The Finger Lakes region is among the most spectacular in all of New York State. The area is a series of eleven elongated glacial valley lakes that are all roughly aligned in a north-south direction.
Keuka Lake is the only one of the Finger Lakes that has a Y-like shape to it. Prior to the arrival of railroads and automobiles, steamboats were the fastest way to move across the lake. At the southern end of the lake lies the village of Hammondsport. At the northern end of its eastern branch sits the village of Penn Yan.
It was there, in Penn Yan, on July 14, 1866, that one of its most celebrated citizens, Harry C. Morse, was born. His father Myron died on August 25, 1872, leaving his wife (Florence) Ione Morse, to raise their only child alone.
Oscar Morse, a well-respected steamboat captain, would routinely take his young nephew Harry out on the water to teach him every aspect of navigating these large ships. Harry’s earliest jobs were as members of the crew, but as he grew older and gained more experience, he became the captain of his own steamboat, the Urbana.
Described in 1889 as “the youngest, best-looking, and best-dressed pilot on the lake,” Harry was soon given the assignment of a lifetime. When the Mary Bell (later rechristened the Penn Yan) was launched in 1892, 26-year-old Harry was selected to be its captain. He was at the wheel when the ship, described as “the finest boat on any inland waters in New York,” encountered a violent storm. Due to her immense weight, the Mary Bell sat very low in the water and waves began to crash over her lower deck. Morse was able to safely steer the ship to port without a single one of its estimated five hundred passengers being harmed. Harry became a bit of a local hero for his efforts, for which poet Booth Lowery, who was aboard the Mary Bell at the time, penned the poem “Harry’s at the Wheel.”
Yet, that is not the event for which Harry would be best remembered.
When the wheeling craze spread across the United States in the 1890s, Harry was reported to have been the first person in Penn Yan to own a bicycle.
Yet, again, that is not what he is best known for.
On February 8, 1901, The Great Falls Tribune announced that Harry had purchased a one-fourth partnership in a Utica, Montana ranch, to which he relocated. The 16,000-acre farm was home to an estimated herd of 15,000 sheep.
After a number of years of raising sheep, however, Harry returned back home to Penn Yan. So, clearly, sheep farming was not his claim to fame.
After a brief stint back on the steamboats, Harry penned the 1914 book To Lovers and Others. But that is not the thing he is best remembered for either.
Harry then turned his focus to the world of entertainment. For a period of five years, he leased and managed the Sampson Theater in Penn Yan, showing mostly silent movies.
In May of 1920, he purchased the former Shearman House on Elm Street for $10,000 ($127,000 today), tore it down, and began construction on a new movie theater. The 720-seat Elmwood Theatre opened May 27, 1921 and was an immediate success. In the late 1920s, Morse installed new technology that enabled him to project talking movies but competition from nearby theaters open on Sundays began to eat into his profits. Blue laws (laws prohibiting certain activities on Sundays) in Penn Yan forbid him from doing the same. Harry approached the Board of Trustees with a petition signed by 2,072 of the 3,152 registered voters in Penn Yan requesting that his theater also be allowed to stay open. On September 27, 1929, he got his wish: “BE IT ORDAINED, that the Elmwood of Penn Yan Incorporated, under the management of H. C. Morse, hereafter be permitted to exhibit motion pictures in the Village of Penn Yan on the first day of the week after 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This ordinance shall take effect immediately.”
Harry Morse would operate the Elmwood Theater until his death on January 15, 1936, after which it would change hands several times before finally closing in 1970. He was survived by his wife Janet and their daughter Rosemary.
There you have it. A lifetime of hard work and a tremendous amount of success. Yet, the one thing that Harry Morse would forever be remembered for has not yet been mentioned. His most memorable event occurred when he was just seven-years-old.
August 27, 1873 was a beautiful day when Harry and his mom went fishing near Keuka Lake’s Brandy Bay. Mrs. Morse set anchor a short distance from shore and cast her line out from one side of the boat. As she patiently waited for a nibble, Harry peered out over the other side and gazed into the crystal-clear water below.
Then, suddenly, Harry jerked his head back into the boat and let out a painful scream. Mrs. Morse turned around to discover that her son’s face was covered in blood. She then glanced down and saw a large fish flopping around on the floor of the boat. A person on shore suggested that Mrs. Morse take an oar and hit the fish with it. She did exactly that and put the fish out of its misery. Mrs. Morse quickly rowed the boat into shore where, with the help of onlookers, she was able to care for Harry’s wounds.
If it weren’t for the fact that there were eyewitnesses to what had happened, no one would have ever believed what had just taken place. While Harry was leaning over the edge of the boat, an 8-pound (3.6 kilogram) trout leaped up out of the water and grabbed ahold of his nose. Panicking, he quickly pulled his head back and upon doing so, the fish let go and fell to the floor of the boat.
Yes, Harry Morse had done the seemingly impossible: He caught a fish with his nose.
Word quickly spread around town and Dr. J. C. (John Coleman) Mills took two photographs to prove to the world that this event really did happen. The first is a stereogram of Harry and his mother with the fish hanging down between them. The second, and far more popular, was the photograph of Harry alone with the fish hanging to his right. Titled “HARRY C. MORSE, the Little Trout Fisher,” hundreds of copies were sold within the first week alone. The story quickly spread to newspapers around the globe and Harry’s story would soon become a legend. He would carry the scars from that bite to his nose for the remainder of his life.
On September 4, 1873, the Yates County Chronicle wrote, “Such a thing as this was never heard of before in this quarter of the world, and we are aware needs to be well vouched for to be believed. Of its truth there is not a shadow of a doubt. Although a wonderful fish story, it is not fishy in any dubious sense.”
Harry Morse was a heroic steamboat captain, a sheep rancher, an author, and a successful theater owner, but he would forever be remembered for those few seconds when a fish took hold of his nose.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.