By Jorge Batlle
Skaneateles Village Historian
In 1893 the Syracuse won a long fight to obtain water from Skaneateles Lake. Since then Syracuse has the responsibility to protect the lake and the surrounding watershed. The city began offering pail service to the steamboats on the lake – 5 gallon metal pails of sewage were taken off the boats and empty pails left in their place. In 1908 this same service was started for the many summer cottages that sprung up around the shoreline. All of this collection and disposal activity took place at the Glen Haven property owned by the city at the south end of the Lake.
In 1908, the collection boat christened “Pop” for the beloved Skaneateles Gate (house) keeper Edward Canron. The boat was 40 feet in length and used a steam engine for power. It was moored in a boat slip off Glen Haven Road during the season and stored at Sevey’s Marina for the winter.
The most recent collection boat, called the “honey boat” was a steel World War II era open deck inboard. It had a “gangplank” like ladder on its bow. This allowed the two seasonal collectors to come in bow first, lower the plank, and walk onshore. They would collect the pails, return up the walk-way and place the pails inside the craft. There were about 200 pail service sites at its 1960s peak. The sewage pails was taken to the city’s Glen Haven property and stored in a large holding tank, then removed for proper disposal.
Watershed Quality Manager Rich Abbott noted “August of 2000, the Common Council of the City of Syracuse and the mayor approved replacing the pail service with composting toilets in the Skaneateles Lake Watershed. June 6, 2003 marked the end of the antiquated and inefficient century old practice of collection 5 gallon pails of raw sewage from privies and transporting them by boat and a pickup truck for temporary storage on city property.Cottage owners who have elected to abandon their outhouse now have the luxury of an indoor facility. The offensive odors and unsanitary conditions related to accumulations of raw sewage has been eliminated. For the city’s investment, it has been rewarded with the elimination of a costly and antiquated service…the annual expenses in the 1996 composting toilet proposal were $84,000. The city’s cost to purchase and install composting toilets, replacing pail service in the Skaneateles Lake Watershed totaled $89,285, resulting in approximately one year return on investment. From the perspective of watershed management and protection, the potential for spillage of accumulated raw sewage during transportation by boat or pickup truck or contamination of groundwater through failure of the holding tank has been removed. Finished compost from the toilets is collected once a year and taken to the 90 acre Glen Haven property for secondary composting.”
The first mention of a Syracuse city boat house in the village was a Nov. 2, 1925 permit issued for a 18 foot by 32 foot wooden structure on the west side of the outlet south of the Genesee Street bridge.
Between the city boat house and the bridge was the larger Grace Badman 85 foot by 18 foot boat house which was removed in August of 1938. The village issued a permit for the existing city brick boat house July 1, 1949. It is approximately 30 feet wide and 44 feet deep. It contains two slips, one 8 feet wide and the other 13 feet wide.It offers 10 feet of vertical clearance at normal lake levels. The city moors its lake patrol boat in this building.
In the mid 1960s, the Skaneateles Fire Department acquired a military surplus 2-1/2 ton 6 wheeled amphibious truck, a DUKW, better known as “The Duck.”
It was used for activities on the lake. A large fire pump was placed on it deck, for a firefighting water source from the lake. It was housed in one of the rear bays at the Fennell Street fire station. It served a purpose, but was not practical for emergency rescues on the lake. It was sold to a local military collector, who refurbished it.
The fire department wanting to get something more suitable for emergencies on the lake, purchased a surplus 17 foot Coast Guard boat in 1981. Looking for a place to moor this “quick response rescue boat,” an assistant chief of the fire department contacted the city engineer requesting use of one of the boat slips in their Syracuse boat house. The city agreed, with a rental fee of $50 a month.
In 1990, the fire department seeing a greater need for emergency services on the Lake purchased a 27 foot Response Marine fire boat. This all aluminum boat has an on-board fire pump and a large enclosed pilot house. It is powered by 2- 250 hp Mercury outboard motors.
The fire boat was berthed in the 13 foot wide slip and the city patrol boat was in the 8 foot wide slip. In the late 1990s or early 2000s the city bought a new and wider patrol boat that would not fit in the old slip. So, the fire department vacated the larger slip. In season the fire boat is moored at the Skaneateles Country Club docks. Off season it is kept on a trailer inside the fire station.
In the early 1990s a proposal to rebuild the city’s boathouse came to light using the same site location and basic brick structure. The two boat slips remained the same size.
Three of the four proposals were quite dramatic. Two of them showed a metal clad peaked roof rising up 13 to 15 feet above the existing roof line. This new roof extended 14 feet above sidewalk level.
Incorporated into this new construction was a tourist information booth projecting 8 feet out onto the sidewalk. It had a matching metal roof 12 feet above the sidewalk and glass sliding windows on three sides.
The rear wall had a ‘slot wall’ for the display of maps and pamphlets for tourist information. The unofficial reaction to those two proposals was similar to the public reaction back in 1891 when a new fire station was proposed to be built on the lake shore about where the present gazebo is located. It would block the view of the lake.
The two other proposals were to keep the existing structure as it is now and another was to place a public accessible park like area on the boat house flat roof. The park on the roof did not materialize.
No records can be found if these four proposals were ever officially reviewed by any of the Village boards or commissions. In 1990 a community sign was placed in that location on the bridge wall.
Note: Special thank you to Rich Abbott, watershed quality manager who is stationed at the city gatehouse next to the Sherwood Inn for information on the pail service and boats.
The City of Syracuse and the fire department have utilized boats and boathouses on the lake for many years.