Steamboats on Sodus Bay

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A very special Thanks to Richard Palmer for sharing this Arch Merrill article from the Democrat and Chronicle
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Sunday, November 28, 1954
Steamboats Circled Sodus Bay on Sundays
By Arch Merrill
Remember the old Glen House by the Lower Falls of the Genesee? If you do, you are not a junior citizen. The Glen House burned in 1894.
You don’t have to be a septuagenarian to remember the steamboats that once plied Great Sodus Bay – the Ideal, the Sunbeam and the square-sterner “pickle dish,” the H.C. Leroy. Still, more than 40 summers have gone by since a steamboat has churned the waters of the ancient “Bay of the Cayugas.”
No living person has more intimate memories of the Glen House and of the Sodus Bay steamboat than a 73-year-old retired mariner who lives at 40 State St. in Sodus village. His name is Albert Benham but most folks call him Bert.
Bert Benham lived in the Glen House as a boy. His father ran the famous resort for five years and the Benhams moved out only a week before flames devoured the Glen House with the loss of a woman’s life.
And Bert was a fireman on the Sodus Bay boats for more than a decade. He officiated at “the burial” of two of them.
The Glen House, built in 1870, was a popular place in those long gone horse and carriage-steamboat days when the Genesee was a sylvan stream flowing between high green banks, and not a mere dumping ground.
Its dining room was noted for its cuisine and its elevator housed in a 200-foot tower was noted for its eccentricities. The elevator was as unpredictable as “Calamity Jane,” the old lift bridge over the Erie Canal in West Main Street. Once it dropped half of its 100-foot shaft, shaking up the load of school children aboard who had paid three cents apiece for the ride.
Among the river steamboats that ran from the Glen House to the lake were the City of Rochester, the Wilcox and the Charlotte. It was a time of moonlight excursions and waltzing couples.
Bert recalls a spring north of the Glen House along the old Indian train which surplice wear for the Benhams. In 1918 he went down the same Indian trail with his son and some of his pals and showed them the spring and the site of the old windlass well. For all he knows, the spring is still there above the Genesee.
Bert Benham was 10 when his father, Captain Peter Benham, a licensed skipper on both salt and fresh water, sold the Glen House to Jacob Valley. The fire which raged through the landmark one May night 60 years ago took the life of Valle’s mother-in-law, a Mrs. McIntyre, trapped in her bedroom.
After he left the Glen House, Captain Peter ran a restaurant (with bar) and a boat livery at Brewer’s Dock. Bert Benham recalls that now placid spot as a busy place where many boats, some of them laden with pulp wood, used to dock.
He was only 15 when he started his career as a fireman on the steamboat H.C. Leroy on the Dexter-Henderson Harbor-Sackets Harbor-Thousand Islands run. Later on he fired the Leroy, as well as the Ideal and its sister ship, and identical twin, the Sunbeam.
Bert Benham spent 17 years on the lake and bays, always as a fireman. He is a big man and must have been a powerful one in his prime. It is hard for him to get around now and he spends most of his days in his apartment – with his scrapbooks and memories.
He likes to talk of the old days when the steamboats hauled big crowds around Sodus Bay, especially on Sundays. The bay boats left the dock at Sodus Point back of the recently departed Bay Shore Hotel and made all the stops around the bay.
Among those ports of call were Bonnecastle, now farmland but in those days the site of the reunions of the Grand Army of the Republic; Burns’ Grove, the three pretty islands, Eagle, Leroy and Newark; Charles Point Lake Bluff, once a Methodist camp ground; and the Shaker Tract, Sill’s and Gard Warren’s Point where Warren ran a summer school for boys, on the south shore.
Benham rattled off the names of bay captains, who have since made port in another land – Alvin Fields, Henry Buyse, Ross Buyse, Joe Jones, Fred Roscoe and many more. He spoke of the old hotels, Welch’s, which is no more, and the Johnson House which is still at the Point under another name.
He remembers the coming of the trolleys in 1900 and the days when there were big grain elevators at Sodus Point and barges brought the red ore from the iron mines around Ontario. The “retired marine smoke agent,” as he calls himself, told how every spring a bald eagle built its nest on Eagle Island. Probably it was a descendant of the first lordly eagle who settled there and gave the island its name.
He told of fishing on the bay in winter and of often falling through the ice. “I was young and tough in those days and could swim like a fish, Ice-cold water didn’t faze me,” he said.
Etched deeply upon his memory is the time the coal barge, the Owen, caught fire 10 miles off Oswego on Lake Ontario and burned while he and others of the crew watched from lifeboats – until the lifesaving crew came out from Oswego and took them in.
He said the private gasoline and naphtha boats which summer folk began using in the early years of the century spelled the doom of the steamboat and that the coming of the automobile and the hard roads finished them off.
The steamboat era on Sodus Bay ended around 1910. It was Benham’s unpleasant task to “bury” the Sunbeam and the Leroy. The Ideal had departed for Lake Erie waters.
Bert ran the Sunbeam into the mud at the head of the bay near Resort where the lotus blooms and left it there. He planted the Leroy near the coal trestle at Sodus Point. Vandals and fire bug soon erased all traces of the steamboats that had sailed the bay so proudly in the old excursion days.
Then Benham fired on the Glen and the Walk-On which ran from Charlotte to Sea Breeze and other boats of the Ontario Navigation Company operated by Billy Sours, longtime proprietor of the Newport House on Irondequoit Bay, and Freddy Frost.
Soon those boats were gone, too, and Bert Benham turned to farming and auto repairing, in the Sodus-Wolcott area. I am sure he regards his 17 years on the inland waters as is finest.
His grandson, Gerald Benham, is carrying on the family nautical tradition. Gerald, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Benham of Bay Road, Webster, is serving his seventh year in Uncle Sam’s Navy.
It is in the blood. Gerald’s great-grandfather, Peter Benham, the one who ran the Glen House and the bar at Brewer’s Dock, sailed salt water, too – but in ships with sails and masts.