Dock on Chautauqua Lake


Chautauqua Lake

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.

Chautauqua Institute, 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 Indian legends.

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 were needed.

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 Heyl Vincent.

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 Circle.

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 Chautauqua Idea."

"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 New York.

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 style.

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 nation.

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 numerous stores.

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.