leading to the upper deck and aft of that again, the "Ladies Cabin," a place apart, with a carpet, fringed curtains for the windows and chairs fearfully and wonderfully upholstered. Around the "Ladies Cabin," ran a narrow, open deck just wide enough for one to sit with feet braced against the rail — a pleasant spot, on the shady side, from which to observe the passing beauties of the lake.

The deck above this housing was covered aft the curving paddle boxes. A bench ran 'round against the rail and with numerous chairs afforded seating accommodation for a large number of passengers. Two small row boats, much the worse for wear, and a number of short planks with rope handles, comprised the life-saving equipment.

The steamboats were painted white outside until the hulls below the guards, from motives of economy, were changed to black. Their names were emblazoned on either side in large black letters, below the half round tops of the paddle boxes.

Captain Cooper

The "Canandaigua," then owned by J. and A. McKechnie, had for her captain one Marshall W. Cooper, formerly in the employ of the McKechnies as a grain buyer. In appearance he favored the farmer rather than the nautical man, wearing a long blond chin whisker, but he became a zealous exponent of inland navigation.

The "Canandaigua" was 100 feet long and propelled by a single cylinder, high pressure, horizontal engine, and burned soft coal under her boiler. Her progress through the lake was accompanied by a sonorous "whoof — whoof," with clouds of dark smoke from a very tall stack painted a shiny black at the beginning of the season and ending a rusty brown at the close of navigation. A source of wonder to the more youthful passengers was the valve motion of this engine, consisting of long steel jaws, worked by an eccentric from the main shaft, which opened and closed with a bovine and hypnotic inevitableness, like an insatiable cow chewing a perpetual cud.

Captain Hank Standish

The "Ontario," 130 feet in length, was a much larger boat than the "Canandaigua." Her owners were the Standish Brothers of Naples and one of them, familarly known as "Hank," was her captain. She steered by means of a horizontal wheel occupying most of the pilot house and under which, small boys, when allowed in that sanctum, must crawl to reach the corner by the window, the most delectable place to see and be seen on the boat.

The "Ontario" was a wood burner and on cold mornings when the doors to the forward deck were closed, the passageway in front of the big boiler, was a warm and cheery place in which to watch the handling of the six foot logs as they were pitched into the blazing furnace by the fireman, who had to stoke her pretty continuously to keep up steam.

Having a low pressure condensing engine, the "Ontario" was comparatively silent in her progress through the lake, but at night after reaching Woodville, while the "Canandaigua" [lay] tied up to the dock, she must steam up the Inlet, where her crew loaded a supply of wood for the following day. She was a prettily modeled boat but rather down by the head, her stern standing quite high out of water, and she was a great roller, being but twenty feet wide inside the guards. Like all the boats she became hog-backed as she grew older, her decks amidships being very nearly a-wash when heavily loaded.

During a period of high water, the "Ontario" was once run up the Inlet to Clark's Bridge, the head of navigation, where she was turned and brought back a load of wheat — no mean feat when her length and the sharp turns of the "West River," are considered.

The main shaft of the "Ontario," turning paddle wheels nineteen feet in diameter, was about four feet above the deck of the passageways on either side of the engine compartment, which they crossed at right angles, so that all persons going forward or aft were obliged to pass under the revolving shaft. A comical sight was to watch passengers when approaching a landing, hurrying forward with bags, baskets and babies, ducking or crawling to avoid cracking their heads on eight inches of turning steel. At night the boat was but dimly lighted by kerosene lamps and the incident is told of a young woman passenger who, in the darkness of an evening landing, ran headlong against the shaft and was carried on shore in a state of unconsciousness.

A Distracted Mother

Competition for passenger business was fierce in those days. Captains Cooper and Standish, at the hour of starting the morning trip, were accustomed to stand near their respective gang planks bidding for fares up the lake; the tariff in some cases going as low as ten cents a head to Woodville, though a quarter was the regular charge. The efforts of the captains were well seconded by members of the crews, when an undecided passenger was sometimes seized and carried bodily on board, nor was he allowed to leave until he reached his destination.

One morning while the two boats were lying side by side in the basin at the Canandaigua end of the lake, their respective captains, alert for fares perceived at the same moment a carriage or "hack" approaching in which was seated a woman holding a baby in her arms, while by the side of the driver reposed a bag containing supposedly articles necessary for the convenience of mother and babe during a projected visit to the lake.

The carriage had hardly halted, nor had the passenger time to alight before the watchful Captain Cooper seized the bag and bolted for the gangplank of the "Canandaigua," while Captain Standish, with equal celerity, grabbed the baby from the arms of its mother and made for the "Ontario."

The distracted woman glancing in despair first at the bag and then at the baby, eventually decided that the higher call was with the latter and followed her offspring to the deck of the "Ontario," demanding her bag in no uncertain terms from Captain Cooper, seconded by a deck hand despatched for it by Captain Standish. Captain Cooper, however strenuously resisted its surrender, but he made a special landing to restore the lady's property at her destination.

Turning the boats in the basin after the trip down the lake was a precarious manouver; each crew jockeying to make the forward berth on account of its advantages in leaving for the up trip. A line carried ashore from the captain assisted in the process, with much backing and filling by the engine, and in this, the "Canandaigua," being shorter and handier, usually had the better of it but not without occasional bumps from her more unwieldy rival and strong language from the decks of both vessels.

A collision at Woodville led to an argument as a result of which one captain had to be fished out of the lake. The "Canandaigua" lying at the dock, was tied up forward only, leaving a wedge shaped opening between it and her starboard side. Into the opening the "Ontario" steamed at good speed. with resulting damage to boats and dock, upon which the doughty captains leaped at each other and had it out then and there, with the sequel before mentioned.

Never a Serious Accident

Strangely enough, although often narrowly averted, there was ever a serious accident recorded as a result of these strenuous operations, nor was a passenger ever lost or badly injured through any fault of the boats or their handling.

The "Canandaigua" was somewhat faster than the "Ontario," but Captain Standish and afterwards Captain Ed Herendeen made up by skillful and adroit handling most of what their boat lost in speed; timing their landing to a nicety and passing signals if necessary to gain or keep the lead.

As the boats left the basin at the same hour, it was a race to the first landing and a poor run indeed when they did not reach it close together. With safety valves blowing a volume of hissing steam, silenced only by the louder blast of the whistle announcing a stop to be made, the pilot of the leading boat would ring one bell for slow speed and another to stop the engine as she slid against the bending "piles" of the dock. Two bells astern, when the line thrown over the piling brought her up with a jerk followed by the rattle of the gang plank and the hasty exit of the passengers in order that they might land before the boat pulled away and the receding plank dropped them into the lake.

Part II
© 1995, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
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