Letchworth State Park
by R∴W∴ Richard Kessler | Nov 9, 2016
Letchworth State Park is located in Livingston and Wyoming counties. The park is roughly 17 miles (27 km) long, following the course of the Genesee River as it flows north through a deep gorge and over several large waterfalls. It is located 35 miles southwest of Rochester and 60 miles southeast of Buffalo, and spans portions of the Livingston County towns of Leicester, Mount Morris, and Portage.
In 1859, industrialist William Pryor Letchworth (1823-1910) began purchasing land near the Middle Falls, and started construction of his Glen Iris Estate. In 1906 he bequeathed the 1,000-acre estate to New York, which soon after became the core of the newly created Letchworth State Park. The park prominently features three large waterfalls — the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls — on the Genesee River, which flows within a deep gorge that winds through the park. The rock walls of the gorge, which rise up to 550 feet in places, prompted the area’s reputation as the “Grand Canyon of the East”.
The territory of the park was long part of the homeland of the Seneca people, who were largely forced out after the Revolutionary War, as they had been allies of the defeated British. The Seneca called the land around this canyon Sehgahunda, the “Vale of the three falls” the Middle Falls (Ska-ga-dee) was believed to be so wondrous it made the sun stop at midday.
Having first viewed the gorge that was to become the park from the nearby railroad trestle in 1858, William Letchworth purchased an initial 190 acres of land near the Portage Falls in 1859 and subsequently began work on his Glen Iris Estate. By purchasing the land, Letchworth successfully halted plans to install a hydroelectric dam in the gorge that would have altered the flow of the river and diminished flows over the large waterfalls. He enlisted the services of the famous landscape artist William Webster to design winding paths and roadways, rustic bridges, glistening “lakes” and a sparkling fountain.
Letchworth spent the following years expanding his land holdings in the area. In 1906, Letchworth granted the Glen Iris and the surrounding 1,000 acres to the State of New York as a public park, intending to deter commercial businesses from damaging the fragile nature of the gorge and surrounding woodlands. He further required that the land be managed by the American Scenic and Historic Society. A plaque near the gorge contains a dedication written by Letchworth’s niece in 1910, and reads:
“God wrought for us this scene beyond compare
But one man’s loving hand protected it
And gave to his fellow man to share.”
George Kunz, president of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society of New York, was an enthusiastic supporter of the park. Dr. Kunz helped with the organization and preservation of the library of William Letchworth when the Society took over the management of his estate in New York. In 1907, it was stated, “The library embraces one of the finest, if not the finest, private collection of book on charities in the country. It contains also a good collection of local histories, books about Indians, and a miscellaneous assortment of standard literature. His mementos – personal gifts and testimonials – are extremely interesting. It is most desirable that these should be kept together and adequately preserved in a new library building, as part of the monument to the generous donor of Letchworth Park.”
Further, Dr. Kunz helped with the 1910 memorial to Mary Jemison, “The White Indian of the Genesee”, who is buried at “the ancient Indian Council House of the Senecas” located on the grounds of the Letchworth Park. Letchworth, having earned “life-residence” at the Glen Iris, died there on December 1, 1910. M He was buried in nearby Buffalo at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
The park was the beneficiary of numerous enhancements enacted by workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps, who inhabited a large camp at the park during the 1930s. Improvements enacted by the CCC included the construction of cabins, overlooks, bridges and trails.
Found at the north end of the park, the construction of the Mount Morris Dam began in 1948 by the United States Army Corps of Engineers under the Flood Control Act of 1944. The dam was completed in 1954. The Genesee River became wider and deeper immediately upstream as a result, but areas downstream were spared yearly flooding which destroyed valuable farmland.
The Mount Morris Dam is the largest flood control device of its kind (concrete gravity) east of the Mississippi River. It is 1,028 feet in length and rises 230 feet from the riverbed. The dam proved its worth during the Flood of 1972, saving thousands of acres of farmland and the city of Rochester from flooding.
The park also contains Inspiration Falls, a ribbon waterfall that is located on a tributary creek a short distance east of the Inspiration Point Overlook, 0.4 miles west of the park visitor center. It has a total drop of 350 feet. While impressive in its height, it is seasonal and often appears as only a water stain on the cliff. The falls faces to the south-southwest and has a crest that is one foot wide.