It was long believed that some of the lakes were connected by tunnels deep underground. During Prohibition, mobsters who went afoul of the bosses were killed and dumped in one lake, so the story goes, only to float to the surface in another. A second Seneca Lake legend concerns the deep rumblings below the surface that lakeside residents often hear. Those are the "Death Drums of the Iroquois," who once lived along its shores.
The region's temperate climate permits grape-growing for wine production. However, 25 inches of snow can fall in a single storm, and the lakes do freeze (it is said that a college student, after drinking too much, drove his car down the center of the lake from Geneva at the north to Watkins Glen at the southern tip). Frozen lakes do make for good ice fishing, and since Geneva is the "Lake Trout Capital of the World," the trout bite year-round.
Geneva is about 275 miles from Philadelphia, a five-hour drive. It has many attractions besides the lake, and is a good base from which to explore the surrounding area.
In the early 19th century, when Rochester and Buffalo were still frontier settlements, Geneva was a prosperous, cosmopolitan village.
It had a college and medical school (from which Elizabeth Blackwell, the nation's first female physician, received her degree), fine houses, churches, public buildings and hotels. Tourists, especially European nobility, often stayed overnight here on their way to see Niagara Falls.
Geneva also was known as the city of "saints and spinsters," because so many retired ministers and unmarried women were drawn to it.
The first settlers were Virginia planters in search of abundant land. The South's legacy to the city can be seen in the style of houses along the lake. At Pulteney Park, brick rowhouses evoke New Orleans and Charleston, S.C.
Along several miles of South Main Street are two or three dozen huge Greek Revival mansions. Many homes are fraternity houses or offices for Hobart
College, whose first building, Geneva Hall, was built in 1822. With Indian massacres fresh in residents' minds, stone walls of the building were made a foot thick.
Of note to Philadelphians is DeLancey House, now the home of Hobart
College's history department, which was built and occupied by William Heathcoate DeLancey, the first Episcopal bishop of western New York. Bishop DeLancey was rector of St. Peter's Church in Society Hill (1836-39). Philadelphia's Delancey Street was named for him.
One of the finest examples of the Greek Revival style is Rose Hill Mansion (Route 96A, overlooking Seneca Lake), built in 1839 by a banker, William Strong. The mansion, restored in the 1960s by the Geneva Historical Society, is surrounded by well-maintained gardens and furnished in the style of the Empire period. It is open from May to Oct. 1.
The Prouty-Chew House (543 S. Main St.), also owned by the historical society, is in the Greek Revival style as well. It is free and open year- round.
The Sonnenberg estate in Canandaigua, a few miles west of Geneva, also has been restored. The 50-acre tract includes a Victorian mansion (1887) and some of the most beautiful gardens in the East. There is a Japanese garden with a bonsai house, an Italian garden, a rock garden and a rose garden. A restaurant on the grounds offers lunch; tours conclude with wine-tasting. Sonnenberg is open from May to mid-October.
Back in Geneva is the Smith Observatory on Castle Street, which is open for free tours only twice a year, usually in June and July. William Smith was a prosperous nurseryman who financed the establishment, in 1908, of a college for women that bears his name.
Smith built the two-story observatory for William Brooks, a self-taught astronomer who discovered 15 comets through the lenses of his 10-inch telescope. After Brooks' death, the observatory was allowed to fall into ruins until it was purchased in 1976 and restored. Even when it's not open, it is worth a look from the outside.
Also worth a visit is the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. The station produced the Cortland apple and wine-grape hybrids suitable for growth in the Finger Lakes region. If you are in the area in the fall, don't leave without as many pounds of apples as you can haul away from its many orchards and roadside stands. You can watch them being picked or pick them yourselves.
Residents say Memorial Day was born in Waterloo, four miles east of Geneva, on May 5, 1866. A museum on Main Street holds mementos of that day. Between Waterloo and Geneva is the Scythe Tree, in which three farmers embedded their scythe blades as they left for service in the Civil War.
In Seneca Falls, east of Waterloo, is the Women's Rights National Park. A visitors' center, at 116 Fall St., is on the site of the first women's rights convention in 1848. Also in town are the homes of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which is being restored, and Amelia Bloomer. There also is a National Women's Hall of Fame.
Surrounded by so much water, it is no wonder that Finger Lakes residents spend lots of time fishing and boating. Geneva has held its lake-trout derby every Memorial Day weekend since 1964. This year's top prize was $4,000; competition is in several different age categories. Year-round trout fishing is permitted, but you'll need a license, available at the town clerk's office. By the way, some of the trout from the lake have been known to weigh 20 pounds or more.
If you have a boat, the lakes have boat-launching sites. If not, you can rent one. If you prefer to have someone else drive, there are daily cruises
from Geneva and Watkins Glen, as well as from Skaneatles, about 30 miles east of Geneva, which tour the New York State Barge Canal connecting Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.
When in Watkins Glen, get a look at the gorge that stretches for about 1 1/ 2 miles west of the village center. Along the canyon is a natural walkway that brings you close to Glen Gorge's 19 waterfalls and grottos. Timespell, an innovation since my first visit in 1970, is a sound and laser show in the gorge at dusk that lets you travel 45 million years into the past to experience the creation of this natural wonder.
Racing fans are familiar with Watkins Glen for its Camel Continental and 24-hour Firestone Firehawk races. There are four weekends of races annually in the summer.
For recreation unrelated to water, Geneva has three golf courses: the Geneva Country Club, the Seneca Lake Country Club and Big Oak. There are tennis courts on Brook Street and on the Hobart campus.
For bicyclists, Geneva has four miles of marked trails. There are others, including one that runs along the original towpath of the barge canal from Syracuse to Weedsport, just east of Geneva, and west of Geneva from Palmyra to Pittsford, a suburb of Rochester. You can combine biking, hiking and camping, since there are more than 70 campgrounds in the area, each within a day's ride of one another.
Speaking of riding, Finger Lakes Raceway in Canandaigua offers thoroughbred racing from April through November, when the snow begins to fall. Then it is off to the ski slopes, the closest being Greek Peak near Cortland and Bristol Mountain, southwest of Canandaigua. The best cross-country skiing, with 28 miles of trails, is available at Finger Lakes National Forest, at the southern end of Seneca Lake.
If you prefer to watch sports, the Class A Geneva Cubs, a Chicago Cubs farm team, play at McDonough Field during the summer. The Geneva Cubs are the successors to the Geneva Senators, who succeeded the Geneva Reds, the team that gave Pete Rose his start in 1960. If you are in town any other season, Hobart fields the full complement of men's and women's sports teams, including one of the best men's lacrosse squads in the nation.
If you are looking for night activities, Geneva has the Smith Opera House for the Performing Arts, 82 Seneca St. (315-789-2221), which offers theater productions year-round as well as movies. The Finger Lakes Center for the Performing Arts in Canandaigua is the summer home of the Rochester Philharmonic and has special concerts by musical groups and entertainers.
Information on restaurants and accommodations are available from the Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce, 1 Lakeside Dr., Geneva, N.Y. 14456, and the Finger Lakes Association, 309 Lake St., Route 54, Penn Yan, N.Y. 14527.