Nineteenth Century Fluvanna Marked By Steamboats, Hotels
Not much more than 100 years separates our modern world now from a world without electricity, cars or modern conveniences. In the latter 19th century, Chautauqua Lake’s increasing settlement and popularity in summers heralded an era of hotels and steamboat travel around its shores. A few of the most popular were built in the Fluvanna area, including the Griffith Hotel and the Sherwin House.
Trolleys ran along the lakeshore on major train lines. We can find traces of these tracks in Lakewood, N.Y., for example, just a few blocks up from the lake. In Fluvanna, the tracks ran right along the shoreline. When I was a child, traces of the wooden and rails remained in front of the Sherwin cottage on Fluvanna Bay. My cousin and I stumbled upon them sometimes in our play, amidst wild ferns and tall grasses. We would touch the metal, the wood, and be reminded we walked in the past as well as the current moment. Many of the trees in the photo below still stand.
Steamboats must have bellowed their arrival to the large docks built to accommodate them. We see them in old black-and-white and sepia photographs, looking grand and magnificent in the water, filled to the brim with visitors and travelers. What a sight it must have been to see them, hear them, smell the smoke from the stacks, in person. Travelers loaded at the Jamestown Boat Landing at the junction of Eighth Street at Jones and Gifford, where McCrae Point Park stands today. In their heyday, a dozen or more steamers actively traveled Chautauqua Lake, depositing guests at various hotels, including the Fluvanna House built and owned by the Whittemore family and the nearby Sherwin House in Fluvanna as well as the sprawling Lake Shore Hotel up the shore above what is now Greenhurst.
For grand style, the Lake Shore Hotel built and run by the Griffith family was the most opulent, without question, a truly formidable estate. Built in sections, and finally four stories high, it offered 115 rooms for guests and a two-story wrap around veranda with lake views on three sides. The bay glimmers and shines, utterly tranquil on a day in August like this week when I stopped by numerous times. One can imagine how it must have been for hotel visitors and travelers in the heyday of the hotel. Griffith Bay remains one of the most pristine and beautiful spots on Chautauqua Lake.
The Fluvanna House, established in 1826 by James Whittemore before Fluvanna had a name and was still called the Point. It was a non-liquor establishment, early on. Later in the 19th century, a wealthy visitor from New Hampshire, my cousin Barb Sherwin says — per family and anecdotal history — bought the hotel and either rebuilt or tore down the old one and built a new hotel. For his own curious reason, he also built the curious adjacent castle-like building now used as the War Vets. The rose brick parts that make up the War Vets were used as the stable area, according to Barb’s account. The story goes that the rich investor had stayed at an original hotel. He became angered because he wanted raspberry pie for dessert and, not offered any on the hotel menu, decided to buy the whole place and renovate it. The pinkish colors used overall were a reflection of his annoyance. No hard data I have yet found confirms this anecdote. According to the History of Chautauqua County, the Fluvanna House “was the first summer resort on the lake.” Though Barb is not sure, she thinks this may have been the Martin House, which was two stories high, approximately 216-by-70 in size, able to accommodate about 100 guests. As far as I can tell and supported by the photographic evidence (see War Vets towers in background) and my own knowledge of the area, it must have been torn down and replaced sometime in the early 20th century by the still standing, still formidable, old Tyler mansion.
In contrast, the Sherwin Hotel was built in 1875-76 by Philo Sherwin for his mother, Flora Griffith Sherwin. Flora lived to be 94, one of the oldest citizens in the area at that time. The hotel was located about “twenty rods” or 200 yards away from the Fluvanna House, northwest up the lakefront. Originally, “it was a respectable house,” as noted in the History of Chautauqua County. However, later in the 19th century, it became a raucous establishment with a wild history of shootings, stabbings, and overall dangerous behavior.
The original Sherwin Hotel was inherited by Francis Sherwin, who promptly renamed it the Sherwin House. He lost it through bankruptcy or foreclosure in the late 1890s but through grit and savings managed to buy it back a few years later. Barbara writes, when her family acquired the property in the late 1890s, “Originally, it was a hotel, sold, became a wild bar with stabbings and infamous history, was foreclosed then sold again as a temperance house. My grandfather Frank Sherwin bought the house from his Uncle Philo in early 1900. He lost it in 1906 but repurchased it at auction with 20 acres in 1910 from Mr. Strunk. Grandpa turned it into a farm and fruit stand and lived there until it burned (possibly for the second time) in 1918 or 1919 (depending on source material).”
In family history, Grandpa Frank Sherwin was visiting the Griffith family a few miles up the lake when he got word his farm was on fire. He and his young son George, Barb’s father, hopped in their carriage and sped towards Fluvanna. The horse refused to cross the road when it smelled smoke. They got a ride in a car from a passing motorist, a rare thing then. It was George’s first car ride. By the time they arrived home, the property had burned to the ground. Apparently, a farmhand is fell asleep in the barn with a lit cigarette. After that, Frank built the cottage down the hill closer to the lake shore where he lived until his death in 1955. The original front windows of my cousin’s childhood home were part of Frank’s vegetable and fruit stand.
His son, my Uncle George, rebuilt and enlarged the dwelling with the help of his father in law, our Grandfather Forsberg, on the same spot as the two previous dwellings had stood. This photograph shows the property as it looked circa 1960. George kept the acreage behind his house, which was rich in red and black berries in the summer time and later sold that land to the Bonsi-fay family, who had by that time acquired the Tyler mansion property. Uncle George also owned six acres beside the Fluvanna Cemetery, which he ultimately donated to the cemetery upon his death. He sold some lakefront property to the Bonsi-fays as well, including the shoreline directly in front of our grandparents’ home.
Fluvanna, the placid and lovely strip of shoreline about four miles from Jamestown situated at the start of the “outlet” (the beginning of the historic Chadakoin River) and sweeping along the beautiful bay, has an exciting history. It was peopled by stout hands and hearts, settlers who were full of dreams, who had vision, who worked hard and if they failed, tried again like Frank Sherwin. It’s worth a drive through and a stop at several places such as the current War Vets and in front of the still rather grand old Tyler Mansion as well as the original Sherwin property next door. We remind ourselves, the past is now. We live amidst the history of place and landscape as well as people.