The Keuka Outlet Trail, A Beautiful Creek, A Great Trail
The story of this beautiful creek and great trail began a million years ago before the beginning of the last ice age. At that time the lake was a river flowing south. When the climate changed a glacial ice sheet advanced southward. It scraped down hills and scooped out valleys pushing a vast mass of debris in front of it. This debris served to damn up the river so that when the climate changed again, this time warming, the retreating ice filled the hollowed out areas forming Keuka Lake. Cracks or faults in rocks provided places for fast moving melting water to cut through layers of shale and limestone forming the ravine which we know today as the Keuka Outlet connecting Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake. This beautiful, meandering creek was for thousands of years only inhabited by plants and animals.
The Iroquois Indians were the first humans occupying the outlet areas at both Penn Yan and Dresden, but the story of the creek and trail changed most dramatically in 1788 with the arrival of a small group of families under the leadership of James Parker. He and those with him were members of the Society of Universal Friends. They were looking for a place to establish their own community. The water power that the Outlet Creek provided drew them and in 1790 Richard Smith established the first mill on the stream grinding 5 bushels of wheat into flour. This was the beginning of almost 200 years of industry on the Outlet. At one time the creek powered as many as 40 mills. Gristmills were the largest users of the stream’s power, while sawmills were the most numerous. Additionally carding and fulling mills, linseed oil mills, triphammers, asheries, tanneries, plaster mills and distilleries were established. In later years production turned to finished goods such as wheel spokes, wooden hoops, handles, tools, paper, and more recently carbon bisulfide. All the mills have a history of burning, being rebuilt, refurbished, sold and resold.
When the Erie Canal was finished in 1825 there was a clamor for a way to transport produce and goods from the Keuka Lake area to larger markets. The idea to build a canal alongside the Outlet Creek to connect Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake was advanced and in 1831 work on the Crooked Lake Canal was begun. Mill owners agreed to this as long as the Canal was kept separate from the waterpower of the creek. The Canal was a costly, labor intensive project that was also a great engineering feat. Unfortunately, when the Canal was finally in operation, it was beset with problems and never made a profit, though it was heavily used being a boon to Penn Yan and to the Keuka watershed. The Crooked Lake Canal was closed in 1877 having lost money every single year it was in operation.
After the Canal was abandoned a syndicate of mill owners bought the right of way including the canal prism and banks for the purpose of building a railroad to link Penn Yan and Dresden. It was officially called the Fall Brook Railroad, though railroad men called it “The Corkscrew Railroad” because it had so many twists and turns. The rails were primarily laid on the old canal towpath. Several small stations were built along the route as well as whistle stops. The trains operated for almost a century, but in 1972 the tracks were damaged beyond repair by Hurricane Agnes and the road was officially abandoned two years later.
Today the trail is a place of natural beauty where trees shade the way along wildflower bedecked paths alive with butterflies. Layers of stone visible in the walls of the gorge bring to remembrance the wonder of their creation so many years ago. The water runs quietly in some areas and roars over falls in other spots still demonstrating its power. In many places along the trail, the remains of mills, mill ponds and mill races are still visible as well as remnants of the canal prism and various evidences of the old railroad recalling the days of bustling activity and production. The Keuka Outlet Trail is a place to discover and contemplate years past as well as a place to enjoy and be refreshed in the present.
The Outlet Trail is maintained and improved by the Friends of the Outlet, an all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization devoted to protecting and preserving the lands and waters in the Keuka Lake Outlet ravine.
Cascade Falls, A Scrapbook of Cascade Mills on the Keuka Outlet Trail, by Leona Jensen,
The Outlet Trail by Frances Dumas,
The Millsite Series
Ben’s Adventure on the Crooked Lake Canal, by Leona Jensen
A Beautiful Creek, a Great Trail...Where Historic Yates County Comes AliveIn the late 1790's, the first white settlers in the region -- followers of a charismatic female religious leader named Jemima Wilkinson -- established the first mill on the creek near Seneca Mills Falls. These impressive falls originally dropped over shelves of limestone, which can still be seen; later, a dam was built to increase the volume of water retained above the falls and produce power for several mills at the site. Much later at the Cascade, the other large natural falls on the creek, a sprawling mill complex was built to produce carbon bisulfide. Grist and flour mills, sawmills, distilleries, fulling mills, paper mills, wooden implement factories - at one time, as many as 40 mills - operated using the relatively reliable flow of the creek. The Crooked Lake Canal was built to transport these goods and the abundant grain and other products produced in the region to the markets of the east. The canal never did turn a profit, and when it finally closed, a railroad was built along the towpath to transport people as well as goods. In turn, the railroad was overtaken by trucks and automobiles.Stones recycled from the Crooked Lake Canal were used in many of the later mill foundations. The only mill still operating on the Outlet Creek today is Birkett Mill in Penn Yan, the world's leading producer of buckwheat products. Nature is gradually reclaiming the area; however, mill foundations and the remains of water races and penstocks can still be seen along the creek.
In 1972, Hurricane Agnes destroyed much of the tracks, and the idea of developing the corridor into a trail took hold. Initially owned by the Yates County Legislature, the trail was sold to the Friends of the Outlet in 1995, after the Friends purchased several parcels in the gorge from New York State Electric & Gas. Since then, the Friends have acquired several adjoining properties, including 43 acres in the Hopeton Access area and the entire Cascade Mills complex where a small Visitor Center has been established. Currently, the eastern end of the trail terminates at Dresden, about a mile from the shore of Seneca Lake. A major effort is now underway to extend the trail that last remaining mile, so that the Keuka Outlet Trail will truly run "lake to lake".
The majority of the Outlet Park is coincident with the Crooked Lake Canal Historic District, which is listed on the New York and federal registers of historic places. The Yates County Legislature also designated the gorge area as the Keuka Lake Outlet Preservation Area, in recognition of its natural and historic importance and need for special protection.