October 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

Part II

Daily Trips of the Boats Were Events Indeed — The Last Word in Picnics — Amusing and Interesting Incidents — Second Installment of Mr. Lee's Story

Cabins up the Lake

No other means existing in those days of reaching points on the lake, except a long and tedious ride over poor roads, the daily trips of the boats were events indeed and the interest taken by their patrons in their speed and regularity, real and intense.

Then it was that many of Canandaigua's business men spent the summer in their "Cabins up the Lake" and daily commuted by boat to and from the village. Each on rising, eagerly would scan the waters for the white sides of the approaching boat; for, if she was about to cross the lake to Whiskey Point or Vine Valley, it meant for him a less hasty breakfast or one more griddle cake or cup of coffee.

Fluttering white signal flags on many docks foretold a long trip down the lake but once on board there were other commuters with whom to pass the time of day, while the mere weekender worried all the way to town whether he would catch the train to Rochester and in spite of John Touhey's hack chartered to run full speed to the "depo," he often didn't.

Before the Days of the R. F. D.

Before the days of the R. F. D. the boats carried the United States Mails to farm house post offices scattered at strategic points along the lake shore but the morning newspaper was then no more a possibility, than now.

Seneca Point and Vine Valley were important halting places to which it was customary to make pilgrimages for a day's picinic. All the large Sunday schools had an annual outing on the lake, as well as many other organizations, but the last word in picnics was said when the Turn Verein came from Rochester, to spend a day in singing and outdoor sports such as only "Turners" can enjoy. Then, often both boats were chartered to carry the crowd and even one of the prehistoric scows was sometimes requisitioned and lashed between them, when all three proceeded amicably abreast to Seneca Point, remaining there with steam softly hissing until the shades of night, when the happy Turners loaded themselves aboard and left for Canandaigua and Rochester.

It was while carrying large numbers of passengers, that a curious contrivance, seen only on these steamers, came into use; namely a movable ballast box filled with iron scrap and mounted on wheels one of which could be steered by means of a lever projecting through the top of the box. It needed but a small incident to arouse the curiosity of the crowded excursionists on the upper deck, when with one accord all would rush to the side on which the object of interest happened to be, while the steamer by the sudden shifting of weight, would list until water ran over the guards and even into the sacred precincts of the Ladies Cabin. Then it was that the crew manned the ballast box and painfully pushed it up the sloping deck to regain the boat's equilibrium. A manouvre not infrequently repeated with the shifting of the human ballast, especially with a joyous picnic party intent not to miss anything to be seen, even if the boat capsized in the process.

A 24-Pound Lake Trout

In a steamboat trip up the lake, amusing and interesting incidents were not uncommon. The "Canandaigua" was one morning approaching Fishers' Grove, a cabin on the east side of the lake opposite Foresters and was slowing down for the landing when two very excited individuals rowed along side demanding to know if there were any scales on board. Upon being assured that such was the case an enormous fish was lifted from the bottom of the boat and held up to the envious gaze of the passengers. Weighed on board it tipped the scales at twenty-four pounds, a lake trout, the largest ever caught in our waters. The line which effected its capture was dark green, very heavy, with a number of leads enclosing the line near the spoon, which was a large one with a single hook.

During one season a concession to net carp was granted by the State to an individual who set gill nets in the weed bed near the mouth of the Inlet. Thousands of carp were taken in this manner, loaded into old wine casks filled with water and shipped alive by boat to Canandaigua, their ultimate destination being Brooklyn, where it was said lived persons not only willing to buy but to eat them. One of the commodities carried by the boats in summer, the cause of many heart burnings among residents of the lake shore, was ice. When a cake of that expensive element already perceptibly diminished in size by the warm trip up the lake was left under a hot sun on a neighbor's dock, instead of that of an expectant recipient, there was cause for annoyance, exceeded only when as sometimes happened, a slip on the narrow gangplank followed by an ominous splash, foretold the fate of the household necessity, the humor of which was more appreciated when viewed from the boat than from the shore.

Meetings in mid-lake between the steamboats were brought about by three long blasts from the whistle, the answering signal from the summoned boat, visible as puffs of white steam before the sound could reach expectant ears. Gingerly approaching each other, starboard guards rubbed gently together and passengers or freight were tranferred as the case might be. Passing boats always saluted each other punctiliously, etiquette demanding that they be exactly opposite, when a short blast from whistles consumated the courtesy.

In rough weather signals had to be passed on docks so situated that there was danger of bow or stern swinging round and grounding on a lee shore. Landings at Seneca Point could always be effected if the weather permitted navigation. The water there being deep and the dock long and well built. Many a morning have residents of Pearl Beach, Vine Cottage and the Hickories, made a dash on foot to catch the boat at Seneca, their own landing having been ignored.

It took a pretty rough lake to keep the big steamboats in dock at Woodville or Canandaigua but old inhabitants will remember enforced holidays during which a howling south wind kept them holding down piazza furniture or hopefully tapping a falling barometer.

A Heavy Freight Business

With the approach of autumn, passenger business became of secondary importance to carrying the produce of the hillside farms. Crates of berries, baskets of peaches and sweet scented grapes and barrels of pears and apples usurped space on the boats. The sacred Ladies Cabin first filled, cargo overflowed decks and gangways as docks were cleared of their fragrant burden; all members of the crew assisting to hasten the loading and transfer to the iced cars destined for Boston and Philadelphia waiting on the siding at the basin.

The "Canandaigua" and "Ontario" were supplemented in freight carrying by two picturesque old sailing scows, survivors of an even earlier epoch.

They hoisted a single large sail on a mast near the square bows. Aft was a hut-like structure where the crew of one could take shelter from an approaching storm, at which time the scows incontinently fled to shore and tied up to the nearest dock. They carried all kinds of bulky freight; firewood secured by poling up the Inlet, hay in bales, lumber and coal. Before a booming south wind they could sail the length of the lake in the course of a day, the lonely crew struggling with a long tiller, to keep her head before the wind. When loaded with fruit, the steamboats usually gave the scows a friendly lift towing them alongside down the lake. The disappearance of the sailing scows was a real loss to the romance and picturesqueness of the lake. Their weather beaten sails recalling the day when steam was still unknown and the paddles of the canoe and the changing winds, the only aids to navigation.

Struggle between "Canandaigua" and "Ontario" Ended — Lake Navigation Company Builds "The Onnalinda" but Meets Opposition from The People's Line — The End

Small Screw Steamers

Two small screw steamers were bought by the McKechnies during the career of "The Canandaigua." The first, the "Vanderbilt," appeared on a huge truck in Main Street and was drawn by horses to the lake. She was run part of one season and was afterwards sold for service on the Hudson river. The "Vanderbilt" had a steel hull, was long, narrow and of such deep draft, that she could not get out of the basin at low water, nor land at most of the docks at any time.

The "Seneca Chief," second of these boats, never a success, had little deck room and poor accommodation for passengers or freight. She was very cranky and not so fast as expected for making trips supplementing those of the "Canandaigua." Having frightened the patrons of the line so that none of them would ride in her, she was dismantled, her steel hull sunk as unseaworthy while her engine was subsequently installed in the scow, "Mary Ann," after having done duty for a time, in a later boat, the "Oriana."

Somewhat later the "Fairy," a privately owned steam launch, smaller than the "Seneca Chief," made occasional trips to carry passengers. She had a clipper bow, her deckhouse painted a robin's egg blue, the top of her stack cut in picket shaped points and her rails brightly nickeled. In spite of these refinements, the "Fairy" was as top heavy as the "Seneca Chief" and really dangerous in the trough of a heavy sea.

In the year 1880, the struggle for supremacy between the "Canandaigua" and "Ontario" came to an end. Under the banner of the "Canandaigua Lake Steam Navigation Company," an awe inspiring title, the former rivals declared a truce and were able to increase fares and cut down schedules instead of indulging in ruinous competition. There ensued a period of calm. All went well until 1887, when the "Ontario," now twenty years old, anticipating the fate of later boats, burned while lying at the dock in Canandaigua, becoming a total loss.

Although in the following year the company had already built the "Onnalinda," it seemed a propitious time for a new venture and in 1889 the "Genundewah," a steamer somewhat larger than the "Canandaigua" but similar in general lines to that successful boat, was financed by Stuart Menteth Beard and operated for a season by his uncle, James Menteth. Sold to an association represented by Miller and McCormack, who added a large and beamy launch, the "Mayflower," they were run in competition with the old boats under the name of "The People's Line."

Heretofore a white flag had been the signal for a landing. The management of the new line decreed, however, that a red emblem was to be the call for the "Genundawah" and "Mayflower" and as such was adopted by their partisans. The outcome was that the boats of both lines made for either flag whenever displayed, resulting in some pretty races for landings, the first boat reaching the dock generally carrying off the passengers whichever their preference.

Thus after a lapse of seven years, competition and its excitements and low fares were again features of lake navigation and continued to hold the attention of patrons until 1894, when the "Genundewah" mysteriously caught fire at Woodville one cold night in December, her boiler alone remaining, sad relic of a short career.

A year before the building of the "Genundewah," a new boat was projected and launched by the C. L. S. N. Co. The "Onnalinda," christened by Miss Maud Sayer, a niece of Mr. James McKechnie, took the water May 19th, 1888; she was followed in successive years by the "Ogarita" and "Oriana." The three boats were a credit to any lake, being fast and comfortable, the "Onnalinda" especially was almost luxurious in her appointments, 142 feet long, and the largest boat ever built on the lake.

The hulls of these boats were built by Springstead of Geneva, the former builder of the "Ontario." The Scotch engine of the "Onnalinda," furnished by Bell of Buffalo, appealed to Mr. McKechnie who against the advice of his associates insisted upon having it installed in her hull. She burned an enormous amount of coal and at the end of her first season was broken backed by the weight of the heavy machinery and had proved a very expensive boat to run.

The end of the faithful old "Canandaigua" was ignominious. She was dismantled, her hulk sunk and her engine installed in the "Ogarita," where it continued to function for many more years. The "Oriana" was equiped with the engine of the "Seneca Chief," driving a screw propeller, while the two larger boats had feathering paddle wheels.

Following years saw the hey-day of lake navigation. People gladly paid real money to make the round trip for the sake of the beautiful scenery and the comfortable and pleasant ride. The "Onnalinda" even carried a band for one season, which played for dancing on Saturday evenings at the new hotel at Seneca Point, where passengers could disembark, partake of a good dinner and return to Canandaigua by a special trip of the "Onnalinda," at eleven o'clock at night.

At Cook's point the old hotel was still entertaining summer visitors, and there were boarding houses at Walterita, Point Rochester and Vine Valley. The hotel at Woodville was not impossible and on the night before the opening of the shooting season was often filled with sportsmen who had come with their boats on the steamer, for the gunning up the Inlet on "the first."

Cottage City had begun to be populous and many new cabins were dotting the lake shore. All these things contributed to heavy patronage of the boats and many days saw a capacity crowd on board.

But such good times were not to last. The boats grew old. The "Ogarita" caught fire at Woodville at night, drifting a blazing derelict before a westerly wind to the flats beyond the inlet. The "Onnalinda," her bottom filled with concrete to close the gaping seams of her planking, grew more decrepit year by year, while upon the little "Oriana" fell the brunt of the passenger service.

Competition was once more inaugurated by the "Wallanick," a gasoline powered boat built by Reed and Nicholson, followed by the "Eastern Star" with which we are all familiar. Finally the Company was again reorganized and with Mr. W. A. Reed as manager became the "Canandaigua Lake Transportation Company" we know today. The "Oriana" was lengthened, a gasoline engine installed and the "Onanda," a small screw steamer, built. The "Onnalinda" long past her usefulness was dismantled and sunk near the foot of the lake.

Automobiles began to carry the passengers over the roads of the lake shore and motor trucks to transport the produce of the farms instead of the aging steamboats. One by one they have laid their bones in the shallow water at Canandaigua or Woodville. Today the "Onanda" and the sturdy little "Oriana," only survivors of past glories, share the task of keeping alive the traditions of a vanished fleet.

Part I
© 1995, Richard F. Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer
The account below is from an article about Alonzo W. Springstead
that appeared in the Ontario Times Journal of July 8, 1938:
Remember the Onnalinda, the Ogarita and sister ships which once plyed the waters of Canandaigua Lake, doing a thriving passenger and freight business? A few days ago the builder, Alonzo W. Springstead of Geneva, celebrated his 94th birthday. He began his career as a boat-builder at the age of 16 years and in addition to the two mentioned, he built the Genundewah, the Oriana, Onanda and the Eastern Star, all for Canandaigua Lake; the Yeats, Steuben, West Branch, Cricket, Urbana, Lulu and Halsey for Keuka Lake; the Otetiana and Sylvia for Seneca Lake, the City of Auburn for Owasco Lake and the Natty Bumpo for Otsego Lake.
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