By Jack Henke

If we could board a time machine and travel back to the Oneida Lake area, one century ago, what would we observe?

The shoreline's condition would shock us.  There would be far fewer trees than we enjoy now.  Nineteenth century lakeside settlers intensely logged their land, using the timber for construction, for fire wood, and for market profit.  Huge rafts of logs were transported from Oneida Lake, through the downstream river system, to Syracuse and beyond.  The cleared, actively cultivated farm land extended down to the shoreline proper.  Farming was a prominent occupation, especially on the south shore, and the communities of Bridgeport and Lakeport served as commercial centers for their surrounding agrarian population

We'd be very interested in the environmental differences between the 1896 Oneida and our lake today.  Emergent vegetation was common along the water's edge.  Wild rice, various grasses, water lillies and the like created a lush habitat for aquatic insects, fish, waterfowl, freshwater mammals, and amphibians.  The "grass beds" served as a spawning mecca for predator fish such as northern pike, pickerel, and largemouth bass.  At Lower South Bay, the vegetation punctuated the water along miles of shore and extended over a hundred yards into the lake in places.  This pattern was repeated throughout the lake’s periphery.

Oneida Lake's fishermen could then pursue a far different catch than we currently do.  Walleyes and panfish were popular, but northern pike and pickerel also attracted a large number of anglers.  Tullibees, a whitefish stocked in the lake, thrived and were commercially harvested.  Eels were trapped downstream from the lake's Brewerton outlet and, in addition, were speared at several locations throughout Oneida (the eel shoals, off the Chittenango Creek mouth were especially popular).  Smoked eel was a coveted delicacy in Central New York then.  Sportfishermen found themselves in competition with the Oneida Lake "fish pirate".  Many lakeside village residents and their neighboring farmers illegally netted Oneida, selling their catches for important supplemental income.  Numerous lake area homes' and even churches' mortgages were financed through pirates' earnings.  Sport anglers howled in protest and the Anglers' Association of Onondaga even carried the fight to Albany.  Law enforcement problems, however, made catching the pirates a difficult task

Oneida Lake's water quality a century ago would be far different.  In the 19th century, boatmen refused to drink from the lake, citing a peculiar "fever " that resulted from ingesting Oneida's liquid.  Travelers during this era described the water as being "vile" and often referred to Oneida as "the green lake".  Significant algal blooms occurred each summer and, as the algae died and decomposed, the lake's surface turned into a multicolored collage of reds, blues, greens, and whites.  These images contrast vividly with the clarity that today's zebra mussel-infested Oneida often exhibits.

Reprinted (with minor modifications) from The Oneida Lake Bulletin:  Spring, 1996.