More than the most famous fish story of Keuka Lake


KEUKA LAKE – Arguably the most famous photograph in Yates County history – Harry Morse, 7, who caught this 8 pound trout with his nose while he and his mother were fishing on Brandy Bay in 1873. Looking to the side of the boat in the grass – a splash – a pain – he threw his head back and the trout landed on the floor of the boat. His mother quickly clubbed him, grabbed Harry and the fish, and walked over to their buggy. They went to Dr. Mills’ photo studio and took this photo and another with her. The photo of Harry and the fish put Penn Yan and Keuka Lake on the map as it was widely distributed in this country and even in Europe. However, there was a lot more to him than catching an 8-pound trout with his nose. He became “a man of the Renaissance”.

For starters, her parents had an interesting story. His father, Myron Morse, was from Pulteney and was an apprentice shoemaker. He came to Penn Yan to be a companion with a Reuben Corey who had a shoe business in town. Myron finally fell in love with the boss’s daughter, Florence Ione. In July 1862, Myron enlisted as a private in the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry. He fought with this regiment at Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg. He fell ill and was sent to a Washington hospital in October 1863. He recovered, but remained on duty in the hospital until the end of the war. Immediately after being taken out of the military, he married Ione Corey at a relative’s home in Washington. Harry was born to Penn Yan two years later.

The 1870 federal census found the young family in New York City, living in the apartment building district of the Lower East Side. Myron had some sort of job there. The lodgings weren’t the healthiest places to live at the time, and once again Myron fell ill and returned to Penn Yan. He died there in August 1872. Ione was not widowed for long, as she married Charles Morgan in 1875. Morgan had a hardware business in Penn Yan and worked closely with William Wise, who handled most of the grape shipments at Penn . Yan, transferring the grapes from the steamboats to the railroads.

Whether it was through the connections of his stepfather or his uncle Oscar Morse, who was Myron’s brother and captain of several of the great steamboats on Keuka Lake, young Harry went to work on the steamboats in as a deckhand handling the moorings on the quays. As he grew older, he qualified to be a pilot on the large liners, then captain.

At this time, there were “steamboat wars” on Keuka Lake – fierce competition between companies for dominance. Charles Drake, supported by New York City financial interests, participated in 1890. He began by buying the railroad at Hammondsport, then used his hold on the lake to buy out the older of the two companies. of steamboats. Then there were lawsuits over mooring fees and lower prices – the price of a day on the boats went from a dollar to a penny. In 1892, rumors were circulating that Drake was going to build a state-of-the-art steamboat that would be the largest and fastest on the lake. Rumor alone prompted the competing company to sell to Drake. He then had the monopoly he was looking for.

The Mary Bell steamboat on Keuka Lake.

It was more than a rumor. The boat he had built in Hammondsport was named after Drake’s wife, Mary Bell. The boat had a steel hull, two screws, was 150 feet long, and could travel 20 miles an hour. Drake appointed Harry Morse as the first captain of the Mary Bell. During the few years he held this position, Harry became very popular with the public for his skill in handling the boat and his outgoing personality. In the mid-1890s Harry fell out with Mr. Drake and resigned his post as captain of the Mary Bell. Drake favored Hammondsport’s interests as he owned the Bath & Hammondsport Railway and didn’t really work with Penn Yan’s train schedules and businessmen. The problem came to a head when some Penn Yan businessmen launched their own steamboat, the Cricket, and rivaled what had been Drake’s monopoly. Harry had good friends who supported the new Cricket.

Harry worked as an engineer on the Halsey for a while, but became disgusted with the ruthless tactics used on the lake. He heard the call of the West. A friend of his ran a large sheep ranch in central Montana and offered Harry a partnership. It was a large and profitable operation – 16,000 acres and 15,000 head of sheep. In 1901 Harry and his mother (who had been widowed a second time) traveled 3,000 kilometers west by train to live in central Montana.

The years he spent in the West gave him the opportunity to travel to some of the cities that were developing there. His time there was well spent, but after several years Penn Yan and his friends “in the East” missed him. He sold his stake in the sheep ranch and returned home with his mother.

Once back at Penn Yan, he got down to work on the boats for a while, piloting the Steuben. Charles Drake had sold all of his steamboat interests to the Erie Railroad in 1904, so the new owner suited Harry – for a while. During his visits to Western cities, he became interested in the new moving film shows that were being introduced in operas. In 1915, he signed a lease to direct the Sampson Theater to Penn Yan. For five years, he enjoyed booking movies, vaudeville shows, live dramas and reviews, as well as community events.

Renting was good, but owning was better. In 1920, the old Shearman House on Elm Street was for sale. It belonged to the Odd Fellows who intended to make it their lodge, but it did not suit their needs. Harry bought it, using the money he had earned from the sale of his share of the sheep ranch in Montana. He hired a contractor and basically kept the front of the building facing the street and completely remodeled the main part of the building and turned it into a magnificent cinema which he named the Elmwood Theater. It could seat over 800 people and for 50 years it was the only cinema in Yates County.

The Elmwood Theater in Penn Yan in the 1940s. The village hall now stands on the site.

The first film that aired there in May 1921 was “Oh, Lady Lady! Featuring the charming and talented Bebe Daniels. It was a silent movie, of course, and Harry hired an orchestra to provide the musical background. Eight years later, he invested in the sound equipment needed to broadcast “talkies”. In the spring of 1929, the first talkie film was shown – “Broadway Melody”, a musical review. The room was full and people were amazed to hear the voices of the actors and actresses on the screen. Over the years Harry has run it, the Elmwood has built a reputation for being a premier entertainment venue – movies, vaudeville acts, concerts, lectures, live plays and community events.

In January 1936 Harry was at the theater and not feeling well. He went to his home on Keuka Street, lay down on a sofa and died of a massive heart attack. He was 69 years old. His obituary in the local newspapers mentioned his years as the owner of the Elmwood Theater and also that “he was one of the best pilots to guide a steamboat on scenic Keuka Lake”. There was a brief mention of his eight years in the West and an extremely brief mention that he had written a book.

Yes, Harry Morse was an author. In the years leading up to World War I, he wrote children’s stories which appeared in the Yates County Chronicle. The peak of his writing career was in 1914 when he published a little book, “To Lovers And Others”. It was so popular that a second impression was needed in 1916. One reviewer wrote: “Every civilization has been developed by the power of love and there is no one who has a thought that seems divine to him about it. love and friendship. In this volume of essays, my friend Harry Morse has indeed given to literature thoughts which act as a ray of light for those who would like to find the path of wisdom, so that they can walk within. (Yates County Chronicle, May 27, 1914)

The essays were all about the power of love, the different ways that love is shown, and the different types of love. Love came late to Harry. In 1920, he married the Canadian Janet Wimbles. The marriage lasted 16 years and gave birth to a daughter, Rosemary, born in 1922. Rosemary eventually married Perry Schofield, the only son of Admiral Frank Schofield.

There were a few things about Harry Morse that hadn’t been mentioned in his obituary. He was an inventor. When he was piloting steamboats on Keuka Lake, he observed private steam yachts on the lake and thought about ways to improve them. In 1907 he received a patent for an awning cover which was sold to a yacht builder. He also received a patent on a splash guard to be mounted on the bow of the boat to prevent waves from splashing riders.

The fact that Harry was an accomplished musician was also overlooked. He has been described in local newspapers as “a world class flautist” and has performed in concerts and churches throughout the community. He also played the cornet in the Penn Yan Cornet Band. This group performed concerts at Penn Yan and also performed on steamboats to entertain passengers on weekends and holidays. They also performed at resorts on the lake – the Ark, the Keuka Hotel, and the Grove Springs Hotel.

So to recap: steamboat pilot … Montana sheep farmer … film pioneer … inventor … best-selling author … accomplished musician … a Renaissance man. Yet the only photograph we have where he is positively identified is the one where he was with his fish when he was seven years old.

For 20 years, Rich MacAlpine, a retired history professor, volunteered with the Yates County History Center. He was a prolific researcher and writer on the history of Yates County, which resulted in over 150 articles written for the History Center’s publication, Yates Past. He had also published six books related to the history of the county.


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