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u-NY-que: Letchworth State Park

This series of articles has been inactive for a couple years. We want to bring it back! This is the first of several "u-NY-que" essays that will be posted in the coming months. 

   It starts as a trickle of water flowing out of a spring near Gold, Pennsylvania. It joins several other small streams to emerge as the Genesee River before crossing the border into New York State. It’s not the Mississippi by any means. Often, you can wade across it. (I would recommend a canoe or a kayak, however). It passes through several villages in Allegany County – Wellsville, Belfast, Fillmore, etc. The Genesee River flows north. Yes, rivers can do that! North does NOT mean up.

   When the river reaches little Portageville in Wyoming County, there is a major change. It leaves a broad valley and emerges into a gorge. It has entered Letchworth State Park. Over thousands of years, the Genesee River has cut a path through rock layers over 350 million years old. There are three waterfalls, many rapids, and steep walls that give the park its nickname, “The Grand Canyon of the East.” It’s not a comparison that I like. No one would ever confuse the two parks, but Letchworth is impressive in its own right.

   There are actually three main sections to Letchworth State Park. In the southern part, you will find the three falls – Upper, Middle, and Lower. The gorge reaches its maximum depth here, around 550 feet. Then the river emerges into its middle section, with a much broader valley at the bottom. Few people see this, since it is not easily accessible from the main park road. Then, the river enters another gorge, known as the Highbanks. There is a large horseshoe-shaped curve with a thin tower of rock in the middle, called the Hogback. Near the northern boundary of the park is the Mount Morris Dam, designed for flood control. Then the Genesee flows out of Letchworth into a very broad valley. It continues its northward journey to Rochester, where there are three more waterfalls and a gorge that splits the city in two. Finally, the river ends its journey across New York State when it flows into Lake Ontario at Charlotte (pronounced “shar-LOT”).

   Why, you might ask, should we make such a big deal out of Letchworth State Park? It has waterfalls, but they are not Niagara. The gorge is deep, but by no means is it comparable to the canyons of the West. There are rapids, but they are safe enough for rafting, even by novices. It is the combination of all its features that makes the park so popular. It was even voted the most popular state park in 2017! It is an accessible park that can be enjoyed from your automobile, but there are trails that will take you far from the everyday tourists. And it’s green! Most of Letchworth State Park is covered by forests, a nice mixture of hardwoods and conifers. The maples, beech, and oaks change color in October. The park’s fall foliage show is not to be missed.

   The Genesee River has a very intriguing geologic history. The rocks of this part of New York are sedimentary, laid down in horizontal layers in a shallow sea during a period known as the Devonian. The deposits came from the erosion of an old mountain chain in New England. In these rocks are the fossils of ancient life forms – brachiopods, corals, and trilobites. There are also the remains of early fish. (No dinosaurs, however. They came later). New York eventually emerged from the sea, and erosion began steadily wearing the land down. One river took shaped, a “proto-Genesee” River. It, too, flowed north, but it had a different path, a few miles to the east, where Nunda and Mt. Morris are found today.

   Starting around 2,000,000 years ago, a change in the Earth’s climate launched the planet into the Ice Ages. Huge glaciers formed in northern Canada, and spread southward, covering almost all of New York. These ice invasions profoundly changed the character of the landscape. River valleys were deepened and widened. Geologists call them “glacial troughs.” When the glaciers finally left the Northeast (around 10,000 years ago), rivers reestablished themselves in the troughs, including the Genesee. However, there were barriers. Near Portageville, at the south end of Letchworth, the river’s route into its old valley was blocked. So, the Genesee cut a new route through the deep layers of Devonian rock. The gorge and the waterfalls are only thousands of years old, babies in geologic time. When the river reached Mt. Morris, it was able to return to the preglacial path, so it is a much more placid river north of the park.

   The human history of this region is equally fascinating. After the glaciers retreated, Native peoples settled along the Genesee River. The dominant nation was the Seneca. They formed a confederacy with four other nations, known as the Haudenosaunee (a.k.a. Iroquois). The Seneca were agricultural people who thrived in the fertile Genesee Valley. Europeans arrived on the scene in the seventeenth century. Both the French in Canada and the British along the Atlantic seaboard were driven by the fur trade. Conflicts exploded into warfare between the European superpowers, and the Native Americans were forced to take sides. The Haudenosaunee were instrumental in the ultimate British victory over the French. During the warfare, a young white girl was captured in Pennsylvania, Mary Jemison. She was adopted by the Seneca and renamed as Dehgewanus.

   In 1776, the colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. New York saw more battles than any other state. The Seneca fought with the British, so, when the war ended, they lost much of their land. Mary Jemison, however, was given a large tract of land at the Gardeau Flats, in what is now the middle section of Letchworth Park. She had many opportunities to return to the Euro-American culture, but always considered herself to be Seneca. Meanwhile, settlers began arriving in western New York. The Genesee Valley was prized due to its fertile land. This accelerated after the completion of the Erie Canal. Forests were cleared, and towns sprang up in the future park – Gibsonville and St. Helena. There were mills built next to the Middle Falls. The Genesee Valley Canal was constructed, and it hug the cliffs of the gorge. A railroad trestle was built across the gorge near Portageville. It was from that viewpoint that a young man named William Pryor Letchworth first saw the splendor of the Genesee gorge.

   Letchworth was a very successful business man from Buffalo. When he decided to retire, he purchased land along the river and built his home, Glen Iris, next to the Middle Falls. Over time he obtained more land, and began a project of reforestation. )It is important to note that this land was no longer virgin wilderness. The forests of the park are secondary growth). We should view Mr. Letchworth as one of the pioneers of the conservation movement of the latter 19th century. He also had Mary Jemison’s body brought to his property, and preserved the Seneca Council House.

   As the twentieth century began, Letchworth was concerned that the Falls were under threat again (a dam was proposed nearby). He deeded his property to the state, with the provision that it would be a park protected by law. In 1960, Letchworth State Park was born, centered around the three waterfalls. Over time, the state was able to purchase land all the way to Mt. Morris. The settlements became ghost towns, and there a few remnants left of them. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps had two camps in the park, and many of the structures (bridges, walls, buildings) that they built are still functioning today.

   Today, in the 21st century, Letchworth State Park stands as a testament to the vision of its founding father. When you visit, you want to see the three waterfalls and view the gorge from many easily accessible vantage points. You can enjoy a meal at the Glen Iris Inn (and stay overnight). The park’s museum and the new Humphrey Nature Center and worth visiting, too. But don’t rush the visit. Get out on a trail to get away from the tourists, interested only in taking selfies. For example, the east side of the river has a trail that follows the route of the old canal. Exploration will enhance your stay in America’s Favorite State Park.

This is a collage of some of our favorite view of Letchworth State Park. Top row: High Falls of the Genesee, Lower Falls and the Flume, view of the Great Gorge, Statue of CCC worker. Middle row: Portrait of William P. Letchworth, porch of Glen Iris Inn, Humphrey Nature Center and Butterfly Garden, historic photo of the Genesee Valley Canal. Bottom row: Statue of Mary Jemison, Middle Falls illuminated at night, sign proclaiming America's #1 State Park, fog over the falls as seen from Inspiration Point. 

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Geographic question! There are three waterfalls in Rochester. They fueled the young city’s early economy, giving Rochester the nickname, the Flour City. The falls in Letchworth are bigger. Why didn’t a city spring up here? (Answer will be provided soon).