By David Alvord
Historian, City of Oneida
The area where Wood River empties into Oneida Lake—on the boundary between the present
Towns of Verona and Vienna—was recognized for its strategic value and natural resources as far back as colonial days. The British built a blockhouse on the Verona side during the French and Indian War to stand guard over the boat traffic coming to and from the Mohawk Valley. Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 diverted navigation away from the area, but hunters and fishermen as well as the occasional tourist found their way there. Members of the Oneida Community even set up their own recreational camp there and called it Joppa.
James D. Spencer and his family moved from Oswego County to what would become Sylvan Beach in the 1840s. They bought and sold considerable tracts of land on both sides of the river and conducted various businesses. The hamlet that developed on the south side became known as Fish Creek.
The Oswego Midland Railroad (later the New York, Ontario & Western) reached the area in 1869, providing much greater access from north and south than the primitive roads. One result was that a post office was established at Fish Creek on January 3, 1870.
Hotels arose on both sides of the river to accommodate visitors. One of the first was the Forest Home, located near the present midway. It opened in 1879 and continued in business for 104 years.
The riverside Algonquin Hotel was a leading resort from the time it opened in 1884 until it burned in 1899. In the latter year the St. Charles Hotel went up on the lakefront; this became a popular destination until it too burned down in 1914.
Ferries and steamers served to bring visitors from the train depot at Fish Creek across the river and to the various hotels. Tour boats also plied the lake.
The resort area on the north side of the river had been known by a number of names, including Beacon Beach and Spencer’s Beach. A post office was established on May 26, 1887, with the name Sylvan Beach. John H. Meays was the first postmaster.
Residents and visitors pooled their resources to erect on Park Avenue the Sylvan Beach Union Chapel, which opened on July 3, 1887. Interdenominational worship services have been held there every summer since then.
The Elmira, Cortland & Northern Railroad (later the Lehigh Valley) reached Fish Creek in 1887, adding to the resort’s tourist traffic. Both the Lehigh Valley and the O&W eventually spanned the river. While their mainlines bypassed the resort proper, a complicated series of loops and switches was constructed, allowing trains to deposit passengers in the heart of Sylvan Beach and enabling larger numbers of day-trippers to join the longer-term tourists.
Mass picnics became a prominent feature of summertime in Sylvan Beach during the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries. One of the most famous was that of the Hop Growers Association of Central New York, held annually from the 1870s into the 1920s. It brought tens of thousands of people into the resort during the Golden Age. African-Americans from around Central New York also held an annual gathering at Sylvan Beach, beginning at the turn of the century and lasting into the 1950s.
Dr. Martin Cavana of Oneida opened a sanitarium near the lakefront in 1891, continuing to run it until his death. He soon became a leader in efforts to promote the local economy and bring in more visitors. He also became known for his generosity toward the local citizenry.
A midway area known as Carnival Park had developed toward the end of the century on the north side of the river near the lakefront. Cavana bought up property there and installed new rides and attractions, helping to spread the resort’s reputation across the state.
Cavana also became a political leader in the community. His efforts helped bring about the incorporation of the Village of Sylvan Beach in 1896. The village was dissolved in 1911 as a result of a legal dispute.
Construction of the new Barge Canal, which opened in 1918, largely obliterated the natural mouth of Wood River. It also brought about a considerable increase in water-borne commerce and pleasure-boat traffic. By this time a large number of cottages had sprung up on both sides of the river, affording long-term visitors more privacy than hotels and boarding houses offered.
Cavana died in 1924, leaving shoes that no one could fill. The passenger railroad business declined as automobile traffic increased; in turn, long-term guests at resort hotels gave way to people who drove in for the day.
Like other communities, Sylvan Beach has had its economic ups and downs over the past decades. Before World War II performances by big bands drew crowds of fans into the resort; after the war the new Verona Beach State Park drew swimmers and picnickers away. After the village was re-incorporated in 1971, infusions of state and federal funds helped improve the physical plant.
Sylvan Beach may have reached its peak as a popular resort in Cavana’s time. Some people look back today and think that, whatever the village might become, it will never again be what it was in that Golden Age.