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u-NY-que V: The Finger Lakes

August 10, 2009
Timothy McDonnell


Starting two years ago, we began a series of articles about regions and special geographic places in New York, u-NY-que. There have been several articles about waterways in the state, since 2009 was the 400th Anniversary of the voyages of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain. The Geography Awareness Week theme of 2010 was Fresh Water. This year, we are holding our summer institute on the campus of Cornell University. We call it GORGE-ous Geography 2011. (If you haven't applied yet, follow this link.) Cornell is located at the southern end of one of eleven thin (but deep) lakes in Central New York State.

They, of course, are the Finger Lakes. Since our readers are geographically literate, I suppose we should begin by naming them, in order from west to east. Local pronunciation is included where needed: Conesus (cuh-NEE-sis), Hemlock, Canadice (CAN-uh-dice), Honeoye (HUN-ee-oy), Canandaigua (can-an-DAY-gwah), Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, Otsego (ot-SEE-go), Skaneateles (skin-ee-AT-lis), and Otisco. Some geologists throw in Silver Lake on the extreme western end. But, since it is on the "wrong" side of the Genesee River, it is not usually included on this list of honor.

These lakes are not just lumped together for convenience. They have a common origin. Like many features seen today in New York, the Finger Lakes owe their existence to the Ice Age. Two million years ago, there were a series of north and south flowing rivers crossing what is now Central-Western New York. The, of course, carved out valleys by the force of erosion. When the great glaciers invaded the northern United States from the Canadian Arctic, they were over one-mile thick. They wore down the entire landscape, but they especially deepened those river valleys that were aligned with the flow of the ice. After the ice melted back around 11,000 years ago, deep U-shaped valleys remained, known by geologists as troughs. Altogether, there are around thirty troughs in Upstate New York. Most of them do not have any lakes in them today. Examples include the Onondaga Valley (south of Syracuse) and the Berby Hollow (south of Rochester, shown below on the right).

Why are there lakes in some and not in others? In this part of the country, the glaciers advanced to Central Pennsylvania. They carried with them rock debris that they eroded from the land beneath them. When the ice sheets melted back, there were periods when the climate became colder again, and the glaciers paused, dumping the rock waste in front of them. One such location is found just south of the Finger Lakes, and this wall of dirt and rock is known as the Valley Heads Moraine. (Long Island is built mostly from tow other moraines, which is why the island is "forked" on the eastern end.)

The Valley Heads are a natural dam, preventing the flow of rivers south into the Susquehanna River system. Instead, the troughs have filled partly with water, and the outlets are at the north ends of the lakes. Where the moraine is in the "right" spot, there is a "Finger Lake"; if not, the valley is dry. Since the lakes sit in the basins of glacial troughs, the sides of the valleys are very steep, especially around the southern ends of the lakes. The rocks on the hillsides are flakey shale, and that seems to be a perfect situation for growing grapes. Dozens of wineries dots the entire region. The deep valleys are also microclimates. Spring comes later here than in surrounding areas, but fall frost is often delayed into late-October. The vineyards seem to like that geographic aspect, too. (See photo above, showing vineyards growing on the slopes above Canandaigua Lake).

Streams that flow east or west have been left "hanging" over the troughs. They tumble down the steep slopes, and most have carved out very scenic glens, with waterfalls, plunge pools, and potholes. The most famous of these "hanging valleys" or gorges is Watkins Glen at the southern end of Seneca Lake. There are dozens more clustered around the lakes. Ithaca alone has around 10 glens within a fifteen minute drive, including Taughannock (taw-GAAN-nuck) Falls, the highest single drop east of the Mississippi River. (That makes Niagara the second highest waterfall in the state... a good question for a cocktail party). Many gorges are found on public lands, including several NYS Parks (Watkins Glen, Robert Treman, Buttermilk, Taughannock Falls, Fillmore Glen).


Photos Above: Buttermilk Falls, a "hanging valley" just south of Ithaca near Cayuga Lake. Trilobite fossil on display at the Museum of the Earth.

The Finger Lakes have a long history, both geologic and human. Although the lakes themselves are only a few thousand years old, the rocks beneath and around them were formed around 350 million years ago by deposits on the bottom of an ancient sea. These rocks are often rich in fossils, and a good place to learn more about them is the Museum of the Earth just north of Ithaca.

Just forward to 10,000 years ago. After the glaciers receded, life slowly returned to the Finger Lakes Region. It must have been a tundra environment at first, and then slowly the eastern deciduous (hardwood) forests covered the landscape. Early Native Americans settled in this area. The dominant group were the Cayuga and Seneca peoples, who joined with three other nations to become the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy. The waterways allowed for relatively easy transportation, and the fertile soil gave them productive farms. One of the largest towns of the Seneca Nation was a few miles north of Canandaigua Lake, Ganagaro. It was burned down by the French in the 1600s, but the land is preserved today as Ganondagan State Park, the only state historic place devoted to native culture and history. A longhouse has been constructed there, and the daily lives of Seneca people are interpreted inside the longhouse. Unfortunately for the Haudenosaunee, most of them sided with the British in the American Revolution. In the late 1700s, they lost almost all of their homeland. (The Cayugas are trying to get a small reservation established for them near the north end of Cayuga Lake. The non-native residents are largely opposed to this, creating a classic case of geographic conflict in our own backyard. All over Cayuga County you will find signs stating "No Sovereign Nation." Why is the opposition so passionate?)

The land the Native Americans lost was soon settled by Euro-Americans, mostly from New England. The region was isolated, however, until the building of the Erie Canal (1817-1825). "Clinton's Ditch" connected the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. Soon other canals were built across the state, including the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which connected the largest Finger Lakes to the rest of America. (The haunting Richmond Aqueduct, shown on the left, carried the Erie Canal across the Seneca River near Montezuma, NY).

These "highways" allowed the movement of people and goods, and the region flourished. But the canals (and later the railroads) also quickened the spread of ideas. Central New York became a hotbed of new religious and social causes: Mormonism, the Temperance Movement, Abolitionism, Women's Rights. The first meeting where women's suffrage was advocated openly occurred in Seneca Falls in 1848, the hometown of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This important chapter in our history is commemorated in the Women's Rights National Historic Park. The region has many well-documented stations on the Underground Railroad, as well.

Geographers are always interested in repeating patterns. The Finger Lakes Region shows some of these patterns. If you start on the shoreline of Lake Ontario and drive south along these highways, Rte. 21 (Canandaigua), Rte. 14 (Seneca), Rte. 89 (Cayuga), you find similar physical and human features. Near Lake Ontario you find drumlins (inverted teaspoon-shaped hills) and fruit orchards. You are in a micro-climate again. Then you cross the Erie Canal. Look at the structures of the canal towns you pass through. Can you tell there is a canal nearby? Then you reach the Finger Lakes themselves. As you drive along the shorelines, you will notice that the topography gets steeper the farther south you go. The outlines of the troughs are more prominent. Of course, there will be vineyards growling along the slopes. At the southern end, the lakes morph into wetlands, telling us that the lakes were larger in the past. You will notice that the troughs continue beyond the ends of the lakes. There probably will be hanging valleys entering from the east or the west. Around ten miles later, you will cross the Valley Heads Moraine. This is easily recognizable, because the landscape is hummocky. It looks like a roller-coaster. Then, beyond that, the valley floor becomes flat again, and you notice that the streams are flowing south. You have crossed a divide, and you are in the Susquehanna (or Chesapeake) watershed. Since the troughs slice through the divide, they are often called through valleys.

The Finger Lakes are a geographic wonder! You can't just read about them. You have to experience them. Try to trace the steps that I have taken, and see what other features you can discover.

This is a weather vane outside the Glen Curtiss Museum (just outside Hammondsport south of Keuka Lake). He was one of the early pioneers in aviation, who made many improvements over the planes built by the Wright Brothers.


Article Derived From: http://nygeo.org/fingerlakes.html