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Seneca Lake (New York)

Seneca Lake
View in the early evening from Sampson State Park in Romulus, New York
Location Schuyler / Seneca / Yates counties, New York, US
Group Finger Lakes
Type Ground Moraine
Primary inflows Catharine Creek, Keuka Lake Outlet; underwater sources
Primary outflows Cayuga-Seneca Canal
Basin countries United States
Max. length 38 mi (61 km)
Surface area 42,800 acres (173 km2)
Average depth 291 ft (89 m)
Max. depth 618 ft (188 m)
Water volume 16 km3 (3.8 cu mi)
Surface elevation 445 ft (136 m)
Settlements Watkins Glen, Geneva

Seneca Lake is the largest of the glacial Finger Lakes of the U.S. state of New York, and the deepest lake entirely within the state. It is promoted as being the lake trout capital of the world, and is host of the National Lake Trout Derby. Because of its depth and relative ease of access, the US Navy uses Seneca Lake to perform test and evaluation of equipment ranging from single element transducers to complex sonar arrays and systems.[1] The lake takes its name from the Seneca nation of Native Americans. At the north end of Seneca Lake is the city of Geneva, New York, home of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, a division of Cornell University. At the south end of the lake is the village of Watkins Glen, New York, famed for auto racing and waterfalls.

Due to Seneca Lake's unique macroclimate it is home to over 50 wineries, many of them farm wineries and is the location of the Seneca Lake AVA. (See Seneca Lake wine trail).


  • Description 1
  • Ecology 2
  • History 3
  • Painted rocks 4
  • Guns of the Seneca 5
  • Sampson Navy and Air Force bases 6
  • Water quality buoy 7
  • Wine 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


At 38 miles (61 km) long, it is the second longest of the Finger Lakes and has the largest volume, estimated at 4.2 trillion US gallons (16 km³), roughly half of the water in all the Finger Lakes. It has a maximum depth of 618 feet (188 m),[2] and a mean depth of 291 feet (89 m). It has a surface area of 42,800 acres (173 km2).

The two main inlets are Catharine Creek at the southern end and the Keuka Lake Outlet. Seneca Lake outlets into the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which joins Seneca and Cayuga Lakes at their northern ends.

It is fed by underground springs and replenished at a rate of 328,000 gallons (29,520 m³) per minute. These springs keep the water moving in a constant circular motion, giving it little chance to freeze over. Because of Seneca Lake's great depth its temperature remains a near-constant 39 °F (4 °C).[3] During the summer months however, the top 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 m) does warm up to a pleasant 70–80 °F (21–27 °C).


Seneca lake has a typical aquatic population for large deep lakes in the northeast, with coldwater fish such as Lake Trout and Atlantic Salmon inhabiting the deeper waters, and warmwater fish such as Smallmouth Bass and Yellow Perch inhabiting the shallower areas. The lake is also home to a robust population of "Sawbellies", the local term for Gizzard shad.


Looking south on Seneca Lake in the city of Geneva, New York

Over 200 years ago, there were Iroquois villages on Seneca Lake's surrounding hillsides. During the American Revolutionary War, their villages, including Kanadaseaga ("Seneca Castle") were wiped out during the Sullivan Expedition by troops that invaded their homeland to punish them for assisting the British. Today roadside signs trace Sullivan and Clinton's route along the east side of Seneca Lake where the burning of villages and crops occurred.

After the war, the land of the Iroquois was parceled out to veterans of the army in payment for their military service. A slow stream of white settlers began to arrive circa 1790. Initially the settlers were without a market nearby or a way to get their crops to market. The settlers' isolation abruptly ended, though, in the 1820s with the opening of the Erie Canal.

The canal linked the Finger Lakes Region to the outside world. Steamships, barges and ferries quickly became Seneca Lake's ambassadors of commerce and trade. The former, short Crooked Lake Canal linked Seneca Lake to Keuka Lake.

There are numerous canal barges resting on the bottom of the lake. A collection of barges on the southwest end of the lake, near the village of Watkins Glen, is being preserved and made accessible for scuba diving by the Finger Lakes Underwater Preserve Association.

Painted rocks

The painted rocks located at the southern end of the lake on the eastern cliff face depict an American Flag, Tee-pee, and several Native Americans. As the story goes, back in the late 18th century when General John Sullivan was avenging the Wyoming and Cherry-Valley Massacres, he chased a group of renegade Native Americans, up from present day Athens, Pennsylvania (then known as Tioga Point) through the valley, to a point somewhere along the cliffs. The Indians escaped down a narrow footpath to canoes that they had hidden earlier in the underbrush. They used these canoes to paddle across the lake to safety. Later they came back and painted these paintings in commemoration of their escape. The paintings found along the bottom of the cliff are the originals, the American flag and the tee-pee were added in 1929 during the Sullivan Sesquicentennial.

The painted rocks may not be authentic Native-American paintings as the Seneca Indians lived in longhouses not the tee-pee used by western Native-American tribes. Historian Barbara Bell suggests that the paintings may have been made for tourists on Seneca Lake boat tours[4]

Guns of the Seneca

Seneca Lake is also the site of a strange and currently unexplained phenomenon known as Mistpouffers. In this area, they are called the Seneca Guns, Lake Drums, or Lake Guns. These are mysterious cannon-like booms and shakes that are heard and felt in the surrounding area. The term Lake Guns originated in the short story "Lake Gun" by James Fenimore Cooper in 1851.[5] Many believe that they are caused by giant air bubbles from deep in the lake bursting on the surface, which is not believed to be true. Others equate it with Indian folklore. The most widely accepted explanation is due to sonic booms from military aircraft, though this does not explain the sounds heard during Cooper's time.[6] The theory has not been proven, however, there is a significant amount of natural gas trapped in the bedrock (including the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale) below the lake. The lake is over 600 feet deep in places. When a bubble of natural gas escapes from the bedrock hundreds of feet below water level and rises through the water, it expands due to lessening pressure. When these bubbles break the surface, they produce a create the significant booming noise. The booming noises happen day and night throughout the year. Evidence for this theory is supported by the decrease in the frequency of the sounds since oil/gas exploration drilling has increased in the area (these drill into the bedrock and release built up pressure).

Sampson Navy and Air Force bases

The east side of Seneca Lake was once home to a military training ground called Sampson Naval Base, primarily used during World War II. It became Sampson Air Force Base during the Korean War and was used for basic training. After Sampson AFB closed, the airfield remained as Seneca Army Airfield but was closed in 2000.[7] The training grounds of Sampson have since been converted to a civilian picnic area called Sampson State Park.

There is still a Naval facility at Seneca Lake, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Sonar test facility, where a scale model of the sonar section of the nuclear submarine USS Seawolf (SSN 21) was tested during the development of this ship.

Water quality buoy

There is a YSI EMM-2500 Buoy Platform located in the north end of Seneca Lake roughly in the center. Its coordinates are: latitude: 42°41'49.99"N, longitude: 76°55'29.93"W. The buoy has cellular modem communications and measures wind speed and direction, relative humidity, air temperature, barometric pressure, light intensity, and the water's depth and temperature, conductivity, turbidity, and chlorophyll-a levels.[8]

The buoy was initially deployed in June 2006. The water depth where it is located is about 200 feet (61 m).[9]


Vineyards in the Seneca Lake AVA

Viticulture and winemaking in the area date back to the 19th century, with the foundation of the Seneca Lake Wine Company in 1866 marking the first major winery in the area. The modern era of wine production began in the 1970s with the establishment of several wineries and the passage of the New York Farm Winery Act of 1976.[10] The region was established as an American Viticultural Area in 1988.

Seneca Lake Wine Trail hosts many events on and around the lake, annually. With more than 30 wineries currently located on the shores of Seneca Lake, the winter 'Deck the Halls' event is a great time at the lake with participating wineries showcasing their vintages and pairing these wines with distinctive, tasty treats. Wineries also provide participants with an ornament at each stop to commemorate the event. 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of this event.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Bell, Barbara. "Painted Rocks." Schuyler County New York: History and Families. Turner Publishing Co., 2005: 30–31.
  5. ^ Lake Guns
  6. ^ Earthquake Booms, Seneca Guns, and Other Sounds
  7. ^ [1] Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields: New York State: Rochester area
  8. ^ "Seneca Lake water quality buoy".  (old site).
  9. ^ "Seneca Lake water quality buoy". 
  10. ^ "Seneca Lake Wine Trail". Finger Lakes Wine Country. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 

External links

  • "Test and evaluation of Seawolf class submarine at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center"
  • "Seneca Lake Sonar Test Facility"
  • "Finger Lakes Underwater Preserve Association"
  • New York State Parks: Sampson State Park
  • Sampson Naval Training Station Veterans Website
  • Sampson Air Force Veterans Website
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