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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Reflections on Conesus Lake

Reflections on Conesus Lake

John Kirk 


This essay is my personal reflections on the “nearly infinite messages waiting to be interpreted on the human landscape.” Expressed in the terms of the five themes of geography; location, human environment, region, place, and movement, I have changed the order of those themes if only because I wanted to conclude that this is indeed a special place in which to live.
I live on Conesus Lake, the westernmost of the 11 Finger Lakes. Not being gifted with the ability to walk on water; I shall restrict my stroll through this area to a virtual walking tour. Imagine, if you will, a 6 1/2  mile view from the front of our home looking north. To the left and right are 
steeply sloped hills, tree covered, and clearly the result of ice age glaciers.


As we head south down the West Lake Road (state route 256) we come to a highly significant place from the time of the Revolutionary war. In 1779 Gen. Washington authorized a campaign led by Maj. Gen. John Sullivan and Brig. Gen. James Clinton against loyalists and the formations of the Iroquois who had sided with the British. When the Revolutionary war began both sides sought the allegiance or at least their neutrality. The nations were divided, and most Mohawks, Cayugas, Onandagas, and Senecas chose the British side. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans. In 1777 loyalists and their Iroquois allies raided American settlements in the region. At that time Gen. Washington had not allocated many Continental Army troops to the region and had told the frontier settlements to use local militia for their own defense. However, by June 10, 1778 the Continental Congress concluded that a major Indian war was in the offing. The Board of War authorized an expedition to punish the local Iroquois, although the campaign did not really begin until the following year.

The orders of George Washington to Gen. John Sullivan stated in part, "…it will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more." In other words they were authorized to carry out a scorched earth policy.

Groveland, the township in which I reside, marks the furthest point reached by this expedition. The last significant event during this campaign occurred near here and is known as the ambuscade, or the Groveland Ambush. As a child of the 50s I remember well being influenced by hearing about this ambush, the capture and torture of two men, during my school days. At the young age of six or seven I had been at the time convinced of the savagery of the uncivilized Indians; somewhat justifying their subjugation at the hands of American soldiers. Not only that, but the cowboys and indians kind of movies and TV shows of the day reinforced that view.

How things change! Nowadays I believe most people realize that there was wrong doings on both sides, Native American and European. Savagery, brutality, and injustice were not the exclusive purview of either side. The particularly gruesome events of this place may well have influenced a generation, but it is to be hoped that future generations will learn from our mistakes.


Continuing our stroll, it is certainly a noteworthy that dwellings on the lakeshore are packed in tightly. Clearly a popular place to live, house values are some 50 to 100% higher than equivalent houses elsewhere. Not only that, but the unfairness of the taxation system in New York State means that our taxes for waterfront properties are as much as three times higher than elsewhere.

Considering the impact that human beings have had upon this lake it is perhaps surprising that there still is so much wildlife. We have seen fish jumping, northern pike and bass in particular; deer, and heard the other raucous screech of belted Kingfishers. Here near Cottonwood point, we have a flock of turkey vultures over 25 strong, which pester our pack of three Shetland sheepdogs. The lake freezes in winter, usually, and we have seen wildlife making use of the ice. Our local bald eagle, for instance, has been seen devouring fish on the ice. A coyote crossed the lake two winters ago. A neighbor some 2 miles to the east reports having seen a black bear this time last year. In the wee small hours of the night you can see dear with their young making their way to the lake's edge to drink water.


When considering the geographical principle of movement, unlike the Great Lakes to the north and west, the Finger Lakes do not provide any means of transportation. We do not ship iron ore to steel mills, grain from wheat lands of America, or meat products from the meatpackers via these lakes. However, as is typical with most of valleys throughout the world both sides of the lakes provide a convenient place to have roads. None of these roads are considered to be major routes, however. Movement also includes the ideas that are transported from a region or area. The hill at Cumorah, about 20 miles northeast of here, is the birthplace of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This region is also credited with the second great awakening. The American Red Cross began only 12 miles south of here in Dansville New York.
The regional phenomena associated with this area are mainly to do with the geology. The 11 lakes said to be the Finger Lakes originated as a series of northward flowing streams. About 2 million years ago the glaciers of the Laurentide ice sheet flowed down from the Hudson Bay area. These Pleistocene glaciations widened and deepened the river valleys. The terminal moraine left behind by the receding ice acted as dams allowing the lakes to form. The richness of the soil left behind after the ice receded created rich agricultural land. Indeed record breaking yields of corn and other crops have been reported in some areas here. In addition, the drainage of the slopes, and the effect of lake effect retention of summer's warmth in the winter and the winter's cold in the spring, the Finger Lakes region supports New York's largest wine producing region. Conesus remains the home of the oldest producer of pure grape sacramental wine in the Western Hemisphere.

Looking at the architecture of the region particularly the western half, the Phelps and Gorham purchase of 1790, many houses reflect federal and Greek revival periods of architecture. Settlement of the area was rapid post 1790, predominantly from New England and from a lesser extent from Pennsylvania.


As a pilot, I feel particularly at home being so close to Hammondsport, the home of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis. Imagine my distress at being called to an aircraft crash at Penn Yan of a Curtis replica aircraft. The pilot, Jim Poel, was seriously injured, yet survived through the efforts of the flight nurse and flight medic on scene and the huge team of very dedicated medical folks at Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester. Sadly, Jim passed away some eight months later while recuperating in Florida. A fund raising event was held here with a fly-in of about ten floatplanes to the North Shore of the lake.

As a worldwide traveler I had never heard of the Finger Lakes. It is perhaps a well-kept secret. Many people regionally know about the Adirondacks, or the Thousand Islands, or the attractions of Niagara Falls; but the Finger Lakes? Perhaps not! People from outside of this area may well think of New York City and the bright lights of Manhattan when we mentioned New York State, but Western New York has its own characteristics, history, geography, geology, and indeed beauty. This is a special place.

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