Skaneateles Town & Village History
The history of what is now the Town of Skaneateles began with tracts of wilderness being promised to Revolutionary War soldiers in the 1790s both as incentives for enlisting and as payment for fighting, due to a shortage of cash. The land was divided up into tracts one square mile each; the tracts were assigned to specific soldiers beginning in 1803. However, only about 1/3 of the soldiers actually came and took possession of their land. Wealthy industrialists from New York City saw the advantages of using Skaneateles Lake’s water power for their own interests, due to the fact that the lake is the highest of the Finger Lakes, and were quick to offer the soldiers money for their land. In fact some soldiers sold the same piece of land many time over. Skaneateles was originally part of the Town of Marcellus, which also included today’s communities of Mandana, Willow Glen, Mottville, Skaneateles Falls, and Shepard Settlement. In 1830 the State legislature created the Town of Skaneateles; the Village of Skaneateles was incorporated in 1833.
Irish and other workers came to settle here to work in the new industries, and sent letters back home telling relatives and friends to join them. Many Irish workers had come in 1824 to work on the Erie Canal, and their presence combined with the famine in Ireland in 1840 were powerful incentives for others to come take advantage of opportunities here. Many people came from England, especially Somerset, and started the teasel industry which was uniquely suited to this area due to the climate and soil.
Other people settled here to farm, and merchants expanded their businesses along with the population of the village.
As the Erie Canal was completed and became a more significant source of transportation for businesses, industries started to move closer to the canal. Railroads also became a factor, along with conversions from water power to steam and electric. By the time Syracuse gained access to Skaneateles Lake for their water supply in 1898, most industries had already gone. The loss of water closed the rest.
Because the canal and railroads were not close to Skaneateles, the village was able to retain its small-town feel. Its natural beauty helped make it a popular vacation destination, especially for the wealthy folks from New York City and gradually from Syracuse. They arrived in the village via trolleys in the early 1900s and enjoyed traveling the lake in steamboats, etc.