City Spotlight: Finger Lakes, NY

Brief History of the Finger Lakes

The history of the Finger Lakes region in New York dates back nearly 2 million years. They were created as the result of a series of glacial flows that advanced and retreated across what is now New York State. The massive bodies of ice flowing south carved deep trenches in the earth as they inched past existing north-flowing streams and rivers, ultimately creating 11 natural lakes, known as the Finger Lakes.

However, the Native Americans who lived in this area, and left the first recorded history of the region, had a rather different takes on the Finger Lakes. They believed the lakes were the finger prints of the Great Spirit, who reached down and, in touching the earth, transformed the land into sacred ground, blessed by Nature.

European settlers arrived thousands of years after the Native Americans, and referred to them as the Iroquois, or the Five (and later six) Nations. The Iroquois viewed the land as one to respect, whose fruits they enjoyed, yet they made no attempts to exercise dominion over it. Their influence is still prevalent in the region, as many of the Finger Lake towns and villages, and all of the lakes themselves bear names derived from Native American languages.

Unfortunately for the Native Americans, the American Revolution had devastating effects on the Iroquois tribes. Most of them sided with the British, and as a result, were driven from the region by the Continental Army of the rebellious former colonies. After the war, land grants were awarded to veterans in thanks for their service.

Historic Photos of the Finger Lakes

 Fish stories from the Finger Lakes are a legend, but this one may be a bit tall. This generic postcard was used on all the Finger Lakes...[Reprinted from Finger Lakes by Kirk W. House and Charles R. Mitchell (Pg. 12, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.)]

A dip in the lake followed by boating, fishing, and hiking were welcomed breaks from strenuous farm labor. Conesus, Hemlock, and Canadice Lakes were the three minor lakes, sometimes called the Three Sisters. They did not draw as much attention as the larger eastern lakes, but the locals did not seem to mind. They worked their grape farms, carried on lake trade, ran steamers to resorts, and live in quiet isolation. [Reprinted from Finger Lakes Memories by Michael Leavy (Pg. 15, Arcadia Publishing, 2008.)]

Empire State Wine Company

The Empire State Wine Company was incorporated in Penn Yan in 1897. It produced wine under the State Seal Champagne, Vineyard Queen, and Sweet Catawba labels. Seen here around 1896 is the new winery, located near the entrance to the Keuka Lake outlet. During Prohibition, Empire State made sacramental wines, Nikko brand grape juice, and medicinal wine. The winery closed in 1944. (YCHC.) [Reprinted from Finger Lakes Wine Country by Sarah Thompson (Pg. 26, Arcadia Publishing, 2015.)]

Dr. Konstantin Frank

Dr. Frank in the wine cellar at the Lenina collective farm, part of the former Troubetskoy estate, 1939. [Reprinted from Finger Lakes Wine and the Legacy of Dr. Konstantin Frank by Tom Russ (Pg. 29, The History Press, 2015.)]

Keuke Lake Aerial Photo

This Keuka Lake aerial is looking south with Penn Yan in the foreground, Hammondsport to the south, and Branchport to the right, around the bluff. [Reprinted from Steamboats on Keuka Lake by Richard S. MacAlpine & Charles R. Mitchell (Pg. 16, The History Press, 2015.)]

The above is from J.H. French's 1860 Gazetteer of the State of New York: "Caroga was formed from the towns of Stratford, Bleeker, and Johnstown on April 11, 1842. Its surface is rolling in the south and broken in the north by small, sharp mountains. Numerous clusters of lakes lie in the center and north part of town. A small portion of the area is susceptible to of cultivation. Lumbering is the principal business." (Courtesy of the Town of Caroga) [Reprinted from Around Caroga Lake, Canada Lake, and Pine Lake by Carol Parenzan Smalley, foreword by Peter Betz (Pg. 11, Arcadia Publishing, 2011.)]

Main Street, Lake Placid
Main Street is pictured in a view looking north c. 1930. On the far left is part of the old Northwoods Inn, which became an annex to the Hotel Marcy. The Marcy, located just to the north, was completed in 1927. (Saranac Lake News Company, Saranac Lake.) [Reprinted from Lake Placid by Dean S. Stansfield (Pg. 12, Arcadia Publishing, 2012.)

Wagener Mansion, Hammondsport
This more modern view from the Wagener Mansion front lawn looks to the south toward Hammondsport, which is at the end of the main branch of Keuka Lake. The 1833 mansion was one of the homes built by Abraham Wagener, an early settler and one of the founders of Penn Yan. The house, now a private home not open to the public, is highly visible from almost anywhere around the southern half of the lake. [Reprinted from Keuka Lake by Charles R. Mitchell (Pg. 10, Arcadia Publishing, 2002.)]

Lake George
Welcome to Lake George, the "Queen of American Lakes." Although this familiar description may suggest recent publicity to some, the phrase dates back to the 1800s. In 1866, Thomas Nelson referred to the "Queen of Waters" in his guide to Lake George and Lake Champlain. Later, Seneca Ray Stoddard used the phrase "Queen of American Lakes," as did the Lake George Mirror, which carried the title in its banner by the beginning of the 20th century. Nelson also wrote that the islands appeared to be "resting, if the weather be calm, on their own reflected images." (Wooley.) [Reprinted from Lake George by Gale J. Halm & Mary H. Sharp (Pg. 9, Arcadia Publishing, 2000.)]

To learn more about the vast Finger Lakes region, check out these other history books of the Finger Lakes.