Published by the New York Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York

July 1942

Charles C. Inshaw*

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BEFORE the invention of the steam engine, water routes were the only economical means of transporting goods of bulk and weight. The great public works project of its time-the Clinton Ditchwas an attempt to provide a water highway for moving bulky goods from the West to the eastern seaboard. Soon the early settlers on Cayuga Lake were turning their attention to the possibilities of lake transportation for the promotion of commerce. On December 15, 1819, the Cayuga Steamboat Company was organized for the purpose of building a steamboat "to run from one end of the lake to the other". This was only twelve years after Robert Fulton had succeeded in his attempt to make the Clermont run on the Hudson.

The keel of the new boat was laid in March 1820, and the hull was launched in May of the same year. Teams of oxen drew the machinery, which was made in Jersey, City, overland to Ithaca. On June 1, 1829, the Enterprise with Captain Oliver Phelps in command, started from Renwick Point on her maiden voyage with a passenger list of one hundred and fifty people. This first boat, with a length of eighty feet and her beam a scant thirty feet, was hardly a streamliner. Her appearance is said to have been squat and tubby and not conducive to -speed. The Enterprise served as a connecting link to pick up passengers from the Newburgh and Catskill Turnpike and then transport them to the north end of the Cayuga Lake where the passengers, bound for the Genesee Country and the Holland Purchase, transferred to the Sherwood

* This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the New York State Historical Association at Geneva, September 19, 1941 Mr. Inshaw is an authority on the history of the Finger Lakes region.

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Stage Line which operated over the Seneca Turnpike. The Erie Canal had by this time been completed as far as Montezuma. Here the passengers were made comfortable in rowboats which ferried them on the Seneca River to the old Cayuga Bridge where Bissell's Six Day Stage Line whisked them away to the golden west.

The time table of the Steamboat Company called for the Enterprise to leave Ithaca at four a.m. Standard time. She stopped at Ludlowville at five, Goodwin's Point at six, Frog Point at six-thirty, Sheldrake at eight, Union Springs at ten and Cayuga Bridge at eleven a.m.. On the return trip she left Cayuga at noon and was due at Ithaca at seven p.m. The fare was one dollar each way. The round trip required fifteen hours for the eighty-mile voyage.

For seven years the Enterprise plied the waters of Cayuga Lake alone until 1827 when she began to show her age. The Steamboat Company then decided to build a new boat. At Goodwin's Point a Mr. Annersley built a shipyard, and from it the Telemachus was launched in January, 1828, and was towed to the inlet at Ithaca for the installation of her machinery.. Her engine was the first Ithaca-built steamboat engine and was made by Phelps and Goodwin. On May 8, 1828, the Telemachus stood out from the junction of Cascadilla Creek and the Inlet and began her maiden voyage.

In 1829 the Telemachus handled the passenger traffic alone while the Enterprise was given the humble honor of towing barges and canal boats. She was relegated to a watery grave on the west side of the Inlet a short time thereafter.

The Telemachus cruised at ten miles an hour with a top speed of twelve miles. She proved to be too slow to be profitable and her construction not suited to lake traffic. 1829 saw the launching of another steamer the DeWitt Clinton. This boat cut several hours from. the daily

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roundtrip, leaving Ithaca at six a. m. and returning at seven p.m.

In 1840 a boatman came to Cayuga Lake who was to be an outstanding figure in Cayuga Lake boating for almost a half a century. He was Captain T. D. Wilcox, who had become acquainted with steamboats on the Hudson River under Robert Fulton and later piloted boats on Long Island Sound. If you ask any old settlers along Cayuga Lake who was the outstanding figure in lake transportation, the unanimous reply is "Captain T. D. Wilcox".

When the Captain arrived in Ithaca, the Cayuga Lake Steamboat Company had two new steamers, the Simeon DeWitt and the Forest City under construction. Captain Wilcox promptly bought out the interests of the stockholders and became sole owner of the lake boats. By this time the Telemachus had long been abandoned and sunk and the DeWitt Clinton was obsolete. The new boats were much larger and developed more speed.

In 1855 the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad leased the Cayuga and Susquehanna Railroad and it decided to buy up the lake steamers also and to consolidate the rail and water transportation. The price was agreed upon and Captain Wilcox sold out. The Simeon DeWitt was completely rebuilt and renamed the William E. Dodge in honor of a New York director of the railroad, and made the flag ship of the two steamer fleet.

Two new boats were then added, the Beardsley and the Emily McAllister. The Beardsley was a small side wheeler and the Emily McAllister was a small propellor boat. These were probably second hand boats and did not remain long upon the lake.

In 1856 Captain Wilcox repurchased control of the Steamboat Company. On April 21, 1856, Captain Wilcox piloted the new steamer, the Kate D. Morgan, on her first trip. By all accounts she was a beautiful boat, named after a wealthy resident of Aurora.

She was a side wheeler with a capacity of three hundred

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passengers. She usually tied up at Cayuga at night and made connections with the New York Central Railroad there and with the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad at Ithaca. Her engines and machinery were built in Ithaca by Treman-Cartwright and Company.

In 1857 Captain Wilcox built another steamer, the Sheldrake, the same size as the Kate D. Morgan. She was very powerful and in her later years was the queen of the barge towing fleet, towing as many as fifteen loaded, barges at once. Still operating as a steamer in 1888, she was in service for forty-two years finally going down in winter quarters at Renwick Point. The Sheldrake was built at Harris and Thomas' Saw Mill and Boat Yard at Sheldrake Point.

The Aurora made her first trip in 1860. She was built at the Sheldrake boatyards and towed to Ithaca where her machinery was installed by Treman Brothers. The Aurora was slightly smaller than the Sheldrake and faster than the Kate D. Morgan.

Captain Wilcox sold his steamboat business in 1862 to Alonzo B. Cornell, and, the following year Mr. Cornell sold the line to a Mr. Himrod of Aurora. Under his ownership the Ino was built in 1864. This boat was too small to succeed financially and was taken off the regular passenger schedule and used for excursions only.

Mr. Himrod soon sold the boat business to Charles M. Titus of Ithaca. Mr. Titus quickly unloaded the steamboat business with the result that it landed back in the lap of Captain Wilcox for the third time. Captain Wilcox celebrated this event by building a new boat and named it after himself. The T.D. Wilcox was launched in 1868 and remained in service for thirty years until she burned at her dock at Cayuga in 1899. The T.D. Wilcox offered complete service , including regular meals on board and an orchestra for entertainment. In 1888, after the death of Captain Wilcox, the boat was re- christened the Ithaca.

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The best-known boat to the present generation was the Frontenac. She made her maiden trip in June, 1870. Her cruising speed was seventeen miles per hour which was considered in those days as exceedingly fast. When you consider the fact that the local railroads of that day were running at the speed of sixteen to twenty miles an hour, it becomes apparent that the Frontenac offered as rapid transportation as could be had. This was the last boat built by Captain Wilcox. She was his pride and he personally piloted her.

Up until the 1870's, the lake boats had enjoyed a monopoly in carrying the mails to all points along the lake as well as to communities adjacent to the lake. The mail contracts were the source of important revenue to the steamboat owners. Then the Cayuga Lake Railroad was being built along the eastern shore of the lake and the Geneva and Ithaca Railroad threatened to take away the mail service of the western shore. With the loss of the mail contracts, the decline of steamboating began. After the death of Captain Wilcox in 1884, his heirs sold the boats to the Cayuga Lake Transportation Company in 1888.

In 1892 a wealthy New York City contractor, Robert L. Darragh, who had his summer home at Sheldrake, felt that the steamboat service was not up to the old standards. He decided to build two new boats "to make Sheldrake popular and to restore to Ithaca the trade of the north". The first of these boats was the Laura Darragh built at Newburgh by a Mr. Marvel. She was equipped with a two hundred and fifty horsepower engine capable of driving her at fifteen miles per hour. She was one hundred and five feet in length and had a beam of eighteen and a half feet.

The Laura Darragh arrived at Sheldrake in November, 1893. In building her one hundred and five feet in length Mr. Marvel had failed to take into consideration the fact that the locks of the Erie Canal could only hold ninety

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eight feet of boat. As a result seven feet had to be trimmed off her stern and piled on the deck to be replaced after she arrived safely in Cayuga Lake. The superstructure, built in Newburg could not pass under the low canal bridges and had to be removed and then rebuilt at Sheldrake. Mr. Darragh's adventure in the boat business was cut short by illness and both the Laura Darragh and the second boat, the Red Jacket, were sold. These were the last boats built for passenger service on Cayuga Lake. Business was on the decline. Contracts for carrying the mails which had been a major source of income were now in the hands of the railroads on both the east and west ,shores and improvements in railroad transportation made the steamers seem slow.

The Cayuga Lake Steamboat Company passed into the ownership of Captain Melvin T. Brown of Syracuse in 1902. To the Cayuga Lake fleet he added several second hand boats from Onondaga Lake including the Mohawk, the Commander and the Iroquois. None of these boats proved profitable. They were used principally as excursion boats.

The end of real passenger service on the lake came on July 27, 1907, when the Frontenac with seventy passengers on board, mostly teachers returning from summer school at Cornell, caught fire coming north out of Aurora. The fire was discovered when she was about eleven hundred feet off shore. The boat was driven straight for the shore in rather shallow water. A panic ensued, many passengers jumped overboard and eight persons lost their lives. This disaster was the final blow to regular passenger service. The smaller boats continued in use for picnic and excursion parties but with the advent of the modern automobile, interest in the boats declined and steamboating days were over.

The story of steamboating on Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes followed practically the same pattern as it did on Cayuga Lake. In 1796 Charles Williamson's

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sloop, the Alexander, later named Seneca, was launched on Seneca Lake in the presence of a vast assembly of people. The launching of the sloop being an unusual event, the people came from far and near to witness it, and among them was Major James Cochran, then a young man. At night the young people wanted to dance, and having a fiddle, young Cochran who was an amateur performer was pressed into service. In praise of his ability a gentleman said at the supper table, "He is fit for Congress" and the remark being favorably received by the assembly, he was nominated and elected to a seat in Congress from the district which then included all of New York west of Albany. "So," says Major Cochran, "I fiddled my way into Congress."

In 1814 the sloop, Robert Troup, was launched and sailed on the waters of Seneca Lake. The first steam craft, the Seneca Chief, was purchased in 1832 by John R. Johnston and Richard Stevens and the following year was lengthened and improved and renamed the Geneva. In 1835 the steamboat Richard Stevens was built, followed by the Chemung, the Canadesaga, the Seneca and the Ben Loder, the latter boat being built in 1849. In 1893 four other boats were on the lake, the Onondaga, the Schuyler, the W. B. Dunning and the Otetiani. From 1894 onward, interest in steamboats declined due to the competition of the railroads so that at present no passenger boats operate on Seneca.

In 1884 occurred the death of Charles J. Folger, prominent Geneva attorney, Secretary of the Treasury and former Chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. Many former colleagues came to the funeral by train from Washington to Watkins and then transferred to the steamboat, the Ben Loder, and proceeded to Geneva. President Chester A. Arthur and the next president, Grover Cleveland who just two years before had defeated Folger for the Governorship of the State, were in the party and rode in the same carriage as the procession passed through

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the city streets. The assembled multitude was amazed to see these two men who had long been political opponents in New York, chatting peaceably together and apparently on the friendliest terms.

Partly within the boundaries of little Yates County and partly within Steuben lies Keuka Lake, as picturesque a body of water as one could wish for. Its original name was Crooked Lake because the north end of the lake is divided into two arms or branches by a bold promitory which rises seven hundred feet above the water and is called Bluff Point.

In 1835 the Crooked Lake Canal, connecting Keuka Lake with Seneca by a series of twenty-seven locks, was completed. This brought to Yates County an importance not before enjoyed and following it was an era of prosperity that even the most ardent pioneer enthusiast had ever dreamed of. The first steamboat, the Keuka, appeared on the lake in 1837 and for three-quarters of a century thereafter, the Lake was never without steamboat service. The last boat on the lake was the Mary Bell which cost, with her furnishings, forty thousand dollars and was licensed to carry six, hundred passengers. Yates County folks have never lost interest in the beautiful lake which every summer is dotted with private pleasure craft.

In the prosperous days of the old lake steamboats, life was simple and more serene. It was a customary sight on a summer morning to see whole families gathered on the dock with lunch baskets packed with picnic dinners waiting for the Frontenac or the Kate D. Morgan to pick them up for the holiday trip to Ithaca, and family picnics on the wonderful Cornell campus. When the whistle blew for Cayuga, it was agreed by all that it had been a wonderful day to be remembered for months and perhaps years to come.


Notes from LPH

The Melvin Brown mentioned in the Steamship article lived in Union Springs.

His wife, Marjory Keeler Brown, who went to school at Oakwood Seminary, taught choral singing at Union Springs High School. They lived at the north end of Grove Street in Union springs in a house that was razed. It was Mrs. Brown who wrote the school song with Mrs. Margaret Pimm Getman.

Near Cayuga's deep, blue waters
Stands the school we love so well.
With the clear pond close beside it.
Trees and grounds and sweet-tones bell.

USHS, speed the echoes,
Ringing at that thy call.
USHS, Alma Mater.
Loved the best of all.