Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park
View from the Portage Viaduct in July
|Location||Livingston / Wyoming counties, New York, USA|
|Architect||Letchworth, William P.; et al.; Bryant Fleming|
|Architectural style||Greek Revival, Italianate|
|NRHP Reference #||03000718|
|Added to NRHP||November 4, 2005|
Letchworth State Park is a New York state park located 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Rochester and 60 miles (95 km) southeast of Buffalo in Livingston (towns of Leicester, Mount Morris, and Portage) and Wyoming (towns of Castile and Genesee Falls) counties. The park is roughly 17 miles (24 km) long, covering 14,350 acres (58 km2) of land along the Genesee River.
Within the park, there are three large waterfalls on the Genesee River and as many as fifty waterfalls found on tributaries that flow into it; the deep gorge formed by the river, with rock walls rising up to 550 feet (170 m) in places and which narrow to 400 feet (120 m) across above the middle of the three falls, prompted the area's reputation as the "Grand Canyon of the East".
In 1856 William Pryor Letchworth (1823-1910), an industrialist, bought 1,000-acre (4 km2) of this territory, and constructed his Glen Iris Estate. In 1906 he bequeathed the estate to New York, which later organized the park of which it is part. Park entrances near the towns of Mount Morris, Perry, Castile and Portageville. A modern, well-maintained two- or three-lane road follows the west side of the gorge, allowing many scenic viewpoints for the geologic features.
The three major waterfalls — called the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls — are located in Portage Canyon, the southern section of the park. The Seneca called the land around this canyon "Seh-ga-hun-da", 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.
The only trail bridging the Genesee River across Portage Canyon crosses a stone bridge just below the Lower Falls. The Middle Falls is the highest, and the Upper Falls has an active railroad trestle crossing immediately above it, providing an even higher vantage immediately above the falls.
The highest waterfall in New York is located in the park. Known as Inspiration Falls, it is a spectacular ribbon waterfall that is located on a tributary creek a short distance east of the Inspiration Point Overlook, 0.4 mile (640 m) west of the park visitor center. It has a total drop of 350 feet (107 m). 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 (300 mm) wide. (215-foot (66m) Taughannock Falls, 100 miles east of Letchworth in Trumansburg, is generally recognized as the highest waterfall in New York, as well as in the entire Northeastern United States).
The bedrock exposed in the gorge is Devonian in age, mostly shales, with some layers of limestone and sandstone. The rock was laid down in an ancient inland sea, and it holds many marine fossils. The landform of the section of the Genesee River valley represented by the park is geologically very young, caused by a diversion of the river from the old valley by the last continental glacier, which forced the river to cut a new section of valley.
In 2007, Letchworth was named one of the top 100 campgrounds in the nation.
Features and activities
The historic, restored Glen Iris Inn, Letchworth's former residence adapted for use as a hotel, located on the top of a cliff overlooking Middle Falls, offers in-season meals and overnight accommodations. It is open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Other features of the park include pavilions, picnic tables, a playground, hiking trails, two large swimming pools, cabins, campsites for tents, trailer sites with dumping stations, and horse-riding trails.
The park is the present-day site of the grave of Mary Jemison, a Scots-Irish immigrant pioneer who was captured at the age of 12 from central Pennsylvania by a French and Shawnee raiding party during the French and Indian War. She was soon adopted by a family of Seneca people, and eventually lived in western New York on the Genesee River. She had become thoroughly assimilated and chose to live with the Seneca for the rest of her long life, having a total of seven children by two successive husbands. Her remains were exhumed from the Buffalo Creek Reservation and reinterred on the grounds of a Seneca Council House, relocated to the site by Letchworth and rededicated in 1872.
Activities within the park include hiking, biking, fishing, geocaching, hunting (wild turkey and deer when in season); in winter, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, whitewater rafting and kayaking, snow tubing, and horse-drawn sleighs. There is also hot air ballooning, weather permitting.
William Pryor Letchworth Museum
The William Pryor Letchworth Museum was founded with the collections of the park's founder. The exhibits now focus on the natural and cultural history of the Genesee Valley, and include archaeological artifacts of the Seneca nation, and displays on Mary Jemison, early pioneers, the Genesee Valley Canal and William Pryor Letchworth.
William Letchworth first purchased the land near the Portage Falls in 1859 and began work on the Glen Iris Inn. 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.
In 1906, Letchworth offered the Glen Iris and his 1,000 acres (4 km2) to the State of New York as a public park. Letchworth State Park was born in 1907. Letchworth made the arrangement to deter commercial businesses from damaging the fragile nature of the gorge and the surrounding woodlands.
As president of the Society, Dr. Kunz also helped with the organization and preservation of the library of William Pryor Letchworth when the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society took over the management of his estate in New York. "If suitable provision can be made for their care, Mr. Letchworth will probably add to his gift his personal library and mementos. 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. Dr. Kunz always was fascinated by Native Americans, and contributed much to their memorials in New York.
Flood of 1972
One of the greatest natural disasters in Genesee Valley history took place in June 1972. Hurricane Agnes came ashore on the Florida Panhandle on June 19, and moved north through Georgia and the Carolinas. The hurricane then went out to sea, recharged its energy and hit the Southern Tier of New York State on June 22.
Although Agnes was only a category 1 hurricane, it soon stalled over North Central Pennsylvania. Caught up in a slow moving low pressure system, the storm drifted slowly northeastward into New York State. The area, having already been soaked by showers the week before, could not absorb the six to twelve inch (305 mm) rainfall that fell over Pennsylvania and New York. Known locally as "The Flood of '72", the event would have a tremendous impact on Western New York and Letchworth Park.
Although the Genesee River and Letchworth Park was not hit as hard as the Susquehanna Valley and other areas, the impact of the Flood would be felt in the Park for many years. The Lower Falls Bridge and trail to Sugar Loaf did not officially reopen for several years. To this day, visitors can still see some of the natural "scars" left by the flood waters over 40 years ago.
Video footage of the devastation can be viewed upon request at the William Pryor Letchworth Museum, located near the Glen Iris Inn. There is also a path that leads behind the Museum and up to the Council Grounds and Mary Jemison's grave site.
Old Portageville Bridge Fire
The Erie Railroad Company built a wooden trestle bridge over the Genesee River just above the Upper Falls. Construction started on July 1, 1851 and opened August 16, 1852. At the time, it was the longest and tallest wooden bridge in the world.
Current Portageville Viaduct
Immediately after the Portage Bridge fire, officials of the Erie Railroad Company moved quickly to replace the wooden bridge with an iron and steel design. Construction began June 8, 1875 and opened for traffic July 31, 1875. The bridge is 820 feet (250 m) long and 240 feet (73 m) high. It is still in use today.
Popular local rumor contends that the Portage Bridge was used for a famous scene in the 1986 movie Stand By Me. In reality, the bridge used in the movie is the Lake Britton Bridge in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park near Redding, California.
New Portageville Viaduct
On November 29, 2011, Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) announced plans to demolish the Portage River bridge and build a new one approximately 75 feet (23 m) south of the current Portage Bridge. NS had offered the old bridge to the State of New York, but the State declined it.
As of April 2014, the current status of the new bridge is still in the development stages. However, an arched design has been approved and construction of the new bridge is expected to begin in the Autumn of 2014. Completion is estimated for Spring of 2016.
Mt. Morris Dam
Found at the North end of the park, the construction of the Mount Morris Dam was begun in 1948 by the US Army Corps of Engineers under the Flood Control Act of 1944. The dam was completed in 1954. The Genesee River became wider and deeper upstream for a ways as a result, but areas downstream were spared yearly flooding which destroyed valuable farmland.
The Mt. Morris Dam is the largest flood control device of its kind (concrete gravity) east of the Mississippi River. It is 1,028 feet (313 m) in length and rises 230 feet (70 m) from the riverbed. The dam proved its worth during the Flood of 1972, saving thousands of acres of farmland from flooding.
Middle Falls video
- "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13.
- New York conservationist left behind mini-Grand Canyon, an August 2006 AP article via CNN
- "Official New York State Parks website". Nysparks.state.ny.us. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- A Valley Called Sehgahunda, from the Letchworth Park History website
- "New York State Parks :: Letchworth State Park". Nysparks.state.ny.us. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Letchworth State Park Wins Readers' Choice". 10Best (USA Today). Retrieved 2 April 2015.
- The Council Grounds, from the Letchworth Park History website
- American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. 12th Annual Report, 1907 pages 192-193. See: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/museum.html, accessed on July 9, 2002.
- Seaver, James Everett. 1918. The Life of Mary Jemison: The White Indian of the Genesee. NY: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. Pages 238-239.
- Kunz, George F. “The Educational Possibilities of Letchworth Park.” Albany. 1907. Pages 185-194. Author’s preprint. Also: “The Educational Possibilities of Letchworth Park.” (Read before N.Y. Acad. Sci.) 12th Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society. Appendix C, pages 185-194.
- “Leaders in the Movement to Create the Letchworth Park Arboretum: Dr. George F. Kunz Portrait.” American Review of Reviews. Volume 45, page 148. February, 1912.
- "A Glimpse of". Letchworthparkhistory.com. 1910-12-01. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "A Glimpse of". Letchworthparkhistory.com. 1977-09-18. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Burning of the Portage Bridge". Letchworthparkhistory.com. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "A Walker Label 1875". Letchworthparkhistory.com. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Stand By Me". Filminamerica.com. Retrieved 2013-09-15.
- "Norfolk Southern wants to demolish Portageville Bridge". Syracuse.com. November 28, 2011. Retrieved 8 April 2012.
- "Portageville Bridge Project". Retrieved 31 March 2014.
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- Letchworth State Park - official state site
- Letchworth State Park - friends site
- William Pryor Letchworth Museum - details
- William Pryor Letchworth Museum - Exploring Letchworth Park History
- Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) No. NY-54, "Erie Railway, Buffalo Division, Bridge 361.66" (Portage Viaduct)