Seneca Lake, New York

Seneca Lake is the largest of the Finger Lakes in New York, United States. Seneca is also the deepest glacial lake entirely in the state of New York. It has an average depth of 89 m and a maximum depth of 188 m. The lake measures 15.9 km3 in volume and around 173 km2 in area. The name Seneca comes from the Seneca first nations people who once lived in abundance in the region.Aside from its depth, Seneca Lake is known for its Lake trout population, is often referred to as the Lake Trout capital of the world, and hosts the National Lake Trout Derby. 

Geography Of Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake
Seneca Lake in autumn. Editorial credit: Bob Pool /

Seneca Lake is in a popular area of New York state. Along its northern edge sits the city of Geneva, New York, Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, which is a division of Cornell University. Watkins Glen sits at the southern tip of the lake, and it is best known for housing the Watkins Glen International racetrack. Seneca Lake, and the finger lakes in general, have a microclimate that is particularly conducive to grape growing. Because of this, some 50 different wineries can be found in the area. The region even has a Seneca Lake Wine Trail which highlights some of the best wineries in the region. The lake itself is fed by underground springs, and fresh running water is common here, including several waterfalls. The lake has two inlets, Catharine Creek and the Keuka Lake Outlet, and its outflow releases into the Seneca River and Cayuga-Seneca Canal.

Wineries in Lake Seneca
Grapes growing in the Seneca Lake region.

History Of Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake is one of several glacial lakes in the area - known as finger lakes due to their long skinny shape. These lakes were formed by the glacial carving of streams and valleys thousands of years ago. Roughly 200 years ago, Iroquois villages, including Kanadaseaga, were prominent along the lake and in the surrounding hills. However, during the time of the American Revolutionary War in 1179, the dwellings were destroyed, crops razed, and the people were massacred in a genocide. Some 50 or more Cayuga and Seneca villages were wiped out during this campaign. Those that did survive were later forced to relinquish their land when the American forces defeated the British. The land was either sold or reallocated to veterans and soldiers.

Seneca Lake pier
The historic pier in Seneca Lake.

After 1790, settlers began to increase in the area, though the settlement remained small until 1825 when the Erie Canal opened and brought with it the possibility of trade and goods. Many barges sunk during the building of the finger lakes canal system, and some can still be found on the bottom of the lake. Some of these have become part of the Finger Lakes Underwater Preserve Association.The eastern portion of the lake used to house the Sampson Naval Base, which was used in WWII and was later the Sampson Air Force Base during the time of the Korean War. Though the base itself closed after the war, it was still the Seneca Army Airfield up until 2000. The grounds were then converted to a public park known as Sampson State Park. However, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) still operates in the lake and is an active Sonar test facility. The lake is popular for naval exercises and testing due to its extreme depth.

Folklore And Myths

Due to its depth, there are many stories about a creature (or creatures) living in its waters. Specifically, in 1900, a news article described an incident from the previous year where a steamboat with several passengers both spotted and hit a 7.6 m long sea monster.It was reported that the fanged sea-serpent was struck by the boat’s rudder, which cut the creature in half, killing it. The serpent then sank to the lake’s floor, and attempts to tow the remains to shore were unsuccessful. It was, not surprisingly, later suggested that this report was entirely fictional. However, despite the lack of evidence, there is a sense of folklore around the lake surrounding the idea of a creature within its depths.

Similarly, a series of rock paintings exist of the eastern cliffs at the south end of the lake. These drawings depict a tee-pee dwelling, several indigenous figures, and an American flag. The story goes that escaped Seneca members created these in 1779. This does not seem to hold up historically, though, as people fleeing for their lives were unlikely to return to draw pictures of the event. In addition, Seneca people lived in longhouses, not tee-pee style dwellings, and American flags are never supposed to be drawn facing the left, on horizontal surfaces, as this one is. It is more widely believed that the drawings were created specifically for tourists on Seneca Lake boat tours and were added to the rocks in 1929 during the Sullivan Sesquicentennial.

Winery in Seneca Lake
Vineyard along Seneca Lake.

Wildlife In Seneca Lake

Fish are common in Seneca Lake, especially lake trout, for which the lake is known. Other fish species include smallmouth bass and yellow perch. Less populous species also include rainbow trout, brown trout, landlocked Atlantic salmon, northern pike, and largemouth bass.Other animals found in the area include beaver, black bears, white-tailed deer, and river otters. Common bird species are mainly fish-eating types such as great blue herons, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, snow geese, and wild turkey.

Rich in both history and wildlife, Seneca Lake is a popular destination for fishers, animal lovers, and outdoor enthusiasts. From hiking, boating, and recreational fishing to camping and resorts, Seneca Lake remains one of the more popular destinations among the glacial lakes of New York State.