Finger Lakes

Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes are a chain of lakes in the west-central section of Upstate New York that are a popular tourist destination. There are actually eleven lakes in the region, but only seven of the largest are commonly identified as the Finger Lakes. The lakes mainly are linear in shape, each lake oriented on a north-south axis. The two longest, Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake, are among the deepest in America. Both are close to 40 miles (64 km) from end to end, but never more than 3.5 miles (5,600 m) wide. Cayuga is the longest (38.1 miles (61.3 km)), but Seneca the largest in total area. Seneca is the deepest (618 feet, 188.4 m), followed by Cayuga (435 feet, 132.6 m), with the bottoms well below sea level. These largest lakes resemble the others in shape, which collectively reminded early map-makers of the fingers of a hand.


The Finger Lakes from east to west (the first seven being commonly identified as Finger Lakes):

*Otisco Lake
*Skaneateles Lake
*Owasco Lake
*Cayuga Lake
*Seneca Lake
*Keuka Lake
*Canandaigua Lake
*Honeoye Lake
*Canadice Lake
*Hemlock Lake
*Conesus Lake

Cazenovia Lake to the east, although smaller, is sometimes called "the eighth Finger Lake," because it is similar in shape, located in Appalachian hill terrain, with a historic village linked to other Finger Lakes by US 20. It may have been formed in the same manner as the Finger Lakes, as satellite photos show three valleys similar in character and spacing to the Finger Lakes east of Otisco Lake. The first is the Tully Valley, which includes a chain of small lakes at the south end that could be a "Finger Lake" that never formed because of a terminal moraine. The moraine caused the Tioughnioga River to flow south instead of north, the opposite of the other waters of the Finger Lakes. The next two valleys to the east contain Butternut Creek, which flows north, and the East Branch of the Tioughnioga River, which flows south. The next valley contains Limestone Creek, which flows north. The next valley after that contains Cazenovia Lake.

Oneida Lake, to the northeast of Syracuse, New York, is sometimes included as the "thumb," although it is shallow and somewhat different in character from the rest. Onondaga Lake, though located just north of the Finger Lakes region, is not considered one of the Finger Lakes. As with Oneida and Cazenovia Lakes, it drains into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, and Otisco are considered the minor Finger Lakes. Other, smaller lakes, including Silver, Waneta, and Lamoka lakes, dot this region. However, Waneta and Lamoka lakes are part of the Susquehanna River watershed as they drain into a tributary of the Chemung River.

East of Oneida and Cazenovia Lakes are the headwaters of the Susquehanna River and Hudson River watersheds (the former in the foothills of the Catskills, the latter through the Mohawk Valley and southern Adirondacks).


The Finger Lakes were modified by glaciers, but were not simply gouged out by glacial action, as often asserted. The present lakes were preglacial stream valleys or earlier lakes. Glaciers modified the terrain somewhat, but more critically: when the ice retreated, deposits left behind dammed the valleys, impounding water. The deep valley south of Syracuse, seen from Interstate 81, might have been another Finger Lake, had the glacier's recessional moraine been deposited farther north rather than at Tully, New York.

The Finger Lakes are situated on the northern edge of the Appalachian Upland. They now drain northward to Lake Ontario. The southern ends of the lakes are characterized by steeper hills etched by streams running toward the lakes below. Glacial "hanging valleys", terraces in the descent toward the lakes, often end with waterfalls. Taughannock Falls, with a drop of Convert|214|ft|m|0|abbr=on, is one of the highest waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains. Taughannock Falls State Park, Fillmore Glen, Treman State Park, and Watkins Glen are especially scenic examples of glens and waterfalls that have been incorporated into public parks. The glens of this region are unique worldwide. They are the narrow, rocky valleys carved by rainfall's relatively quick (10,000 years) erosion of the loose shale and siltstone of this plateau of nearly level sedimentary rock. The eroded sediment ends up, e.g., along or in Cayuga Lake (Taughannock and Treman) and Seneca Lake (Watkins Glen).

Most of the area was originally forested with oak, hickory, maple, chestnut, ash, hemlock, and beech trees, but the Iroquois maintained, by annual burning, the land between Cayuga and Seneca Lakes as prairie, with herds of bisonFact|date=October 2007, normally thought of as a western animal. Today the Finger Lakes area is still known for fishing and hunting. Winter sports are also popular, with skiing, snowmobling and ice fishing available.

The Finger Lakes region is an important agricultural sector of New York. The rolling land between the lakes is occupied notably by vineyards (discussed below) but more commonly with other farms, mostly dairy operations, a number owned by Amish and Mennonite families in the twentieth centuries. Many Quakers settled in the nineteenth century. Farms raise corn, hay, wheat, oats, barley, and soybeans. Cabbages, sweetcorn, and potatoes are major vegetable crops. Maple syrup and honey are also local products. Cornell University (below) maintains the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and horticultural gene bank at Geneva on the north end of Seneca Lake.

Finger Lakes cities and larger villages are situated at the head and foot of most major lakes: Skaneateles, Auburn, Ithaca, Geneva, Watkins Glen, Penn Yan, Hammondsport and Canandaigua. These historic communities with scenic situations all are tourist destinations, as is the village of Aurora, which is situated on the east shore of Cayuga Lake, and Naples, located about five miles south of Canandaigua Lake. Although not on one of the lakes, the nearby city of Corning is also a major destination for visitors, because of its famous glass museum and demonstrations. Similarly, the villages of Seneca Falls and Waterloo, although not on lakes, attract many to the several sites of the Women's Rights National Historical Park and the National Women's Hall of Fame. Likewise not on a lake but attracting many visitors is the Genesee Country Village and Museum at Mumford. Similarly, Letchworth State Park, with its famous gorge and waterfalls, draws visitors to the western end of the Finger Lakes region. The Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the foot of Cayuga Lake is also a major feature of the region, as is the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park at Canandaigua.

Tourism has become a major growth industry of the Finger Lakes Region. According to the New York State Department of Economic Development, taxable sales derived from tourism in one county alone exceeded ninety million dollars in a recent year (2001). Visitors spent an estimated 200 million dollars in the central Finger Lakes region, where the industry employed about fifteen thousand people.

Water quality becomes an increasing concern as population expands, with waterfront property increasingly in demand. Skaneateles Lake is the purest of the Finger Lakes, in large part because of controls imposed by the City of Syracuse, which in 2006 spent 2.3 million dollars to protect its water supply. Skaneateles Lake is deep and also has a relatively small watershed compared to other Finger Lakes. Smaller and shallower Owasco Lake, to the west, has a watershed nearly four times larger, while receiving discharge from two municipal sewage plants, but with far less pollution control.


The Finger Lakes area is New York's largest wine producing region. Over 100 wineries and vineyards are centered around Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, and Keuka Lakes. Because of the lakes' great depth, they provide a lake effect to the lush vineyards that flank their shores. Retaining residual summer warmth in the winter, and winter's cold in the spring, the grapes are protected from disastrous spring frost during grape formation, and early frost before the harvest. The main grape varietals grown are: Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, and Seyval Blanc. With the passage of the Farm Winery Act in 1978, countless numbers of wineries have opened their doors to visitors from all over the world. Wineries are a major growth industry of the region, not merely contributing to the economy through production, but increasingly because they attract large numbers of visitors who support other components of tourism.


The Finger Lakes region is a central part of the Iroquois homeland. The Iroquois tribes include the Seneca and Cayuga tribes, for which the two largest Finger Lakes are named. The Tuscarora tribe lived in the Finger Lakes region as well. The Onondaga and Oneida tribes lived at the eastern edge of the region, closer to their namesake lakes, Lake Oneida and Onondaga Lake. The sixth Iroquois tribe, the Mohawk, lived farther east. During colonial times, many other tribes moved to the Finger Lakes region, seeking the protection of the Iroquois. For example, remnants of several tribes of North Carolina, collectively called the Tutelo, moved to the town of Coreorgonel at the south end of Cayuga Lake near present-day Ithaca. Major Iroquois towns in the Finger Lakes region included the Seneca town of Gen-nis-he-yo (present-day Geneseo), Kanadaseaga (Seneca Castle, near present-day Geneva), Goiogouen (Cayuga Castle, east of Cayuga Lake), Chonodote (Cayuga town, present-day Aurora), and Catherine's Town (near present-day Watkins Glen).

As one of the most powerful Indian nations during colonial times, the Iroquois were able to prevent European colonization of the Finger Lakes region for nearly two centuries after first contact. By the late 18th century Iroquois power had weakened, relative to the European-Americans, and internal strife eroded the political unity of the Iroquois Confederacy. During the American Revolutionary War some of the Iroquois sided with the British and some with the Americans, resulting in civil war among the Iroquois. In the late 1770s, British-allied Iroquois attacked various American frontier settlements, prompting counter-attacks, culminating in the Sullivan Expedition of 1779, which destroyed most of the Iroquois towns and effectively broke Iroquois power.

After the Revolutionary War, the Iroquois and other Indians of the region were assigned reservations. Most of their land, including the Finger Lakes region, was opened up to purchase and settlement.

Roughly the western half of the Finger Lakes region comprised the Phelps and Gorham Purchase of 1790. The region was rapidly settled at the turn of the nineteenth century, largely by a westward migration from New England, but to a lesser degree by northward influx from Pennsylvania. The regional architecture reflects these area traditions of the Federal and Greek Revival periods.

The Finger Lakes region, together with the Genesee Country of Western New York, has been referred to as the Burned-Over District, where, in the 19th century, the Second Great Awakening was a revival of Christianity, and some new religions were also formed. The region was active in reform and utopian movements. Many Underground Railroad sites have been documented. The Harriet Tubman Home at Auburn recalls the life and work of the African-American "Moses of her people."

On the northern end of the Finger Lakes are also Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women's suffrage movement; Waterloo, the birthplace of Memorial Day; and Palmyra, the birthplace of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. An annual outdoor drama, The "Hill Cumorah Pageant", produced by the Mormons, draws thousands of visitors each year.

Hammondsport was the home of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, and the favorable air currents make the area a popular spot for glider pilots. Elmira, just to the south, was the home of Mark Twain in his later life, and the site of an infamous Civil War prison. Corning is most noted as the home of Corning Glass Works and the Corning Museum of Glass. Hornell, just southwest of the Finger Lakes was a major railroad center. Locomotives were repaired there until recently.

Notable among the historic buildings of the region (most linked below) is the Granger Homestead (1816), a large village house in Federal Style at Canandaigua, New York. Another example of the Federal Style is the Prouty-Chew House (1829) at Geneva, portions of which were altered at various times in new fashions. Three Greek Revival mansions are situated near three lakes: The Richard DeZeng House, Skaneateles (1839), Rose Hill, Geneva (1839), and Esperanza, Penn Yan (1838). The latter two are open to the public. The Seward House in Auburn, a National Historic Landmark, is a mansion more characteristic of the Civil War era, virtually unchanged from the nineteenth century. Belhurst Castle, Geneva, a stone mansion in the Romanesque Revival style, now serves as an inn. Sonnenberg mansion at Canandaigua is later nineteenth-century residence in the Queen Anne style, known for its restored period gardens. Geneva on the Lake is a villa (1910-14) that recalls those on Italian lakes. Now an inn, it has exceptional gardens in the European manner. Many buildings and historic districts of the Finger Lakes region are notable, other than these historic houses.

Educational institutions

The area is also known for education, with the largest institution being Cornell University in Ithaca, the state land grant institution. Its alma mater begins "Far Above Cayuga's Waters", because it is on the hills overlooking the city of Ithaca and the southern end of Cayuga Lake. Elmira College, founded in 1855 in Elmira, has the distinction of being the first college exclusively women's college to grant degrees equal to men in the country and is the final home of Mark Twain's study where he created his most famous characters: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. There are several other private colleges in the area. They include Ithaca College in Ithaca, Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, Wells College in Aurora, also on Cayuga Lake, Keuka College in Penn Yan, and New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls. There are also the State Universities of New York at Geneseo and Cortland, and four community colleges: Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua; Cayuga Community College in Auburn; Corning Community College in Corning; and Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden. There are also four statutory colleges at Cornell. These include: New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (which includes the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva), the New York State College of Human Ecology, the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, and the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations.


The Finger Lakes region is also home to a number of museums. This include the Corning Museum of Glass, the Strong National Museum of Play, Glenn H Curtiss Museum, Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, National Soaring Museum and the Rockwell Museum of Western Art.


* Thompson, John H., ed. "Geography of New York State" (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1977)
* Engeln, O. D., von. "The Finger Lakes Region: Its Origin and Nature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1961, 1988)
* Finger Lakes Tourism Statistics []

External links

* [ Survey of Finger Lakes Rieslings]
* [ Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance commonscat|Finger Lakes]
* [ Finger Lakes Visitors' Connection]
* [ Corning & the Finger Lakes]
* [ New York State Parks, Finger Lakes Region]
* [ Finger Lakes Wine Country]
* [ Formation of the Finger Lakes]
* [ Images of the Finger Lakes Region]
* [ Watkins Glen International]
* [ Woman's Rights National Park, Seneca Falls]
* [ National Women's Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls]
* [ Harriet Tubman Home, Auburn]
* [ Granger Homestead, Canandaigua]
* [ Rose Hill Mansion, Geneva]
* [ Seward House, Auburn]
* [ Sonnenberg Gardens, Canandaigua]
* [ New York Wine & Culinary Center, Canandaigua]
* [ Finger Lakes Community College, Canandaigua]
* [ Genesee Country Village Museum, Mumford]
* [ Plant Genetics Resource Unit at Geneva]
* [ Cayuga Community College, Auburn]
* [ Finger Lakes State Parks]
* [ Corning Museum of Glass]
* [ For Local News and Events Visit My Finger Lakes Online Community ]
* [ WHERE TO GO GUIDE in the Finger Lakes]

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