Owasco Lake is the sixth largest (or smallest of the “major” Finger Lakes) and third easternmost of the Finger Lakes. It measures 11 miles long and has a maximum width of 1.3 miles, and rests entirely in Cayuga County. It is 712 feet above sea level and controlled by a dam at the lake’s outlet. The city of Auburn – population approximately 28,000 people – at the north end draws its drinking water from the lake.
Emerson Park, in Auburn, is the go-to place for lake access whether putting in your own boat or renting a pontoon, canoe, or kayak, or just swimming at the public beach.
Historians believe Owasco Lake got its name from the Iroquois word dwas-co meaning “bridge on the water” or “floating bridge.” American veterans of the Revolutionary War created permanent settlements in the area Following the Sullivan Expedition, which devastated one of the earliest Cayuga tribes. At one time, the Erie Canal – which passes to the north – was supposed to connect to the lake, but the Syracuse Railway that came through changed those plans.
Owasco Lake was a popular getaway for the wealthy and well-to-do in the 1800s, and known for drinking, gambling, and other “adult-entertainment” of that time. A casino sat near the hamlet of Cascade on the south end of the lake that accommodated travelers on the rail line hugging the western shore, with others dotting the area. Steamboats carried the elite from resort to resort along the lake, including another particularly large one at modern-day Emerson Park. The casino in Cascade burnt down in the early 1900s and most of the other casinos went down as well, just not in flames. Ruins of the railway remain in the swampland if you look closely.
What It is Known For
Because Owasco Lake is smaller and shallower than many of its peer Finger Lakes, it warms up quickly and becomes prime for recreational activities like swimming, water skiing, fishing, and boating early in the season. However, because of this natural setting it is not as fit for grape production like many of the surrounding lakes, and is therefore less of a vineyard and winery scene.
Want to interact with nature but not on the water? Head south to Fillmore Glen State Park for hiking trails that offer views of gorgeous gorges and waterfalls – perhaps the best in the entire region – and camping is allowed if you want to take a couple days to take it all in.
History nerds are right at home in Auburn. You can visit sites like: the Harriet Tubman Home, where the abolitionist leader cared for the aged; the William Seward House; and see the beautiful stained-glass at Willard Memorial Chapel.