Barge Canal in Seneca Falls

Over two days in 1915, water filled the basin that is now Van Cleef Lake in Seneca Falls. This August, Seneca Falls will celebrate this body of water’s history and the falls for which the town is named—falls that were hidden when the lake was created. 

“The actual date that Van Cleef Lake was filled was August 20, 1915,” said Carol Ritter Wright, who is coordinating nearly two weeks of events for “After the Falls: Van Cleef Lake Centennial.” 

Those looking for entertainment in an historical spirit will have ample opportunity to get their jollies over the fortnight-long celebration that begins Aug. 7. On Sunday, Aug. 9, the “Aquacade” will make its return to Van Cleef Lake—for those none too nimble in deciphering portmanteaus, that’s a pa“rade” on the “aqua.” 

Early in her 43-year career as a newswoman, Ritter Wright covered the Aquacade in its heyday, back in the ‘60s. 

“The Aquacade always happened on Sunday afternoon, and it was a big feature,” Ritter Wright said. “Everyone made a procession down the canal, went around the edges of the lake, and it drew enormous crowds. All you have to do is decorate a boat, put a sign on it, add balloons, put lights on it—it doesn’t take that much to make something look interesting on the canal.” 

Like any good parade, the Aquacade will feature some classic vehicles—in this case, provided by the Finger Lakes Boating Museum. 

The next weekend, Aug. 14-16, “Clinton’s Follies,” a 1915-style vaudeville show, will be put on under Ritter Wright’s direction. 

“A lot of people don’t understand vaudeville is essentially America’s Got Talent,” Ritter Wright said. “It’s not blackface minstrelsy, it’s not burlesque—it’s family-friendly.” 

For Clinton’s Follies—which, for those unfamiliar, is a reference to the Erie Canal which was known as Governor DeWitt Clinton’s “Folly”—Ritter Wright wants to put on everything from jugglers to tap dancers to a “Who’s on First” routine to poodles in tutus. During the entire celebration, women’s suffragists and anti-suffragists in period garb might be wandering the streets of Seneca Falls in a nod to the town’s deep history in that movement and the great push for the vote underway among women in 1915 (commemorated by the Women’s Rights National Historical Park at 136 Fall St.). 

The centennial celebration will begin on Friday, Aug. 7, the same day as statewide “Canal Splash” events begin, with a dinner at the Gould Hotel and the opening of a Seneca County Arts Council show, which features drawings of houses that were moved from Seneca Falls’ Flats. The Flats were at the bottom of the falls, and were also flooded when Van Cleef Lake was built. 

“There were 116 businesses and 60 homes in that area when the state put out a demolition contract in the fall of 1914 to take it all out,” Wright said. “To make the canal navigable for the modern, state-of-the-art barges, they had to flood this area to create a heavy-duty body of water.” 

There was nearly 50 feet of drop around Seneca Falls, rapids which had been somewhat tamed by a smaller, five-lock canal  built in 1815, around which the town’s commerce grew up. Once the demolition contract was made and the Barge Canal’s creation was inevitable, about two dozen homeowners had their houses moved up the hill, drawn by horses, to other parts of the village. Until Tanya Warren of the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry started tracing their origins last year, no one had ever made a list of which houses started their life in the Flats. Those who own those homes will receive plaques to place on them for the centennial at a community center reception on Aug. 12. 

The grand finale will take place on Thursday, Aug. 20, when fireworks are shot off from a barge in the middle of Van Cleef Lake. 

Those looking for more information on the Van Cleef Lake Centennial can contact Ritter Wright at critterw@frontiernet.net

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