About the Finger Lakes Region

image of simple map of Finger Lakes region

The Finger Lakes are a group of 11 long, narrow, roughly north-south lakes in an area called the Finger Lakes region in Central New York in the United States. It is defined as a bioregion and is a popular tourist destination.

The lakes’ shapes reminded early map-makers of human fingers, and the name stuck. They are also natural glacial finger lakes. Cayuga (435 feet deep, 133 meters) and Seneca (618 feet, 188 meters) Lakes are among the deepest in the United States, with bottoms well below sea level. They are also the longest Finger Lakes, though neither’s width exceeds 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers); Seneca Lake is 38.1 miles (61.3 km) long, and 66.9 square miles (173 km), the largest in total area.

The 11 Finger Lakes, from east to west, are:

  • 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 12th Finger Lake” because it is similar in shape. It is 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 Finger Lakes’ waters. 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 includes 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 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. Likewise, Chautauqua Lake, Findley Lake and Kinzua Lake to the west are not considered Finger Lakes; all three drain into the Allegheny River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, and in the case of Kinzua and Findley, the lakes are the artificial creation of dams.

Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, and Otisco are considered the minor Finger Lakes. Other, smaller lakes, including Silver, Waneta, and Lamoka lakes, dot this region. Silver Lake, west of Conesus Lake, would seem to qualify because it is in the Great Lakes watershed, but 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 the southern Adirondack Mountains).

The 2,000-acre (8 sq. km.) muckland of a valley located in Potter, New York, which is part of Torrey Farms, was almost a 12th Finger Lake, as the waterline is just below the surface. It lay between Lakes Canandaigua and Seneca and was once a swamp.

satellite image of snowy Finger Lakes region

A late fall snowstorm frosted the hills of the Finger Lakes region of central New York in early December. Shapes of the snow-covered hills are accented by the low sun angles and contrast with the darker, finger-shaped lakes filling the region’s valleys. The steep, roughly parallel valleys and hills of the Finger Lakes region were shaped by advancing and retreating ice sheets that were as much as 2 miles deep during the last ice age. River valleys were scoured into deep troughs; many are now filled with lakes. The two largest lakes, Seneca and Cayuga, are so deep that the base of their lakebeds is below sea level. The cities of Rochester, Syracuse, and Ithaca are included in this field-of-view, taken from the International Space Station. These three cities enjoy large seasonal snowpacks, thanks to the influence of the Great Lakes producing lake-effect snowstorms. Despite its reputation for long winters, the region is balmy compared with the glacial climate present when the landscape was carved. At the time of the most significant ice extent, yearly average temperatures over northern North America were several degrees lower than today. Astronaut photograph ISS010-E-9366 was acquired December 4, 2004, with a Kodak 760C digital camera with a 50-mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and the Image Science & Analysis Group, at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The International Space Station Program supports the laboratory to help astronauts take pictures of Earth that will be of value to scientists and the public and to make those images freely available on the Internet. Additional images taken by astronauts and cosmonauts can be viewed at the NASA/JSC Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.

Geology:

These glacial finger lakes originated as a series of northward-flowing streams. Around two million years ago, the first of many continental glaciers of the Laurentide Ice Sheet moved southward from the Hudson Bay area, initiating the Pleistocene glaciation. These scouring glaciers widened, deepened, and accentuated the existing river valleys. Glacial debris, possibly terminal moraine left behind by the receding ice, acted as dams, allowing lakes to form. Despite the deep erosion of the valleys, the surrounding uplands show little evidence of glaciation, suggesting that the ice was thin, or at least unable to cause much erosion at these higher altitudes. The deep cutting by the ice left some tributaries hanging high above the lakes—both Seneca and Cayuga have tributaries hanging as much as 120 meters above the valley floors.

Ecological Concern:

Much of the Finger Lakes area lies upon the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale, two prominent natural gas reserves. Due to the recent increase in fracking technology, the natural gas is now available for extraction. While some large landowners have leased their lands, and many small landowners would like to follow suit, many residents of the Finger Lakes oppose the process of extraction due to concerns about groundwater contamination and the industrial impact of the removal related activities. The first direct actions and local legislative actions against fracking occurred in the Finger Lakes bioregion. In December 2014, the government of New York banned all fracking within the state, citing pollution risks.

History:

The Finger Lakes region contains evidence of pre-Iroquois habitation, such as The Bluff Point Stoneworks, but little is known about who may have constructed these enigmatic works.

The Finger Lakes region is a central part of the Iroquois homeland. The Iroquois tribes include the Seneca and Cayuga nations, for which the two largest Finger Lakes are named. The Tuscarora tribe lived in the Finger Lakes region as well, from ca. 1720. The Onondaga and Oneida tribes lived at the eastern edge of the region, closer to their namesake lakes, Oneida Lake and Onondaga Lake. The easternmost Iroquois tribe was the Mohawk.

During colonial times, many other tribes moved to the Finger Lakes region, seeking the protection of the Iroquois. For example, in 1753 remnants of several Virginia Siouan tribes, collectively called the Tutelo-Saponi, moved to the town of Coreorgonel at the south end of Cayuga Lake near present-day Ithaca, until 1779 when their village was destroyed.

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), Catherine’s Town (near present-day Watkins Glen) and Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, New York.

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 the first contact, often playing the French off against the British interests in savvy demonstrations of political competence. Tribal politics and the military reality that the Iroquois held the strongest military force in North America were well appreciated. By the late 18th century with the French political influence gone from Canada Iroquois power had weakened, relative to the steady growth in European-Americans’ populations, and internal strife eroded the political unity of the Iroquois Confederacy as they faced pressures from colonists itching to move west and a desire to keep them out of Amerindian lands. During the American Revolutionary War, some Iroquois sided with the British and some with the Americans, resulting in a 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.

Notable Places:

The Finger Lakes region, together with the Genesee Country of Western New York, has been referred to as the burned-over district.[4] There, in the 19th century, the Second Great Awakening was a revival of Christianity; some new religions were also formed.

The region was active in reform and utopian movements. Many of its Underground Railroad sites have been documented. For example, 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 (LDS Church). An annual outdoor drama, The Hill Cumorah Pageant, produced by the LDS Church, draws thousands of visitors each year.

Hammondsport was the home of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, and favorable air currents make the area a favorite 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 mostly known 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. Conesus remains the home of the oldest producer of pure grape sacramental wine in the Western hemisphere.

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) in 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 European-style gardens. Many buildings and historic districts of the Finger Lakes region are notable, other than these historic houses.

Implemented in August 2010, the Hemlock-Canadice State Forest covers 6,684 acres (27.05 km2) that encompass the two western Finger Lakes, Hemlock, and Canadice. These lakes have provided drinking water for the City of Rochester for more than 100 years. The city acquired much of the property around the lakes to protect water quality. Over the decades, the land reforested, but a few traces of its past, such as stone walls or cottage foundations, remain. Today these two lakes, with their steep, forested, mostly undeveloped shorelines and deep clear water, provide visitors a glimpse of the Finger Lakes of the past. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) manages this State Forest for compatible public access for recreation, including fishing, hunting, nature study, boating, and hiking. Activities in Hemlock-Canadice State Forest are subject the DEC’s Rules and Regulations for the Use of State Lands, 6 NYCRR Part 190, as well as any other applicable state statutes, rules, and regulations. These are sensitive areas because they protect public drinking water.

Hemlock Lake is home to the state’s oldest nesting bald eagle site, dating back to the early 1960s. The nesting bald eagles of Hemlock Lake have fostered a resurgence of bald eagles throughout New York State. Hemlock Lake, known initially as “O-Neh-Da” which is Seneca for “Lake of Hemlock Trees,” is home to the nation’s oldest sacramental winery, founded by Bishop McQuaid in 1872. Today, O-Neh-Da Vineyard continues to make premium natural pure grape wine for churches and “foodies” alike.

Wine:

The Finger Lakes area is New York’s largest wine-producing region. Over 100 wineries and vineyards are located around Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, Keuka, Conesus, and Hemlock 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 shoot growth, and early frost before the harvest. The main grape varieties grown are Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot noir, Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc and many Vitis labrusca (American native) varieties or cultivars.

With the passage of the Farm Winery Act in 1976, numerous wineries are now open to visitors. Wineries are a growth industry of the region, contributing through their production and by attracting visitors.

The Finger Lakes American Viticulture Area (AVA) includes two of America’s oldest wineries, O-Neh-Da Vineyard (1872) on Hemlock Lake and The Pleasant Valley Wine Company (1860) on Keuka Lake.

Educational Institutions:

The area is also known for education; the largest institution is Cornell University in Ithaca. Other notable schools: Ithaca College, the University of Rochester, Nazareth College, St. John Fisher College and Rochester Institute of Technology, Elmira College, Corning Community College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, Wells College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Keuka College, Finger Lakes Community College, The State University of New York at Cortland, New York Chiropractic College, Cayuga Community College, and The State University of New York at Geneseo.

Museums:

The Finger Lakes region is home to several museums. These include the Corning Museum of Glass, the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, the Strong National Museum of Play, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, the Finger Lakes Boating Museum, the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, the Sciencenter, the Museum of the Earth, the National Soaring Museum, the Rockwell Museum, the Seward House Museum, the William H. Seward and the Samuel Warren Homesteads of the York Historical Society, birthplace of New York State’s first successful commercial winery.

The Women’s Rights National Historic Park is located in Seneca Falls. The park includes the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Wesleyan Chapel, where she held the first convention on women’s rights in 1848.