Not Skaneateles Falls

J B Edson

John Burnside Edson had a farm in Willow Glen, on Jordan Road, and rarely made news, once when someone stole some chickens he was fattening for the market, and again when he offered a horse and wagon for sale. He also worked as a carpenter. A simple man, one would think, and I have tried to imagine how he reacted when he learned that his sister, Annie, had gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Horseshoe Falls Brink

Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor was born on October 24, 1838, “on the shores of the Owasco,” where her father, Merrick, had a flour mill at the outlet. He fathered eight children but died young. A son, Dann, remained in Auburn; John came to Skaneateles; Annie became a schoolteacher. She was married young, widowed soon after, and afterwards cobbled together a livelihood teaching school subjects, dance and deportment.

Speaking with a reporter for the Buffalo Express days before her attempt, she said she had taught in Auburn, Skaneateles, New York City, Bay City and Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan), Austin (Texas) and Mexico City. In 1901, while teaching dance in San Antonio, she decided to challenge the falls. She was tired of being poor and thought the feat would bring her fame and fortune.

She returned to Bay City with plans for a barrel to be made of oak, heavily oiled to make it waterproof, with seven iron hoops riveted every four inches. Once in Niagara Falls, she had the inside fitted with a leather harness and mattress-like padding. An anvil in the bottom assured that the barrel would float upright.

On October 24, 1901, experienced rivermen Fred Truesdale and William “Billy” Holleran took Taylor and her barrel to Grass Island, a mile and a half above the brink, a spot about as close to the falls as a man in a rowboat dares to go. Taylor climbed in, and after fastening the lid, Holleran used a bicycle tire pump to compress the air in the barrel. The air hole was plugged with a cork, and the barrel was towed into a current that led to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. (The American Falls, with its rocky base, is certain death for anyone who goes over.) Taylor was set adrift, and Truesdale tapped her barrel twice with an oar to let her know she was on her own.

Canadian Rapids

For five minutes or so, her ride was quiet, but the final three-quarters of a mile were through the rapids, a churning, rocky, roaring descent as the river drops 50 feet on its way to the rim of the falls. For 18 minutes, spectators lining both sides of the river saw the barrel twirl, dive and leap as it bobbed through the rapids. Journalist Orrin Dunlap wrote, “Over reef after reef it plunged, each leap calling forth an involuntary groan from many of the spectators. Three times the barrel disappeared in the foaming, tossing waters… but each time it reappeared and was hurled on by the never-ceasing current.”

Inside the barrel, Taylor heard the roar of the falls getting louder. “I felt,” she recalled, “as though all Nature was being annihilated.” She put a cushion under her knees and held on for dear life as she went over the brink. She didn’t feel the impact at the bottom of the waterfall as the barrel plunged beneath the surface, but she did feel the barrel shoot back up to the surface and into the air.

The barrel was carried down river a short distance and then drifted into an eddy. A riverman caught the barrel with a boat hook and pulled it to dry land, and men worked to open the top. Taylor, dazed, sensed the lid being pried off and a man shouted, “My God, she’s alive!” Several men pulled Taylor out and helped her to the shore. Bleeding from a cut to her scalp, she waved weakly to the crowd.

Annie Edson Taylor

At first, Taylor made some money from her exploit. She received $200 for appearing at Buffalo’s Pan American Exposition on its last day, and more from making store appearances in the Midwest. But she had no stage presence and her manager dumped her in Cincinnati, took most of her money and the barrel, and disappeared. She eventually found the barrel in a store window in Chicago. A second manager also dumped her, took the barrel and started touring with a younger, more glamorous woman who pretended to be the Heroine of Niagara. This time, the barrel was lost forever.

Niagara Autograph

Taylor was reduced to sitting outside a restaurant on the American side, alongside a replica of her barrel, selling postcards and her autobiography to tourists. In 1921, at 82, she entered the Niagara County poorhouse at Lockport, where she died, penniless.

Queen

Her fame survived, however, inspiring a book, Queen of the Falls, by Chris Van Allsburg, the author of The Polar Express, Jumanji and many other children’s classics.

And what of John Edson of Skaneateles? He died in 1911, in Michigan, while visiting a brother he had not seen for 43 years. Edson’s body was shipped to Port Clinton, Ohio, to the home of his son, Charles Ansley Edson, and buried in Port Clinton’s Lakeview Cemetery in 1911.

***

  • “She Shot the Falls,” Buffalo Express, October 25, 1901
  • “Over Niagara in a Barrel,” Orrin E. Dunlap, World Wide Magazine, January 1902
  • Queen of the Falls (2011) by Chris Van Allsburg

Dolphins in the Water

Dolphins

“A class of 12 power boats of the modified Dolphin type have been built by the Skaneateles Boat & Canoe Co. for use on Lake Skaneateles. The boats are 25 ft. over all and are to have 8 h.p. engines.”

Power Boat News, March 15, 1905

“Few people, perhaps, familiar with local aquatic conditions, realize the extent of the development of motor boating. Only within the past few years has it assumed the proportions it enjoys today, and its success follows the perfection of the gasoline engine, which furnishes a fairly reliable motive power at a minimum of cost. Previous to the use of gasoline, steam yachts were practically the only power pleasure craft in commission, but their general use practically was prohibitive by reason of the enormous cost of installation and maintenance. The gasoline engine solved all these problems and it will perhaps be news to most people to learn there are more than fifty pleasure power boats in commission on Skaneateles lake.

“To whom belongs the honor of installing the first gasoline motor boat is a disputed point, but the pioneers in the movement were Dr. Stephen Smith, E. Reuel Smith and Frank Barber. The latter’s boat, the Argos, is now in commission on Owasco Lake. It is a 25 footer and originally had a four-horsepower engine. E. Reuel Smith’s boat is still in commission on Skaneateles lake, while Dr. Smith’s craft has not been used for some time.

“Skaneateles is fortunate in having at its door two excellent boat shops, which have turned out a major portion of the power craft on the lake, to say nothing of scores that have been shipped out of town. The Skaneateles Boat and Canoe company of this village and the Edson Boat company at Long Bridge long ago established reputations for turning out boats of quality and occasions are rare that local purchasers place orders with out of town builders.”

— “The Skaneateles Fleet,” The Democrat, August 15, 1907

Quaker Lady Pano

Postcard of Will Olmstead’s Quaker Lady (28 feet, 15 h.p.) out for her trial run.

A Widow Visits

James B. Walker Sr. was the managing editor of the Syracuse Herald from 1898 to 1901. During that time, he developed a lasting affection for the city, and for Skaneateles. He and his family spent summers on the lake, first at Glen Haven and, later when he worked in New York City, returned to rent a cottage. His son, James B. “Jimmy” Walker Jr., grew up enjoying Skaneateles summers and returned as an adult.

In August of 1923, James Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth, invited his parents and Elizabeth’s mother to Skaneateles. Having parents come up from New York City does not sound exactly newsworthy, but Elizabeth Walker’s mother, Mary, came with some history.

Harrison Portrait

From 1889 to 1893, when Benjamin Harrison was serving as the 23rd president of the United States, Mary Dimmick lived in the White House. She was the niece of Caroline “Carrie” Harrison, the President’s wife, and had been widowed at the age of 23 after just three months of marriage. The First Lady took her in and engaged her as her secretary.

The White House was a full house. The Harrisons’ daughter, Mary Harrison McKee, with her husband and their two children, lived there, as did the First Family’s son, Russell Benjamin Harrison, with his wife and children. The grandchildren had many pets, including a goat. The President had two pet opossums.

Carrie Harrison wanted to enlarge the White House (and no wonder) but had to settle for some “modernizations” such as electric lights. Sadly, her time as First Lady came to an early end; after a long battle with tuberculosis, she died in October of 1892. The President had remained with her throughout her illness, did not campaign for reelection, and lost to Grover Cleveland in November.

The family dispersed, but Benjamin Harrison and his wife’s niece, Mary Dimmick, stayed in touch, writing letters. In the course of their correspondence, they fell in love. In 1895, they announced their engagement. One account says the President’s adult children disapproved; another says they were horrified. One wonders if it was the age difference, the hint of incest between Mary and her “Uncle Ben” (although they were not blood relations) or the sudden vision of a divided and/or disappearing inheritance that so upset them.

Marriage

On April 6, 1896, at St. Thomas Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City, Benjamin Harrison, 62, married Mary Dimmick, 37. The President’s children did not attend the wedding. The next year, Mary and Benjamin were blessed with the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth. If the adult children were upset before, you can imagine their consternation when they learned they had a half-sister, an infant who was an aunt to their children.

Mary and Ben with Baby

Benjamin Harrison died on March 13, 1901, a few weeks after his daughter’s fourth birthday. President William McKinley attended the funeral in Indianapolis, along with all the living members of Harrison’s cabinet. Harrison’s adult children had arrived too late for the deathbed vigil but attended the funeral. Thousands of mourners lined the path from the cemetery entrance to the grave site.

After Benjamin Harrison’s death, his widow and daughter traveled extensively. They kept their home in Indianapolis until 1913 when they moved to New York City.

Elizabeth Harrison

Elizabeth Harrison graduated from the New York University School of Law in 1919, and in 1922 she married James Blaine Walker. The following summer, she and her mother joined the Walkers in Skaneateles. Because of James B. Walker Sr.’s link to the Syracuse Herald, the newspaper got the scoop.

MDH Boat

“Mrs. Mary Lord Dimmick Harrison, widow of Benjamin Harrison, 23rd President of the United States, is the distinguished visitor whose presence in the summer colony at the lake has gone almost unnoticed in Syracuse.

“With the Walkers, Mrs. Harrison has been in the village since Sunday, taking lunch and dinner at the Krebs’. A few of the older members of the summer colony have known of her presence, but scores of the Syracuse people who are there every day have been interested in the party, without knowing who its members were.

“Her [Mary Harrison’s] time at the quiet lake resort is being about evenly divided between her baby grandson [Benjamin Harrison Walker] and Mah Jongg, the new Chinese game which she plays expertly. She classes one as her hobby and the other as her favorite recreation, but insists the baby is infinitely more interesting.”

Mary Harrison made it clear to the reporter that she wanted no special attention. She found Skaneateles to be beautiful and restful, and returned to New York City at the end of her week’s stay. She died in New York in 1948, and her body was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, next to that of her husband.

***

Harrison 1903

“Honoring Dead Ex-President,” Utica Observer, March 18, 1901

“Harrison Passes Away,” Suffolk County News, March 1901

“President Harrison’s Widow Passes Week at Skaneateles Virtually Unrecognized,” Syracuse Herald, August 28, 1923

“Mrs. Harrison, Ex-President’s Widow, Dies,” Albany Times-Union, January 6, 1948

A Turn of the Card

“Don’t think me bourgeois, but I actually have a little place out in the country – upstate New York, the Finger Lakes.”

“You?”

“I won it in a game of lansquenet. It’s just an unassuming little cottage, but it’s right on Skaneateles Lake. I rather like the sound of the waves slapping the shore when I’m falling asleep at night.”

— In which the dissolute but charming Will Hewitt describes his pastoral retreat to a young Irish-born governess, from Still Life with Murder (2010) by P.B. Ryan, the first of the Nell Sweeney mysteries, set in post-Civil War Boston.

The Ephemeral Mr. Goettel

Mystery House

About once every five years, I come across a photo from the Art Photo and View Co., established in Skaneateles in 1886 by Philip M. Goettel. He came from Syracuse, and by 1887 was back in Syracuse; later in his career he moved to Auburn. The subjects of his photos are unidentified, which makes them all the more interesting.

carte-de-viste

Identified on the back as being from the Art Photo and View Company of Skaneateles

cat-watching-bird-in-cage

From the collection of the George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y.

***

Thanks to Norm Shepard for the latest, an unidentified house and window sitter.

The Voyages of the Ossahinta

Ossahinta Postcard 2

Prompted by the success of the steamboat Glen Haven, launched in 1876, Samuel N. Allen and William J. Grime commissioned Alonzo W. Springstead of Geneva, N.Y., to build a similar but smaller craft designed by Edward R. Bowdish of Skaneateles. Launched on June 30, 1878, the new steamer was 60 feet long with an 11-foot beam and had a capacity of 150 passengers. They named the boat Ossahinta, in honor of Chief Ossahinta of the Onondaga Nation.

By the 1890s, the Ossahinta was owned and captained by George S. Cady, of Scott, N.Y., who had many interests at the south end of the lake.

Ossahinta and Crew

The Ossahinta and crew

Smaller than the Glen Haven, the Ossahinta was an ideal charter for small groups ($12 per round trip or $20 per day). While the Glen Haven catered to the “carriage trade,” the Ossahinta was often patronized by a rowdier group of voyagers who brought along a keg of beer. But there were exceptions.

In August of 1889, the Ossahinta was chartered for an excursion by the visiting players of the New York State Chess Association, holding their mid-summer meeting in Skaneateles. In May of 1891, an equally erudite group chartered the Ossahinta: a delegation of 70 students and professors from Cornell University seeking to measure the height, width and depth of the lake.

In a visit that presaged decades of legal wrangling, officials from Syracuse chartered the Ossahinta in 1891 to survey the lake they were about to commandeer as a private reservoir for the city’s drinking water. Regarding plans to heighten the dam at the outlet, to raise the lake’s “storage capacity,” they concluded that the damage along the shoreline would be “infinitesimal.”

Progress on the new dam, the gate house and the laying of the conduit pipe was observed by another gaggle of prominent men the following summer. A voyage on the Ossahinta was included in the tour. A reporter for the Syracuse Courier noted:

“When about three miles and a half from the village of Skaneateles, the attendant waiter dipped his pail into the water and took therefrom the wonderful beverage that is to flow into the tanks of Syracuse citizens. Glasses of the water were held up to the sun that made the liquid sparkle like the effervescing champagne.”

In June of 1893, “the cremation of John R. Calculus,” a ceremony celebrating the completion of required math courses for Syracuse University sophomores, took place at Glen Haven. Most of the party traveled by the steamer Glen Haven, but the Ossahinta was chartered by the Psi Upsilon fraternity to convey a party of its brothers. The Syracuse Standard noted, “On the way out these more blooded young men were looked at in green-eyed envy; on the way back it was different.” Indeed, after the ceremony’s close at 10 p.m., everyone boarded the steamers for the return voyage. The report continued:

“Now the Glen Haven had beaten the Ossahinta out and it was passed about that there would be a reversal of that order going back. But at about Five Mile Point, something in the Ossahinta broke and the Glen Haven steamed proudly on and the orchestra played ‘We Won’t Go Home Till Morning.’ The Ossahinta was still floundering about helplessly when the Glen Haven reached Skaneateles and her lights could be seen five miles back. The train could not wait and the unhappy Psi U’s were left to the mercy of the waves… it is safe to say that things were rather chilly on the Ossahinta along towards day break.”

In July of 1899, the Ossahinta brought members of the Onondaga County Undertakers’ Association – accompanied by wives, daughters, sisters, cousins and aunts – to Glen Haven for an afternoon luncheon.

In 1905, George S. Cady sold the Ossahinta to C.D. Beebe of the Auburn & Syracuse Electric Railroad (i.e., the trolley). 

Ossahinta Postcard 1905

In July of 1908, the Ossahinta experienced something of a “fender bender” as it returned to Skaneateles. The Skaneateles Democrat noted:

“A heavy sea was running on account of the south wind and instead of stopping at the dock the boat continued down the outlet at good speed until it crashed into the bridge. The forward part of the deck covering of the steamer was carried away, several of the iron spindles of the bridge rail were bent and an iron post at the end of the bridge was loosened… It was necessary to chop away a portion of the steamer’s superstructure before it could be released.”

In May of 1909, the Homer Republican reported, “The steamer Ossahinta has a new whistle, which is not an improvement on the old one.” That June, the graduating class of the Homer Academy chartered the Ossahinta for a trip up and down the lake, with a picnic lunch at Ten Mile Point and a banquet at the Glen Haven Hotel.

Ossahinta Hauled Out

In October, the Ossahinta was pulled from the lake and “dry docked” for repairs at Ten Mile Point.

In 1912, the Ossahinta was still on shore. The Auburn Citizen noted, “It is said to be the plan to dismantle the old steamer Ossahinta which has rested on blocks on the shore of Ten Mile Point for three years past, mounting its boiler and engine near the pavilion.”

However, in 1914, with the Ossahinta by then lying on its side and the future of steamboats in doubt, the boiler and engine were hauled away to a Syracuse scrapyard and the wooden hull was returned to the lake where it sank to the bottom.

In August of 1958, the hull of the Ossahinta was found by divers off Ten Mile Point. In 2007, “Team Sunday” dove to the remains and recorded their survey on video, which you can see on YouTube.

Three Steamers

Left to right: The Glen Haven, The City of Syracuse and the Ossahinta

***

Thayer’s Portrait of Chief Ossahinta

Ossahinta Thayer SMALLER

Shortly before his death, Chief Ossahinta sat for a portrait by Sanford Thayer, whose artistic career began in John Legg’s carriage shop in Skaneateles. Starting work there at the age of 17, he met Charles Loring Elliott, an accomplished portrait artist who, to make a little extra money, painted pictures on the backs of Legg’s sleighs. Elliott became Thayer’s mentor and started him on his career as a painter of portraits and nature scenes.

Chief Ossahinta was also rendered as a wooden cigar store indian for Auer & Co., tobacco merchants of Syracuse.

***

Selected Sources

Onondaga, Or, Reminiscences of Earlier and Later Times (1849) edited by Joshua Clark

“Rustic Chess,” Columbia Chess Chronicle, vol. 5, August 15, 1889

“Few Will Suffer,” Syracuse Daily Courier, 1891

“Glen Haven,” Homer Republican, May 28, 1891

“They Drank Water,” Syracuse Courier, July 15, 1892

“Calculus Obsequies,” Syracuse Standard, June 24, 1893

“Gaities at the Glen,” Cortland Standard, June 30, 1893

Onondaga’s Centennial: Gleanings of a Century (1896) edited by Dwight Hall Bruce

“Glen Haven,” Cortland County Sentinel, August 3, 1899

“Sanford Thayer,” Spafford (1902) by George Knapp Collins

“Off for Outing,” Syracuse Journal, June 20, 1906

“Bumped into Bridge,” Skaneateles Democrat, July 23, 1908

History of Cayuga County, New York (1908)

“Ceylon,” Homer Republican, August 5, 1909

“Outing at Skaneateles Lake,” Cortland Standard, June 28, 1909

“Skaneateles,” Auburn Weekly Bulletin, October 1909

“Signs of Summer,” Auburn Citizen, May 4, 1912

“Cigar Store Indian Owes Comeback to Teacher,” Syracuse American, May 29, 1927

“History of Steamboat Activity on Skaneateles Lake,” Skaneateles Press, February 13, 1938

“Did Skin Divers Find Old Hull of Steamer Ossahinta?” Skaneateles Press, August 8, 1958

“Page from the Past: Steamers Once Plied Skaneateles Lake,” Marcellus Weekly Observer, 1966

“Steamboats on Skaneateles Lake, Part II,” Brightwork: Newsletter of the Finger Lakes Chapter, Antique and Classic Boat Society, vol. 6, issue 4, September 1996