For many of us who live in Chautauqua County,
Chautauqua Lake is an important part of our lives in several
different ways. It touches us politically, economically, and
socially. It also touches us historically. One cannot tell
the story of Chautauqua County and its people without talking
about the lake, because the lake was determined, in large
part, what that story is.
Chautauqua Lake was formed during the glacial period. Before
that time, it is possible that the northern end of the lake,
then only a river, drained into Lake Erie as the streams north
of the dividing ridge still do today. Formation of the ridge,
however, blocked the river's flow and elevated it high enough
so that it joined with the southward flowing river and formed
the 17-mile lake we know today.
Waters arising in Chautauqua County flow to both the Mississippi
River and to the St. Lawrence.
Chautauqua Lake, lying southeast to northwest across the county
at an elevation of 1,308 feet above sea level, is one of the
highest navigable lakes in the nation.
a summertime center for study, inspiration, and relaxation,
is a familiar landmark in American cultural history.
The French spelled the lake's Indian name several ways. Maps
and reports by Jesuits and explorers who traveled through
or near the region by the 1700s exhibit the individual versions:
Tchadakoin, Tjadakoin, Chataconit, Shatacoin, Jadaxque, Jadaaqua.
The Holland Land Company, on its 1804 maps, spelled it Chautaughque.
The "gh" was soon dropped, but the final "que"
remained until 1859 when it was changed to its present "qua".
The suggested meanings of this Seneca word are equally numerous:
the place where one is lost; the place of easy death; fish
taken out; foggy place; high up; two moccasins fastened together;
and a bag tied in the middle. Several meanings refer to the
lake's or the region's physical or climatic features; two
refer to the lake's appearance; and two meanings come from
From above, the lake does resemble a long bag tied in the
middle, and that is now the favored translation of Chautauqua.
Whatever the correct meaning of its name, however, there is
no disputing Chautauqua Lake's inextricable link to the people
and the history of Chautauqua.
Chautauqua Lake was important to the French exploration of
North America as one of the links in the navigational chain
between Canada and Louisiana. Later, with the advent of the
steamboat, the lake contributed to the expansion of Jamestown
by easing the importation of many goods.
Alvin Plumb built the first steamboat to ply Chautauqua Lake
in 1827.Its primary purpose was the transport of goods from
the East to an eager market in Jamestown. As Jamestown's population
increased, the market grew correspondingly, and more steamboats
In the last quarter of the 18th century, the lake assumed
a new role with the genesis of the tourist industry. Tourism
became a major industry, and it has remained vital to the
county's economic well-being for over a century.
At first, areas sprang up at various spots along the lake
where the water was deep enough to accommodate a dock. Soon
visitors began building cabins for extended stays at the lake.
Samuel Whittenmore opened a hotel, the "Temperance House,"
in 1836 at Fluvana. It was not long before the affluent communities
thought the northeast heard of Chautauqua Lake and its recreational
opportunities. More hotels opened as the need for tourist
lodging became greater.
Fair Point, a few miles south of Mayville, was one popular
spot on the lake. Devotees of the temperance movement had
a notable picnic there on July 1, 1869. The Methodist Association
owned Fair Point and they held yearly camp-meetings there,
beginning in 1871. After the 1873 session, two men came to
the camp in a visit destined to become of the most important
events in Chautauqua County's history. The two men were Lewis
Miller and John Heyl Vincent.
John Heyl Vincent was born February 22, 1832, in Tuscaloosa,
Alabama. He started teaching school at the age of 15, but
later he entered the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1868 Vincent became secretary and editor for the worldwide
Union of Methodist Sunday Schools.
Lewis Miller was born July 24, 1829, in Greentown, Ohio. He
became a teacher at 16, but his knack for invention soon led
him to other things. He invention of the Buckeye Mower and
Reaper made him famous and sufficiently wealthy to pursue
his humanitarian interests in education and religion. In time
he became superintendent of the Methodist Sunday School in
Akron, Ohio, a post which brought him in contact with John
During their conversations, the two men quickly realized they
had much in common. Miller was practical and wise, Vincent
was idealistic, but together they set forth what became known
as "The Chautauqua Idea." They came to Fair Point
in 1873 to explore the implementation of their idea. Dr. Vincent
wished to establish a Normal Institute for Sunday School teachers;
Miller suggested a relaxed atmosphere such as the camp-meetings
at Fair Point. The first Assembly for Sunday Schoolteachers
opened the following year on August 4, 1874, in the "auditorium,"
which was nothing more than rows of benches among the trees
in what is now Miller Park. Most of the participants lived
intents or tent houses, which they had brought with them,
rented, or constructed on the grounds.
The basis of study at the Assembly was the improvement of
methods of Biblical study and instruction in both the Sunday
School and the family. However, there was a wide range of
topics around this theme, and it was from the beginning pan-denominational.
In 1875, the overflow crowd had to stay in villages around
the lake and take the steamboat to Fair Point every day. A
Temperance Convention preceded the regular session in 1876.
That year, also, science found a definite place on the program,
theological students received instruction in Hebrew and Greek,
and programming for children began, The following year, Fair
Point legally became known as Chautauqua. In 1878 the dream
of the two men came to fruition with the first enrollments
- over 8,000 students – in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific
John Vincent and Lewis Miller believed that people needed
a secular education as well as Biblical learning. And they
believed this should be extended not only to Sunday School
teachers, but to the general population as well. In addition,
they realized that those who came to the Assembly for a summer
rest needed something more than Biblical study to bring them
there. "Education, once the peculiar privilege of the
few, must in our best earthly estate become the valued possession
of the many," wrote Dr. Vincent. He and Miller were also
of a mind that a school building was not a necessary adjunct
to an education. All of this came together to form "The
"The whole of life is a school," they said, and
Chautauqua, as they conceived it, would provide "a school
for people out of school, who can no longer attend school,
a college for one's own home..." The Chautauqua Literary
and Scientific Circle (CLSC) was designed to fill this unmet
need of a higher education for the masses. For a few weeks
during the summer, people could study at Chautauqua by attending
lectures and classes. The remainder of the year, they would
study on their own, reading the books on the course outline.
It was, in essence, a correspondence school and a book club,
the first in the United States. After four years of home study
under guidance, certificates were awarded. Over 8,000 students
enrolled in the first class in 1878; more than 1,700 of them
graduated in 1882.
The Chautauqua idea gained popularity and spread rapidly throughout
the United States, Canada, England, Russia, India, China,
Japan, South Africa, and some Pacific islands. By 1904 there
were more than 150 "Chautauquas." Within a few years,
other schools were established at Chautauqua and the length
of the camp-meeting sessions increased. For some years, the
first Tuesday in August remained as the official opening date
while the schools held sessions earlier. Today, "Old
First Night" is celebrated with reverence on the first
Tuesday in August.
The Chautauqua community was first established at the point
jutting into the lake since most residents arrived by steamboat.
As it grew, however, it spread to both sides of the point
and up the steep hill. When the trolley line was laid along
the present highway, people began to prefer that method of
transportation, and the community's entrance was established
at the trolley stop. The first residents lived intents, but
they soon built cottages. These were hardly luxurious as they
were meant primarily for sleeping and changing clothes. Chautauqua
was to enjoy in the open air. By the 1890s, boarding houses
with three and four floors opened around Chautauqua. These
houses and cottages were built in the various Victorian styles,
and most of them are still standing today.
The amphitheater became the center of activity and remains
so today, after its construction in 1893. Speakers and performing
artists from every field came to Chautauqua. Organized sports
became part of the summer season's activities for the residents
as the years passed, making a well-rounded program available.
Such development would surely have pleased Vincent and Miller.
Other communities sprang up around the lake at choice spots.
Large hotels were built to accommodate the hordes
of people who flocked to western New York's mecca every summer.
For the wealthy of every major city in the northeast, a summer
at Chautauqua Lake became the epitome of the good life. In
Lakewood, the Kent House and the Sterlingworth (later renamed
the Waldemere) catered to an elite clientele. Lakewood remained
largely a summer colony until 1916. Point Chautauqua started
as a Baptist meeting ground, and in 1878 the deluxe Grand
Hotel, one of the largest on the lake, opened there. The resort
was designed by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law
Olmsted, who also planned New York's Central Park. Smaller
hotels and cottages sprang up around the Grand Hotel to serve
vacationers who appreciated the proximity to Chautauqua but
did not appreciate the Institute's prohibition of liquor.
Thomas Bemus, whose wife was James Prendergast's sister, settled
with his family at The Narrows in 1806. Five years later he
received a license to operate a ferry across the lake from
Bemus Point to Stow. More hotels soon opened on Bemus Point,
and one, the Lenhart, is still in operation. In September
1893, the Broadhead family purchased a piece of swampland
in Celoron, at the southernmost end of the lake. Their intention
was to fill in the swamp and create an amusement park. The
multitude of visitors assured the venture's profitability,
and, by this time, in addition to the steamboat fleet which
carried tourists around the lake, electric trolley rails were
being extended along the shore. The Broadheads opened Celoron
Park, which was soon known as the Coney Island of Western
The rides included the Phoenix Wheel, acquired from the Atlanta
Exposition, which was as high as a five-story building, run
by electric motors, and could carry 200 persons. In addition,
visitors could ride the merry-go-round and roller coaster,
and find all manner of amusement at the penny arcade. The
zoological garden contained all kinds of wild and domestic
birds and animals. Baseball fans rooted for their favorite
teams at the ball park. Babe Ruth once visited the park and
proceeded to hit balls into the lake.
A fountain, lit by colored lights, stood in the center of
the park, flanked by benches and an open air band shell where
the Celoron Gold Bank and others played Sousa marches and
other audience favorites.
Indoor entertainment was available in the large theater built
over the water where high-class vaudeville acts, theater companies,
and light opera companies, music companies played to standing-room-only
audiences. In 1924, the ornate theater was converted to a
dance hall, the first of the two Pier Ballrooms. The structure
burned in June 1930, but was immediately rebuilt and gained
a national reputation during the big band era when crowds
from all over came to see such artists as Rudy Vallee, Cab
Calloway, Stan Kenton, the Dorsey Brothers, Guy Lombardo,
and Vincent Lopez.
The auditorium with its two Moorish towers served as a convention
hall in the summer and as an ice-skating rink in the winter,
attracting hundreds of skaters every winter. In 1896, an estimated
8,000 persons thronged the auditorium and the park to hear
the "Silver-Tongued Orator," William Jennings Bryan,
deliver a Presidential campaign speech in his unique and well-known
Outdoor movies became a popular attraction in the 1920s. The
small projection booth was in the center of the park, and
the projectionist got a round of applause from the audience
when he climbed into it.
The Celoron Park season opened on Memorial Day, and, if the
weather was good, several thousand persons enjoyed the first
picnic and rides of the summer. The 4th of July always featured
special acts and fireworks, and some years drew record-breaking
crowds of 20,000 to 25,000 persons.
Chautauqua Lake is not the only lake in the county. Lake Erie,
the county's northern boundary, offered its share of picnic
spots along with sandy beaches. Bear Lake and Findley Lake
provided boating and swimming, but their small size precluded
development on the scale attained by Chautauqua Lake. The
Cassadaga Lakes are small, but they attracted a group of spiritualists
whose interests captured the fancy of people all over the
The grounds at Lily Dale were dedicated in 1880 as one of
the most important spiritualist camps n the United States.
Spiritualism had its beginnings in the county at Laona in
the winter of 1844-1845 and at Kiantone in 1853 with the Harmonia
community. During the next years, several outstanding mediums
developed in the Laona area, and the Laona Free Association
organized soon after 1850. In the 1870s, the Spiritualists
began holding picnics and then camp meetings at Middle Lake
in the Cassadaga Lakes, and, on August 28, 1879, the Cassadaga
Lake Free Association filed its articles of incorporation.
The season was soon lengthened. Summer cottages, hotels, and
some permanent homes
were built to house the adherents of Spiritualism. Speakers
included not only well-known mediums, but other noted individuals
as well, such as Susan B. Anthony, Rev. Anna Shaw, and Robert
G. Ingersoll. When Ingersoll lectured in 1896, 20,000 persons
thronged the grounds to hear him. The colony became a self-contained
community with a post office, its own electric plant, and
At the turn of the century, prosperity was evident throughout
the county. All of the industries were at peak production.
County residents enjoyed a life of relative ease at work and
at play, a life scarcely even dreamt of by their ancestors.
A momentous century was concluding; a new century full of
hopes and promise, was beginning.