The Erie Canal officially opened in 1825, and was formally connected to Ithaca via Cayuga Lake in 1828. The local boating industry boomed in anticipation of becoming a popular inland port.
Throughout the nineteenth century boat yards operated at many points along Cayuga Lake. In some instances they were near a sawmill to provide easy access to timber supplies. Oak trees abounded in the woods around the lake. They could be felled, hauled to the boat yard, sawn into appropriate sizes and lengths and built into canal boats, steamboats and recreational boats.
In the October 9, 1852 Ithaca Journal and Advertiser, there was an advertisement for the boat leaving Ithaca for the two-day trip to Buffalo every Tuesday, towed ‘down the lake by steam [to the Erie Canal], stopping for freight and passengers’ (Return boat leaving Buffalo every Monday).
One of the earliest boat builders in Tompkins County was the Cayuga Steamboat Company, established in 1819. The Enterprise, Cayuga Lake’s first steamboat, was built here and made its first journey in 1821. Its 24 hp engine came by wagon from the shops of Robert Fulton in New Jersey. The company grew and prospered over the next several decades, changing hands (and names) several times, and producing such notable steamships as the DeWitt Clinton, the T.D. Wilcox, and the renowned Frontenac.
By 1866 Ithaca had 11 boatyards, each producing between 30 and 40 canal and lake boats each year. The focal point of most of this activity was the Cayuga Inlet where an Ithaca Journal article dated Oct. 23, 1880, exclaimed, “The music of the saw and hammer means bread for many a family, shoes and schooling for many little ones.” About 150 men were given steady employment at several boat yards, producing canal boats with an average value of $3,500. The article further stated “paint and putty cover fewer deficiencies in an Ithaca canal boat than any other that “crawls the water.” About 450 pounds of white lead and 40 gallons of oil were required to paint each boat.
One especially productive boat yard was that of Benjamin F. Taber. Taber’s produced the private steam yacht, the Clara, which was sleek and fast, and the winner of the only official steamboat race on Cayuga Lake. Both horse- (and mule-) drawn, as well as steam-powered barges came from there, also. Benjamin, William and later Henry Taber built boats in Ithaca from the 1850s until the early 20th century.
Ferry boats provided transportation for goods and people from 1808 to 1913, including the Busy Bee and the Polly Ann. Imported goods from all over the world appeared in local stores for the first time, traveling through the canal system from New York City and the major cargo ports there. An Ithaca grocer was able to advertise oranges and lemons for sale in 1852. India rubber overshoes, Brazil nuts and ocean fish became available.
With the rise of the railroads in the mid and late 19th century the usage of the Erie Canal declined, and so did the boat yards on Cayuga Lake. The Cayuga Inlet remained an important shipping point into the twentieth century and was widened and deepened in 1905 and 1913 to accommodate the deeper barge ships. There is little physical evidence left of Ithaca’s days as a canal port, although visitors can enjoy the Waterfront Trail, sit on the docks at the Ithaca Farmers Market, and enjoy a sunset at Stewart Park (known as Renwick Park in the heyday of the Erie Canal) and see the same view of water, hills, and sky enjoyed by the many passengers and workers of the Erie Canal.
Modified from an article written by Carol Sisler and Donna Eschenbrenner, originally published on January 2nd 2015 in the Ithaca Journal as ‘Erie Canal Launched Boating Boom on Cayuga Lake’.
.Visitors interested in the history of the Erie Canal are invited to visit The History Center in Tompkins County (thehistorycenter.net) to review our Erie Canal Collection in the Research Library & Archives.