Ontario County, New York’s Finger Lakes

Ontario County is one of 14 counties that make up the Finger Lakes region, situated in the heart of western New York, about 10 miles east of Rochester.

ontario-county-courthouse-lady-justice-secnic.jpgWithin its 644 square miles (663 square miles if you include water), the county has two cities (Canandaigua and Geneva), 16 towns, eight villages, and more than a dozen school districts. With a population of 109,561 (2015 Census estimate), Ontario County is one of the few upstate counties that is growing. 

The Seneca Nation, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, were known as the “Great Hill People,” and lived in Ontario County hundreds of years before Columbus set sail. In the rolling hills of Victor and Bloomfield they built their great “peace town,” Ganondagan. The site of that town is now Ganondagan State Historic Site, a major cultural attraction with trails, a replica bark longhouse, and the Seneca Art & Cultural Center interpreting the history, culture, and future aspirations of the Seneca and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people.

Ontario County was part of the 6 million acres of western New York (then still part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) purchased from the Iroquois Confederacy by Massachusetts spectators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham in 1788. The land was surveyed into townships, and the floodgates were opened to pioneers from New England, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Ontario County was formed in 1789.

Ontario County was once known as the "Mother of Counties" as it encompassed all the land west of ontario-county-courthouse-canandaigua-1859.jpgSeneca Lake in its early days. The county seat, Canandaigua, became the frontier capital of western New York. Its position of prominence made it an exciting place. In 1794 the United States government concluded one of its first treaties with the Native Americans. The Pickering Treaty is still in force and is marked by observances every year on November 11. Politicians like Gideon Granger and John C. Spencer rose to national prominence.

Ontario County, in its early years, was also the cultural center of the area. Here the oldest continuously published newspaper west of the Hudson River, The Daily Messenger, is still printed. Early booksellers flourished in the county, and half a dozen private schools were established. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the United States, was educated at Geneva Medical College in the late 1840s. The earliest public library in the area was established at Geneva in 1797.

Before (and then after) the Civil War, Ontario County was a hotbed for the social and political reforms of hobart-william-smith-college-geneva-elizabeth-blackwell.jpgthe day. Several stations on the Underground Railroad were established in the county after 1850. The Ontario County Court House was the scene of several hotly contested trials held under the Fugitive Slave Law. In 1873 a federal court, sitting in Canandaigua, found Susan B. Anthony guilty of violating a federal statute when she voted in Rochester in the 1872 presidential election.

One of the first true mental health hospitals in the state was set up in Canandaigua at Brigham Hall, cited now on the National Register of Historic Places. About the same time, Dr. Henry Foster’s water cure at Clifton Springs began a regional rise to prominence. The old “San” still stands, another entry on the National Register, and the village enjoys an outstanding medical reputation. The Mormon religion was founded by Joseph Smith in 1829, just outside of Manchester, near the border between Ontario and Wayne counties. The Hill Cumorah Visitors Center in Manchester tells that history, and is the site of an annual Mormon pageant.

ontario-county-courthouse-lady-justice.jpgA feature of the stately Ontario County Court House is a two-story black marble monument to the men who died fighting for our country at places like Gettysburg and the wilderness. Oddly enough, Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s rival, once lived in Phelps and was educated at Canandaigua Academy. Atop the courthouse, Lady Justice stands.

The late 1800s were a time of vital growth in Ontario County. The completion of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1892 capped a half century of transportation development. Once a rail hub linking Niagara Falls and Albany; Sodus and Corning; Buffalo and Baltimore; the county boasts, at Fishers, the second oldest railroad building in the United States.  Today, that area is known as the retail center for Ontario County. It is the host to Eastview Mall, a regionally renowned shopping center.

The extensive lake boat systems that once supported commerce in the region are gone now; replaced by miles of good roads. Good roads have played a prominent role in the growth of the tourism industry in the county. Most visitors drive to the Finger Lakes, citing their three primary interests as the wineries (and a growing craft beer, hard cider and spirits industry), the hospitality of the people who host them, and the scenic beauty, inspired by the lakes, rolling hills and vistas, and the historic and architectural spots throughout the county. The cultural pride of Ontario County is on display everywhere. From the County Archive (open to visitors) to well-kept historic districts and ten professionally operated museums, visitors and residents alike can savor the heritage of “Old Ontario.” Outdoor adventurists, foodies, and wellness seekers will be pleased with choices as varied as the New York Wine and Culinary Center to the Bristol and Roseland Adventure sports parks, to the lakeside lodging choices in which to relax. 

The interests of county business and industry have changed with the times. Always an agricultural center, the county was early committed to the wine and grape industry as well as traditional dairy and grain interests. The first Agricultural Experiment Station in the state was established in Geneva in 1882. Over the years, county manufacturers have risen to prominence for the production of many things. Ontario County products have included enamelware, farm machinery, office supplies, sporting goods, chemical products, ceramics, cereal and metal products. Later years have witnessed the introduction of “high tech” industries producing computer applications where once stood blacksmith shops, grist mills, and spoke factories. The medical industry has grown over the years and when combined the hospitals and related industry, located across the county and including the Veterans Administration Hospital in Canandaigua, are among the largest employers.  Educational institutions like the Finger Lakes Community College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges foster an environment for continual learning and serve as centers for community activities as well.

ontario-county-courthouse-canandaigua-night.jpgFrom its earliest beginnings in 1789 as the “Mother of Counties,” to its current reputation as one of the fastest growing counties in New York State, Ontario County has accumulated a treasure chest of history, as well as setting the stage for an engaging, prosperous future.

Information provided in part from Ontario County Historian Preston Pierce with contributions and editing by Valerie Knoblauch, President of Finger Lakes Visitors Connection.