Hemlock Lake Was Once Summer Resort

By Amo T. Kreiger

1939 (ish)

Honeoye Falls - Hill-encircled Hemlock Lake, City of Rochester's chief water supply said to rank in purity with the famed lakes of the Scottish highland country, once ranked as one of the most popular lakeside resorts of the Finger Lakes region, a vacation center of Western New York.

Before the death knell of the lake was sounded as a summer playground to become a future source of urban drinking water, picturesque Hemlock Lake was the scene of a bustling summertime activity in July and August.

Steamboats crowded with sight-seers and picnic throngs plied importantly the seven-mile length of the lake where now only an occasional fishing boat is seen. There was a metropolitan flavor about its hotels that catered to a thriving summer tourist business. Attracted by the fame of the scenic resort many New York City residents summered here with their families and summer boarders and cottagers from other large cities of the state trekked here for seasonal stays.

Had Mushroom Growth

The summer resort began about 1850. Its lush, tree-fringed shores knew a mushroom growth. Summer cottages sprang up in quick succession, three-storied hotels were built, and farm houses became summer boarding places. In the heyday of the lakeside community more than 160 cottages, boarding places, and hotels formed the resort representing a summer population of from 1,500 to 2,000 persons.

Passenger boats were placed upon the lake in the transportation enterprise and the crowds of vacationers, as well as mail and provisions were carried to cottages and camps on the steam-operated craft. In 1861 during the Civil War the Jaques House, a well known hostelry of the day, entertained its first guests. In 1872 the farm house was enlarged to accommodate 100 guests.

The launching of the Seth Green, first large steamboat here, from the Lake Shore House, drew crowds of onlookers. The countryside as well as the summer colony turned out for the event, cannons were fired, speeches were made, and the Lima Coronet Band played martial music as the little steam-propelled passenger boat started proudly down the lake on its maiden voyage. The launching of the boat, which took place June 25, 1874, marked the beginning of a new era for the lake and the starting point of profitable business venture for backers of the project. Built in Buffalo, its engine made in Corning, the 38-foot boat proved an instant success and was followed closely by the Corabelle. The Mollie, constructed on the style of the large lake steamers with a pilot house on top, measured 60 feet in length and accommodated even larger crowds.

Summer Outings Held

There are nostalgic memories of Hemlock Lake for many residents of Western New York as well as more distant points. Sunday schools, fraternal organizations and family groups for miles around held summer outing here. Many marriages had romantic beginnings at Hemlock Lake, and many of the older generation today, whose youthful vacations were spent here, once frolicked along the foam-whipped rocky shores and climbed the wooded hillsides that tower steeply above the lake.

There was no brilliance of electric lighting edging the shores at night but lanterns and torches hung aloft by cottagers and campers shed a soft illumination on the lake remembered pleasantly by former residents here. There was no heavy chug of motor boat heard. Sailing was the popular summer pastime and trim-masted craft dotted the surface of the lake, it was recalled. When forced to evacuate their summer playground some of the cottagers had summer residences removed to Conesus Lake. Several houses and barns of the Hemlock locality started life as cottages on Hemlock.

First campers on the lake recorded in history were the Mengwees, a tribe of Indians that flourished at the foot of the lake before the coming of the Senecas. Told and retold by succeeding generations is the legend of On-no-lee, the Munsee princess, who drowned herself in the waters of Hemlock Lake when taken captive by a Mengwee chieftain. According to the legend the wraith of the Indian maiden haunts the shores of the lake on still, moonlight nights.

Buried Treasure Tale

Where the Seneca's corn grew tall near the foot of the lake are sometimes uncovered relics of Indian occupation when plows dig deep into the earth.

General Sullivan's men marched across the area and left behind a story of buried treasure to add to the folk-lore of the region. A chest of gold, according to tradition, lies somewhere in the hills that surround the lake, interred temporarily, it is claimed, by New England soldiers who never returned to claim it. Generations of diggers have sought the place, still a mystery after the passage of nearly two centuries.

First map to record the location of Hemlock Lake was made in 1809. In early days the lake became an important factor in commerce of the region, serving as a link between the northern and southern sections of the locality. Flat boats transported lumber and other supplies down the lake, and logs were floated to the mills. In the winter of 1838, it is recorded, as many as 200 teams were seen at one time drawing lumber in sleighs across the hard-frozen surface of Hemlock Lake.

On April 16, 1852, the State Legislature passed an act which incorporated the first waterworks company of the City of Rochester. Other legislation was enacted, surveys made, and work finally begun on the pipelines to Rochester which has used the lake water since 1876.