Keuka Lake just doesn’t fit in with the other Finger Lakes.
It’s absolutely lovely, but it only resembles a finger, if you got careless using a table saw. It’s really shaped more like a crude letter “Y,” if you drew it in the dirt, with a stick, blindfolded, liquored up & left-handed. Go ahead try it, we’ll wait.
Anyway, to me it looks more like a forked branch, and in fact, the hamlet on the northwest branch, is called Branchport.
At the top of the other, northeast branch, there is a creek which flows from the lake, through the village of Penn Yan, heads east, and eventually drains into Seneca Lake.
The village has a fascinating history, and was once home to a Quaker sect called the “Society of Universal Friends”. Maybe a topic for another article some time.
Today I’ll just mention two things – where the odd name originated, and a bit of local history.
One – Penn Yan is a contraction of “Pennsylvanians & Yankees,” after the original settlers.
Two – The village kind of relocated, without moving – – in a manner of speaking, it was once in Massachusetts, even though that state is 230 miles away.
It’s located just west of the 1786 “Preemption Line,” a north-south line bisecting New York, from the Pennsylvania line, to Lake Ontario. You’ll cross a marker for the line, walking on the trail.
Land west of the line was claimed by Massachusetts, based on a grant from King Charles I. After the Revolution, the two states went to court, and it was decided:
- the land was part of New York
- but was owned by the Iroquois, and was therefore part of their sovereign territory
- but Massachusetts possessed a preemptive right of purchase from the Iroquois
- but Massachusetts sold their interest to private speculators
- but the speculators went broke
- but they sold their interest to Robert Morris, one of the Founding Fathers
- but he sold most of it to a British syndicate
- but non-citizens couldn’t own land
- but they found a Scot who became a naturalized citizen, to front for them
- but then the non-citizen rule was revoked, so a Dutch syndicate could buy land
Meanwhile, while all this was going on…the natives were dispossessed, settlers moved in, Rochester and Buffalo were founded, and eventually, in 1960, the Bills joined the AFL. That’s as brief as I can make it.
Is that all clear? Welcome to New York, the State of Confusion!
Anyway, at Keuka Lake, there were settlers from Pennsylvania and New England = Penn Yan.
In an area replete with interesting place names – drawn from Europe, classical Greek and Roman history, Native American sites, and land speculators – this creek we’re going to walk along, was somehow left with the utilitarian and totally un-poetic name of Keuka Lake Outlet. “Outlet” means a discount factory store, or a place to plug in a lamp, or a method of venting. This is a waterway desperately in need of a good PR firm. Brook, stream, bourne, creek (prounounced “crick” by the older folks here) – – any of these are better. Heck, I’ll take “runnel” over “outlet” any day.
In the 1830’s, the state government constructed the Crooked Lake Canal alongside the creek. “Crooked Lake” is another name for Keuka, and is not a reference to state officials. The canal had the distinction of losing money for each & every one of its forty-four years of existence. It was replaced by the Fall Brook Railroad in the 1870’s, which was in turn washed away by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
A local group restored six miles of the towpath/railroad bed, and created a walking trail, from Penn Yan, on Keuka Lake, to Dresden, a hamlet on Seneca Lake.
The creek drops 270 feet, from Keuka to Seneca, and in the old days, it powered three dozen mills and little factories, starting in 1790. Buckwheat, paint, plaster, paper, tanneries, etc. and in more recent times, insecticide. So, depending on where you were standing, it must have smelled like breakfast cereal, or like paint, or just plain horrible. Until well into the 20th century, a key component in tanning leather was dog manure. Where they got it, how it was transported, and what price it fetched on the open air market, we’ll reluctantly leave for another day.
Quickly segueing to hair of the dog, there was also a distillery somewhere along here, which, with our forebears’ customary frugality, included a hog pen. The hogs consumed the leftover mash from making alcohol, and no doubt contributed to the general eye-stinging atmosphere of the place.
In summary, the 19th century along the stream was a bucolic tiptoe through the daisies.
If you begin your walk in the village of Penn Yan, you’ll pass Birkett Mills, founded in 1796 and still grinding up buckwheat. If you’ve ever felt nostalgic for the days of Tsarist pogroms and serfdom, and really enjoy chewing for extended periods, the mill is supposed to be the world’s largest supplier of “kasha” (buckwheat groats.)
Most remnants of the 19th c. industries have fallen down, crumbled, and been washed away over the years, but as you walk along the water, through what is now a wooded ravine, you’ll pass a few traces. Circular stone and brick pits, nearly filled-in with dirt and leaf mold. A towering brick smokestack, rusted remnants of water turbines, some foundations made of huge stone blocks, and a couple of crumbling concrete buildings from the 20th century. A triangular chunk of millstone, embedded in a tree’s roots. The shattered remains of a steam boiler, and a massive iron fly-wheel, were removed a few years ago, and taken to a local steam engine museum.
Even as the industrial relics vanish, there’s sometimes still an old-fashioned feel to the little valley. Many of the nearby farms are Amish or Old Order Mennonite, and young couples from the farms come to the falls to picnic and court, arriving in horse-drawn buggies.
One of the families, the Hoovers, has a welding/blacksmithing shop, and I’m guessing it was one of their sons, who showed up one day with an all-metal buckboard. Gleaming steel diamond plate, like they use for factory floors or pickup tool boxes. Must have weighed a ton, but dazzling, quite a sight.
I’m guessing the church elders found it to be an act of vanity, and made him get rid of it, or perhaps his horse died, dragging it back up the hill, but I never saw it again.
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