Seneca Falls owes its early development to a series of waterfalls dropping over 50 feet. The first gristmill was built here in 1795, and by the 1840s, the town supported dozens of water-powered factories. Many employed women worked 14-hour days for wages they had to turn over to their husbands. In 1840s America, women were not allowed to own money or property or to even serve as legal guardians of their own children.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her abolitionist husband Henry Stanton moved to Seneca Falls from Boston in 1847, a time when Seneca Falls was a major transportation hub and the Finger Lakes were a center for the abolitionist movement. Often home alone, caring for her children, Stanton felt isolated and overwhelmed by housework.
She also noticed the worse plight of her poorer neighbors: “Alas! alas!,” she wrote in her autobiography Eighty Years and More, “Who can measure the mountains of sorrow and suffering endured in unwelcome motherhood in the abodes of ignorance, poverty, and vice. . . .”
On July 13, 1848, Stanton shared her discontent with four friends; then and there the group decided to convene a discussion on the status of women. They set a date for six days thence and published announcements in the local papers. About 300 people—men and women—showed up, a Declaration of Sentiments was issued, and the women deemed the convention a success.
They were little prepared for the nationwide storm of outrage and ridicule that followed. Their lives, the town of Seneca Falls, and the nation would never be the same.
The Convention Days Celebration (800/732-1848, www.conventiondays.com), commemorating the first Women’s Rights Convention, takes place on the weekend closest to July 19–20. Featured are concerts, dances, speeches, historical tours, food, kids’ events, and a re-enactment of the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments.
Heritage Area Visitors Center
For a good general introduction to Seneca Falls, stop into this center (115 Fall St., 315/568-6894, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Sat., noon–4 p.m. Sun., free admission). The exhibits cover virtually every aspect of the town’s history, from its Iroquois beginnings and early factory days to its women’s history and ethnic heritage.
Seneca Falls is one of New York State’s Heritage Areas—loosely designated historic districts linked by a common theme. The Seneca Falls theme is reform movements, but the center pays at least equal attention to the town’s industrial past. Seneca Falls once held world fame for its knitting mills and pump factories, several of which still operate.
Don’t leave the center without learning about the destruction of the city’s once invaluable waterfalls. The falls were eliminated in 1915 to create the Cayuga-Seneca Canal and, by extension, Van Cleef Lake. The flooding destroyed more than 150 buildings, and today, many foundations are still visible beneath the lake’s clear waters.
Seneca Falls centers around Fall Street (Rtes. 5 and 20). Running parallel is the Seneca River and the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which links Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. At the eastern end of town is the artificially constructed Van Cleef Lake.
© Avalon Travel and Sascha Zuger from Moon New York State, 5th Edition