Seneca Mill Falls Waterfall Wednesday blog cover
Waterfall Wednesday

Waterfall Wednesday: Seneca Mill Falls

Seneca Mill Falls by Laura Jaen Smith. Acrylic landscape painting of waterfall along Keuka Outlet Trail Penn Yan. 50 NY Waterfalls Project.
Seneca Mill Falls, 6x6 acrylic on wood panel, 2018

Have you been enjoying the Waterfall Wednesday series so far?  I know I’ve been enjoying researching more about each one and sharing about my experience.  If you need to catch up with weeks 1-4 you can go here (we started on 8/1/18 with Waverly Glen).  To help make sure you don’t miss any of the weekly blog posts you can also sign up for my newsletter to have a link to the new post sent to you each Wednesday (opportunities to sign up on the right and bottom of your screen).  This week it’s all about Seneca Mill Falls.

Seneca Mill Falls is one of two waterfalls located on the Keuka Outlet Trail (Cascade Mill Falls is the other – look forward to more on this one in weeks to come).  The Keuka Outlet Trail travels 6.6 miles between Keuka Lake at Penn Yan to Seneca Lake at Dresden.  The walk from the parking area to the waterfall is only around .30 miles.  It’s a pretty easy level walk and there’s also a picnic area right nearby on the hill behind the waterfall. 

Seneca Mill Falls is a three tiered cascade with small 10 foot dam spillway, 15 foot ledge, and 15 foot slide, totaling 40 feet.  Some quick waterfall vocabulary from our Wikipedia friends.  A tiered waterfall is where the “water drops in a series of distinct steps or falls.”  In a ledge waterfall the “water descends vertically over a vertical cliff, maintaining partial contact with the bedrock.” In a slide waterfall the “water glides down maintaining continuous contact.”  

I’m starting to learn how to recognize them, but in the meantime I think it’s enough to say that it’s really pretty.  (Bonus for you this week with a video clip I took on site for the project).

I feel like I say this every time, but this is one of my favorites from my recent project of 50 New York waterfalls.  I find something so intriguing about having pieces of the past surrounding the waterfalls.  I love learning new things and so this always piques my interest to know what used to be located in the spot.

History of Seneca Mill Falls

This area has a rich history centered around its water-powered mills.  It’s interesting to think about the power that can be generated by water and our willingness to work with nature to drive progress in the past.  While researching this area I kind of got pulled down a rabbit hole of information.  Without regurgitating it all here, I’ll share some of the basic key pieces. 

The area surrounding Seneca Mill Falls was settled in 1788 by Jemima Wilkinson, an American Quaker and Evangelist who founded the Society of Universal Friends religious movement.  She and 25 of her followers settled in this area, calling it Jerusalem (now the area known as Penn Yan).  

It’s interesting the way that some things are portrayed in historical writing.  Some of the different sources I reviewed were very vague about how this beautiful piece of land between two lakes with a natural waterway between was left unsettled.  I feel that it’s worth mentioning that though Wilkinson and her followers were the first white settlers, there were people who lived in this area prior to them.  In 1779 the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition of the American Revolutionary War had cleared the region from all of its former inhabitants.  Native American villages, crops, and people were destroyed.  Survivors fled.  The affected lands were then partitioned out and sold. 


Photo of Seneca Mill Falls Keuka Outlet Trail by Laura Jaen Smith
Seneca Mill Falls, photograph, 2018

Regardless of the origins, Wilkinson and her followers began a settlement of the area about a decade later and built the first mill on the site where Seneca Mill Falls is located.  It was a saw and gristmill.  Over the years the mill changed hands and more mills were built along the outlet.  The original gristmill burnt down and a new one immediately replaced it.  Later there was a mill that produced sugar bags, heavy wrapping paper, and book paper. 

To the left you can see parts of the mill that remain at the top of Seneca Mill Falls.  There is a path that goes right up to view it, as well as providing an overlook for the falls.

In 1831 construction began on the Crooked Lake Canal which used a system of 27 different lift locks built of stone and wood to pass boats between Seneca and then Crooked Lake (that’s right – Keuka Lake used to be called Crooked Lake due to it’s shape!).  The Canal was able to handle boats about the same size as the nearby Erie Canal.  The canal was officially abandoned in 1877 due to several issues – mainly the expense of upkeep and the inefficiency of it taking more than 6 hours for a boat to pass through the small canal.

In 1883 work was started on what would become the Fall Brook Railroad that connected the areas near Dresden and Penn Yan.  Fun fact – there are still concrete milestones that can be found along the old route that are marked with the letter “W” – which showed where the engineer needed to sound his whistle to warn traffic at the railroad crossings ahead!  The Fall Brook Railroad was a vital part of transportation of goods in the area until it suffered flood damage in 1972 from the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes (the same storm that caused severe flooding throughout the Finger Lakes Region and down into Elmira).

The present day Keuka Outlet Trail is built on the old bed of the Fall Brook Railroad which follows the towpath of the former Crooked Lake Canal.  (I had to look it up to get a clearer picture so maybe this will be helpful for someone else out there reading – a towpath is a road that ran along the waterway where animals or teams of people would pull the boat along through the narrow canal.)  At the Seneca Mill Falls site, the trail drops into the canal bed and passes through one of the old locks.

Photo of Seneca Mill Falls Keuka Outlet Trail by Laura Jaen Smith
Seneca Mill Falls, photograph, 2018

Besides Seneca Mill Falls and Cascade Mill Falls (we’ll talk about that waterfall later on), the interwebs make reference to several other mill sites along the trail where the pieces of history can be seen.  Makes me want to visit again now that I know some of the interesting history behind it! (Maybe this time I will wait until it’s not 90+ degrees).

Painting It

Seneca Mill Falls by Laura Jaen Smith. Acrylic landscape painting of waterfall along Keuka Outlet Trail Penn Yan. 50 NY Waterfalls Project.
Seneca Mill Falls, 6x6 acrylic on wood panel, 2018

The biggest challenge of painting Seneca Mill Falls was finding the best edge which showed off the character of the waterfall.  I wanted to make sure that I included the ruins of wall that make it such a historic site.  There were two interesting views that I considered – one being from the top looking down, and then the other – that I ultimately went with – from the base of the waterfall.

Have you visited this waterfall before?

Do you know any fun pieces of history from this site?


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For more information about Seneca Mill Falls and the history surrounding it you can visit: The Crooked Lake Review and Keuka Outlet Trail.