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The Keuka Lake Steamboat "Wars"

Yates Past - July 2008

One doesn’t normally associate the peaceful waters of Keuka Lake with any kind of war, but as the era of the steamboat entered its Golden Age in the decades following the Civil War, there were three of them. Each “war” was actually a struggle for dominance between competing companies on the lake. This was the time when men in business and finance amassed large fortunes throughout the economy by using competition to create monopolies. Steamboat companies on Keuka Lake did not escape that type of competition.

The first “boat war” was in 1873 and resulted in the domination of commerce on the lake by the Lake Keuka Steam Navigation Co. jointly owned by Joseph Crosby, Farley Holmes, and Morris F. Sheppard. As agricultural production around the lake increased and as the Northern Central Railroad and the Bath & Hammondsport Railroad brought increased numbers of “excursionists” to its shores for recreation, competition between the steamboat companies returned in the late 1870s. The Lake Keuka Steam Navigation Co. was basically Penn Yan oriented and based its schedule around the Northern Central Railroad. The new company was formed in 1877 and was Hammondsport oriented and based its schedule around the Bath and Hammondsport Railroad. This touched off the second “boat war”. With newer and more preferred steamboats (the Lulu and the Urbana), the new company took business away from the older one. The death of Farley Holmes in 1879, consecutive seasons of financial loss, and storm damage to their aging flagship (the Steuben) resulted in the dissolution of the Lake Keuka Steam Navigation Co. in 1881. The victorious company reorganized and looked forward to enjoying their monopoly of commerce on the lake. That included raising freight rates and ticket prices to make up for the low rates they had been forced to charge because of earlier competition.

Into this scene came William L. Halsey. Halsey was born and raised in Steuben County, but went west as a young man and made his fortune in railroads and steamboats in the Pacific northwest (There is a town in Oregon named after him). He returned to New York in the 1870s and lived in Rochester. There he got involved in various business enterprises and a law practice all of which added to his wealth. He bought land on Keuka Lake and built a large cottage near the Grove Spring Hotel named Care Naught. There he developed a friendship with Farley Holmes and because of that, closely followed the second “boat war” of the late 1870s. Troubled by the shabby treatment of Holmes’ widow by the new company, Halsey started buying stock in the Lake Keuka Navigation Co. and won a seat on its board of directors. As the story goes, he was incensed one stormy night in 1882 when the Urbana refused to stop at his dock at Care Naught. He confronted Morris Sheppard (who by then was an officer in the company) by saying “If you can’t operate this boat to accommodate the public, I’ll build one of my own!” Sheppard’s response was “You couldn’t build a rowboat!” That started the third and final “steamboat war”.

Halsey allied himself with some powerful Penn Yan businessmen; Theodore O. Hamlin, who ran The Metropolitan, a drygoods store on Main Street, Oliver C. Knapp who ran a downtown hotel, and William Wise of Hollowell & Wise Hardware. They formed the Crooked Lake Navigation Company and hired Alonzo Springstead to build an elegant state-of-the-art steamboat which Halsey named after his friend, the Farley Holmes. The competition started in earnest when the Holmes was launched at Hammondsport in July of 1883. The maiden voyage included guests personally invited by Halsey. A special dinner was held at the Grove Springs Hotel and then the Holmes proceeded north to enter the outlet and dock at Penn Yan. The “new line” (Halsey’s company) had leased a dock near the steamboat landings but there were rumors that there might be a confrontation with workers from the “old line”. The county sheriff was on hand with 25 deputies in case they were needed. A large crowd gathered on both sides of the outlet to see the new boat and watch what happened as it tried to dock. The Holmes’ dock had one of the “old line” boats tied up to it but it was removed without incident.

The competition that started at that point lasted for nine years. On one side was the “old line” (the Lake Keuka Navigation Co.) with its flagship The Urbana backed by Hammondsport business interests and, thanks to the Bath & Hammondsport Railroad, business interests in Corning and Elmira. On the other side was Halsey’s Company (the Crooked Lake Navigation Co.) with its flagship the Holmes backed by Penn Yan business interests and, thanks to the North Central Railroad, business interests in Rochester and Buffalo. When William Halsey suddenly died in 1884, the company was taken over by his wife and T.O. Hamlin. They built one of the longest steamboats yet seen on the lake and named it the William L. Halsey when it was launched at Penn Yan in 1887. This allowed them, with the Holmes and the Halsey, to double-team the old line on the regular run between Penn Yan and Hammondsport. For nine years there were lawsuits and injunctions, competition over docking rights, and price slashing. Boats of the opposing lines raced each other to the docks to pick up the passengers first, resulting in a few collisions. The main beneficiary of this competition was the public as the price of an all-day ticket went from $1 down to 10¢.

With newer and more stylish boats, the “new line” held quite an advantage over the competition. However, both companies made huge profits as the flow of business increased dramatically on Keuka Lake. This attracted the attention of a New York City businessman, Charles W. Drake who was backed by other financiers. Drake started by buying the Bath & Hammondsport Railroad and the “old line” (the Keuka Lake Navigation Company). He then set his sights on Mrs. Halsey, T.O. Hamlin, and the “new line” (Crooked Lake Navigation Company). Rumors that Drake was going to have a steel-hulled boat built which would be the largest and finest on the lake. plus a purchase offer she couldn’t refuse, caused Mrs. Halsey to sell her company and its boats to Drake in 1892, thus ending the last of the “Steamboat Wars”.

If you are interested in reading more about the Steamboat Era on Keuka Lake and the other Finger Lakes, I would strongly recommend Steven Harvey’s It Started With a Steamboat (2005) which I read for background on this article. We just happen to have it for sale in our Museum Shop. Also, in the Underwood Museum Research Center, we have huge files on the individual steamboats, the men who served on them, the resorts along the lake, and just about everything else related to the era. Come on in and peruse them.

by Rich MacAlpine


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