CONESUS – The following is an article prepared by Avon resident and local history buff Vince DiSalvo for conesuslake.org, a community information website created by Rick Osiecki about Conesus Lake.
The article is based on research by Vince and his wife Lore, and shared with the GeneseeSun.com:
As the large steamboat makes its approach to the rather lengthy Long Point dock, the distinct directions of its captain can be heard between the blasts of the ship’s whistle. The crew of the ‘McPherson’ take their assigned positions, ready to perform their duties as Captain William Jeremiah Keays steers his pride and joy to a smooth stop along side the dock. It’s the summer of 1883, and Captain Keays is in his first year as the captain of the largest steamboat on Conesus Lake. At a length of 120 feet, a width of 22 feet and standing a good 30 feet above the waterline, the ‘McPherson’ certainly was a sight to behold from any perspective. Having three full decks, it was not uncommon to see as many as 1,000 people, from as far away as Buffalo and New York City, board her at the Lakeville dock for the vacation points that dotted the shoreline of this pristine body of water.
At the age of 54, William would probably have viewed his position as Captain on the ‘McPherson’ as the best years of his life. Born January 24, 1829 in Bytown, Canada, the youngest of three children of Irish immigrants James and Eliza Keays, the events in his life that brought him to Conesus Lake in 1882, produced a man of very unique character. In William’s first three years of life, his father struggled to provide for his family often having no income. Then in 1832, James Keays died, leaving his wife and three children quite poor except for four hundred acres he had acquired from the Canadian Government through a purchase and a grant. The land was left to his two sons, John and William, under the conditions it was to be used to support his wife and the family until William’s mother remarried. For five years the family scratched out an existence by cultivating just 6 of the 400 acres.
Then in 1837, death came to the Keays family once again when William’s older brother, John, died. But later in that same year, life for William, his sister and his mother took a providential turn when his mother married a wealthy widower with six children. Upon the event of his 18th birthday in 1867, William was declared clear ownership of the 400 acres his father had left to him and his brother. It was about this time that William’s mother provided the means for her only son to attend “teachers” college in Toronto. While at this school, he became very interested in the future he saw in the railroads that were coming to Canada. Pursuing his desires in the realm of land speculation around where railroads might go, some time around 1853 William sold his land interests and moved to Goderich, Canada West, a town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron.
In 1855 he married Isabella Beattie of St. Andrews, Lower Canada and in 1857 they had their first child. But the child died before the year was out. In 1859, a son was born and named after William’s father. Although he managed to own part of a foundry, the Huron Times Newspaper and all of 100 acres in Goderich, when it became apparent the scale of railroad presence was not on the level he had hoped, he sold his holdings and moved to Buffalo in January of 1861, taking a position of agent for the Great Western Railroad. When all seemed to be going well for William, an unimaginable series of tragedies fell upon him.
In October of that year, his son of 2 years died. Just two months later, his wife gives birth to a daughter but becomes ill from the birth and dies just one month later. At this point, William has now lost his wife and two of his three children. One can only imagine what affect this was having on this young man at the age of 32. He was now left with the responsibility of a new baby and a new job in a city he had just moved to. When his sister offered to raise his daughter, he returned to Augusta, Canada to deliver the child and spent several days there visiting his mother before returning to his job. This was in February of 1862. But as if William had not experience enough tragedy, his mother fell ill and died just two months later. Having lost the four people that meant most to him in the span of just 15 months, it would not be hard to imagine he was probably at his wits end. With no family and no roots, in June of 1863, William joined the United States Union Army’s 16th New York Calvary. By this time, our country was fully engulfed in the war between the states and it might be wondered if this was William’s way of dealing with his loses.
Because of his education and his ability to direct others, he was immediately made a Lieutenant and an Acting Captain. With absolutely no military experience or training, this would prove to be an unfortunate decision on the part of the Army. While his company was assigned to the Washington area in a guard-duty role, an evening attack on his camp resulted in the death, capture or wounding of 20 Union solders. The army’s investigation determined that William had placed his sentries too close to the camp which resulted in insufficient time to warn of the attack. When a formal investigation found him responsible, he was dismissed from the Army on October 13, 1863. But, in December of that same year, he was reinstated at the request of his commanding officer and returned to the position of Lieutenant and acting Captain of the Company B 16th New York Calvary. Being now experienced in having to adjust to unforeseen challenges, William quickly readjusted to his assignments and the responsibilities they carried.
When President Abraham Lincoln was shot in the Ford Theater in Washington on April 15, 1865, it was a platoon under William’s command that tracked down and killed his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. And, when Mary Surratt and the other conspirators were rounded up and sentenced to death, William was Captain of the Guard the day of their hanging. On June 23rd, 1865 Lieutenant William J. Keays was promoted to the permanent rank of Captain and reassigned to the 3rd New York Provisional Calvary.
It may not be a stretch of the imagination to think that, at some point in his military career, William’s may have made the acquaintance of a fellow officer who would some 17 years later offer him a job on Conesus Lake. Upon leaving the Army in September of 1865, he returned to Canada. He settled in Sarnia, Ontario which had become the railroad town William had hoped Goderich would have become. From 1865 to 1881, William put his education and military experience to work and was successful in several endeavors. Included in these was his formation of a calvary unit that fought against Fenian raiders in St. Thomas, Canada. He married the daughter of a barrister he had known in Goderich before he left that town for Buffalo in 1861. When the Grand Trunk Railway was created by merging the Toronto, Sarnia, Buffalo and Windsor railways in 1875, William became an agent for this railway in Sarnia. Then in 1881 he was offered a position with the railway in Buffalo and moved his wife and three children to Eden, just outside of Buffalo.
William’s interest in steamboats appears to have developed in Sarnia. As records show, he was greatly responsible for the idea of a steamboat line out of Sarnia to the Northwest and held a license as a special pilot on Lake Erie. So, when a former fellow Union Officer, Colonel James A. McPherson of Avon, New York, offered him the opportunity to Captain the ‘McPherson’ on Conesus Lake, William could not refuse. Although some what short in stature, Captain Keays was unmistakeable as the person in charge of the ‘McPherson.’ Proudly displayed on his Captain’s uniform was his Grand Army Badge and the special medal that always lead to questions that offered Captain Keays the opportunity to tell his story, once again. For his part in successfully hunting down John Wilkes Booth, William was presented the star shaped medal by Congress which was inscribed with the letters L. A. signifying “Lincoln Avengers”.
Records show he held his position of Captain of the ‘McPherson’ at least until 1886 but his health had started to deteriorate around this time and it is not known if he piloted the steamer after that date. The ‘McPherson,’ renamed ‘Starrucca,’ was destroyed by fire on December 6, 1902.
Captain William Jeremiah Keays died in Sisters’ Hospital in Buffalo, April 24, 1914.