The lakes were acquired by the city of Rochester beginning in the 1870’s. This was a pivotal era in terms of civil engineering, and a response to a plethora of problems associated with poor sanitation and urban conditions. There was no municipality to treat sewage or drinking water. What went into the streets eventually made its way into wells and cisterns. Disease was common, especially cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Drought, winter, and fire also exacerbated the city’s water issues, so a steady supply was sorely needed.
Because of their rural location and relatively little development, the lakes were ideal. One might ask “why not use Lake Ontario as a water source”? After all, it is much closer to Rochester. The answer is gravity. Lake Ontario sits lower than Rochester, so an elaborate and expensive system of pumps would be necessary to maintain water flow and pressure. Even though they are located thirty miles south, Hemlock and Canadice actually sit at higher elevations than Rochester. Water basically flows downhill to the city through large pipes after it is treated at the Hemlock water treatment facility.
Unable to handle the tax burden of such a large piece of land, the City of Rochester sold the lakes and surrounding forest to New York State (NYS) in 2010 for $13.7 million, with forest management controlled by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. The forest surrounding the lakes is not only beautiful, but the overall environment is in relatively great condition. During the DDT crisis of the 1970’s, Hemlock Lake was the only site in NYS that had a pair of Bald Eagles, and is still inhabited by them. While most of the surrounding forest had been cut at least one time for farming, majority is well on the way to old growth status, with a large virgin stand seven miles down the west side of Hemlock. The lakes boast great fishing because of such a healthy ecosystem. Typical fish species include pickerel, trout, whitefish, and land locked salmon.
If you are from the North East, especially the Finger Lakes region of NYS, you know how precious water is, and how much other states covet it. Rochesterians, whether they realize it or not, have some of the best drinking water around, and a triumphant example of environmental preservation.