Just about 50 minutes from Ithaca is a 7-mile long hiking trail that is equal parts history museum and nature exhibit. Plus, if you believe in these things, it’s probably haunted. The Keuka Outlet Trail, which connects the villages of Penn Yan on Keuka Lake and Dresden on Seneca Lake, follows the track bed of the old ‘Fall Brook’ Railroad (1884-1972), which, in turn, follows the towpath of the historic Crooked Lake Canal (1833-1877) that once connected the lakes.
One of the very first ‘rail trails’ in the state, it is a multiple-use trail, open free to the public year-round between sunrise and sunset for hiking, biking, horseback riding and, conditions permitting, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. It’s one of the hidden gems of the Finger Lakes.
Development along the Keuka Outlet stream predates the canal era, and dates back over 200 years, once supporting as many as 40 mills and 12 hydropower dams. The area was notorious for raucous behavior. Perhaps tellingly, an 1822 Penn Yan jury decided that a man could not legally be considered a “habitual drunkard” unless he was drunk more than half the time.
Then, after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, the Finger Lakes area was consumed with canal fever. What made canals practical, in their time, was that they allowed the hauling of tons of cargo that would have been otherwise impossible in undeveloped country. A single mule could pull up to 30 tons—as much as a modern tractor trailer—as long as it was in a barge. And so, many communities, including Elmira, Ithaca, Watkins Glen, Penn Yan and Ithaca vied for the chance to tap into the canal system.
During the Jacksonian America of the 1820s and 1830s, the states were on their own for big public works projects like canals. After much lobbying in Albany, the Crooked Lake Canal was one of the lucky proposals chosen for construction in 1830. By 1833, the canal was open to navigation.
It was an enormous project. Twenty-seven locks were built of stone and wood along the 8-mile waterway to accommodate the 270-foot drop in elevation between the lakes (by comparison, the 360-mile Erie Canal has only 90 locks; that’s more than three per mile compared to one every four miles). It took a boat over six hours to travel from one end to the other. Unfortunately, though the canal brought an initial flush of economic activity, it required constant repair. During the course of its operating life, it managed to lose the State of New York the princely sum of $774,200.
The state legislature eventually sold the land in 1878 to businessmen who converted the canal corridor to the Penn Yan and New York Railroad Company. New York Central ran the railroad until 1972 when it was shut down due to damage from the floods caused by Hurricane Agnes. The trail that follows that route is part remnants of the old canal path, part surviving sections of the rail bed, and part newly-built pathway.
The Outlet Trail is 7.0 miles long, and its descent from Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake is very gradual, so it can be traveled in either direction with relative ease. Except for a paved section in the village of Penn Yan, the trail surface is a combination of dirt, gravel, and ballast from the railroad bed. It makes for excellent easy hiking and biking.
Though pieces of the old canal bed are still visible, the Outlet stream is now the waterway that connects and drains Keuka Lake into Seneca Lake. The canal locks are long since gone and a number of waterfalls have naturally developed. Water flow is controlled by a dam in Penn Yan and can change drastically from week to week.
The numerous ruins of mills, cut-stone walls, and dams along the trail invoke the ghosts of 19th-century industrial America. Nature has reclaimed the land, and it’s become a haven for wildlife and waterfowl. It is not unusual to see herons fishing or painted turtles sunning themselves. A three-mile stretch of the trail cuts through a steep gorge carved from shale and limestone during the last ice age. Primeval natural beauty and historic ruins run the length of the trail.
The Outlet Trail is not as manicured as some parks and trails, which gives it its somewhat wild character. It’s maintained and supported solely by volunteers, and it receives no funds from New York State or any municipalities, and occasionally storm or other damage such as water erosion is repaired only as time and money allow. It means private property also abuts portions of the trail. Sometimes there’s graffiti on the old mill walls.
That being said, it makes for an excellent day trip from Ithaca. More information on the Keuka Outlet Trail can be found at keukaoutlettrail.org. §