Harry Morse: More than Keuka Lake's most famous fish story

Rich MacAlpine
Seven-year-old Harry Morse with the 8-pound trout he caught with his nose while fishing with his mother on Brandy Bay in 1873.

KEUKA LAKE — This is arguably the most famous photograph in the history of Yates County —- 7-year-old Harry Morse, who caught that 8-pound trout with his nose while he and his mother were fishing on Brandy Bay in 1873. Looking over the side of the rowboat into the weeds —  a splash — pain — he jerked his head back and the trout landed on the floor of the boat. His mother quickly clubbed it, grabbed Harry and the fish, and made for their buggy. They went to the photographic studio of Dr. Mills and had that photo taken and another with her in it. The photo of Harry and the fish put Penn Yan and Keuka Lake on the map as it was widely distributed through this country and even Europe. However, there was much more to him than catching an 8-pound trout with his nose. He grew to be “a Renaissance man.”

For starters, his parents had an interesting story. His father, Myron Morse, was from Pulteney and was apprenticing to be a shoe maker. He came to Penn Yan to be a journeyman with a Reuben Corey who had a shoe-making business in town. Myron eventually fell in love with the boss’s daughter, Florence Ione. In July of 1862, Myron enlisted as a Private in the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry. He fought with that regiment at Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg. He became ill and was sent to a hospital in Washington in October of 1863. He recovered, but stayed on duty at the hospital until the end of the war. Immediately upon being mustered out of the army, he married Ione Corey at the home of a relative of hers in DC. Harry was born in Penn Yan two years later.

The 1870 Federal Census found the young family in New York City — living in the tenement district on the Lower East Side. Myron had some sort of a job down there. The tenements weren’t the healthiest places to live back then, and once again Myron become ill and returned to Penn Yan. He died there in August of 1872. Ione didn’t stay a widow for long, as she married Charles Morgan in 1875. Morgan had a hardware business in Penn Yan and worked closely with William Wise, who handled most of the grape shipping in Penn Yan, transferring the grapes from the steamboats to the railroads.

Whether it was through his stepfather’s connections or his uncle Oscar Morse, who was Myron’s brother and captained several of the large steamboats on Lake Keuka, young Harry went to work on the steamers as a deckhand handling the lines at docks. As he grew older, he qualified to be a pilot on the large steamers and then a captain.

There were “steamboat wars” on Lake Keuka back in those days — cutthroat competition between companies for dominance. Entering into that in 1890 was Charles Drake, who was backed by New York City financial interests. He started by buying the railroad into Hammondsport and then he used his foothold on the lake to buy out the older of the two steamboat companies. Then there were lawsuits over docking rights and price-cutting — fare for a day on the boats went from a dollar to a dime. In 1892, there were rumors that Drake was going to build a state-of-the-art steamer that would be the biggest and fastest on the lake. The rumor alone caused the competing company to sell out to Drake. He then had the monopoly he sought.

The steamboat Mary Bell on Keuka Lake.

It was more than a rumor. The boat he had built in Hammondsport was named after Drake’s wife — Mary Bell. The boat had a steel hull, twin screws, was 150 feet long and could do 20 miles per hour. Drake named Harry Morse as the Mary Bell’s first captain. In the few years he served in that capacity, Harry became very popular with the public for his skill in handling the boat and his outgoing personality. In the mid-1890s, Harry had a falling out with Mr. Drake and resigned as captain of the Mary Bell. Drake favored Hammondsport interests since he owned the Bath & Hammondsport Railway and did not really work with the train schedules and businessmen of Penn Yan. The issue came to a head when some Penn Yan businessmen launched their own steamboat, Cricket, and competed with what had been Drake’s monopoly. Harry had good friends who were backing the new Cricket.

Harry worked as the engineer on the Halsey for a while, but became disgusted with the cutthroat tactics being used on the lake. He heard the call of the West. A friend of his operated a large sheep ranch out in central Montana and offered Harry a partnership. It was a large and profitable operation — 16,000 acres and 15,000 head of sheep. In 1901, Harry and his mother (who had been widowed a second time) went 2,000 miles west by train to live in central Montana.

The years he spent in the West gave him an opportunity to travel to some of the cities that were developing out there. His time out there was well spent, but after several years he missed Penn Yan and his friends “back east.” He sold his interest in the sheep ranch and returned home with his mother.

Once back in Penn Yan, he went to work on the boats for a while, piloting the Steuben. Charles Drake had sold all his steamboat interests to the Erie Railroad in 1904, so the new ownership suited Harry — for a while. In his time visiting cities in the West, he became interested in the new moving picture shows that were being introduced in the opera houses out there. In 1915, he signed a lease to run the Sampson Theater in Penn Yan. For five years he enjoyed booking moving picture shows, vaudeville shows, live dramas and reviews, and community events.

Leasing was fine, but owning was better. In 1920 the old Shearman House on Elm Street was up for sale. It was owned by the Odd Fellows who had thoughts of turning it into their lodge, but it didn’t suit their needs. Harry bought it, using the money he had made from the sale of his share of the sheep ranch in Montana. He hired a contractor and basically kept the façade of the building facing the street and completely redid the main part of the building and turned it into a beautiful movie theater which he named the Elmwood Theater. It could seat over 800 people and for 50 years, it was the only movie theater in Yates County.

The Elmwood Theatre in Penn Yan in the 1940s. The Village Hall stands on the site today.

The first movie shown there in May of 1921 was “Oh, Lady Lady!” starring the lovely and talented Bebe Daniels. It was a silent movie, of course, and Harry hired an orchestra to provide a background of music. Eight years later he invested in the sound equipment necessary to show “talkies.” In the spring of 1929, the first talking movie was shown — “Broadway Melody,” a musical revue. The house was full and people were awestruck to hear voices coming from the actors and actresses on the screen. Over the years Harry ran it, the Elmwood gained the reputation of being a top-notch entertainment venue — movies, vaudeville acts, concerts, lectures, live drama and community events.

In January of 1936, Harry was at the theater and didn’t feel well. He went to his home on Keuka Street, laid down on a couch, and died of a massive heart attack. He was 69 years old. His obituary in the local papers mentioned his years as owner of the Elmwood Theater and also that “he was one of the best pilots to guide a steamboat on picturesque Lake Keuka.” There was a brief mention of his eight years in the West and an extremely brief mention that he had written a book.

Yes, Harry Morse was an author. In the years before World War I, he wrote children’s stories that were published in the Yates County Chronicle. The peak of his writing career was in 1914 when he had published a small book, "To Lovers And Others." It was so popular that a second printing was needed in 1916. One reviewer wrote of it, “Every civilization has been developed by the power of love and there is no one but has a thought that seems to him divine about love and friendship. In this volume of essays my friend, Harry Morse, has indeed given to literature thoughts which act as a ray of light to those who would find the path to wisdom, that they may walk within.” (Yates County Chronicle, May 27, 1914)

The essays were all about the power of love, different ways in which love is shown, and different types of love. Love came late to Harry. In 1920, he married Canadian-born Janet Wimbles. The marriage lasted 16 years and produced a daughter, Rosemary, born in 1922. Rosemary eventually married Perry Schofield, the only son of Admiral Frank Schofield.

There were a few things about Harry Morse that were left out of his obituary. He was an inventor. In the days that he was piloting steamboats on Lake Keuka, he watched private steam yachts out on the lake and thought of ways to improve them. In 1907 he received a patent for a canopy cover which was sold to a yacht manufacturer. He also received a patent on a splash guard to go on the bow of the boat to prevent waves from splashing up on the riders.

Also left out was the fact that Harry was an accomplished musician. He was described in local newspapers as “a world-class flutist” and performed in concerts and churches throughout the community. He also played the cornet in the Penn Yan Cornet Band. That band played concerts in Penn Yan and also played on the steamboats entertaining the passengers on weekends and holidays. They also performed at the resorts on the lake - the Ark, Keuka Hotel, and the Grove Springs Hotel.

So to recap: steamboat pilot ... Montana sheep rancher ... movie theater pioneer ... inventor ... successful author ... accomplished musician ... a Renaissance man. Yet the only photograph that we have where he is positively identified is the one where he was with his fish at the age of seven.

For 20 years, Rich MacAlpine, a retired history teacher, was a volunteer for the Yates County History Center. He was a prolific researcher and writer on Yates County history resulting in over 150 articles written for the History Center’s publication, Yates Past. He also had published six books related to the county’s history.