A scenic gorge, an abundance of waterfalls, and a story of preservation attract visitors to this park in the western part of the state.
By Sandra Reed, F314921
Amid small villages and farmland in western New York, the Genesee River rolls northward on its way to Lake Ontario. The journey it takes is more dramatic than most, as it spills over 24 waterfalls while passing through Letchworth State Park.
The park, approximately 54 miles east of Buffalo, will make a fine stop for FMCA members on their way to or from the association’s 70th International Convention at the Erie County Fairgrounds this July. Letchworth is 15 miles long and encompasses more than 14,000 acres.
This park has been called “Grand Canyon of the East,” a nickname it richly deserves. The Genesee River has actually carved out three main canyons in this spot. The first, Portage Canyon, averages 1,000 feet wide and 200 feet deep. The second, Great Bend Gorge, averages 1,600 feet wide and is up to 550 feet deep. The third, Mount Morris Canyon, averages 2,000 feet wide and 300 feet deep. Letchworth’s great canyons and scenic waterfalls were created following the last ice age, approximately 12,000 years ago. More recent stories at Letchworth tell about the people who have made this a valuable historic site.
History And Preservation
Inside the park’s boundaries are significant reminders of this area’s past. One is the Glen Iris Inn, now a restaurant and inn. From 1859 to 1910 this was the country home of William Pryor Letchworth. The house formed the beginning of what was to become Letchworth State Park.
Letchworth was a prominent businessman from Buffalo. He purchased the home in 1859 and gradually acquired land along the Genesee River that included the three major waterfalls. This began a long series of improvements to the home and to the land itself. To ensure that this area would be preserved, he later deeded his entire 1,000-acre estate to New York for use as a park.
Letchworth was determined to preserve not only this land but the history of the Genesee Valley as well. He had an extensive collection of American Indian artifacts, such as stone tools and pottery. He also obtained a mastodon skull that was found in the nearby village of Pike. This is a wonderful relic of the glacial period in western New York, as these magnificent elephant-like animals became extinct approximately 10,000 years ago.
In 1912, two years after Letchworth’s death, work began on a museum to house his collection. Over the years additional Indian and pioneer artifacts have been added to the exhibits, which now include a model of the wooden Portage High Bridge that once spanned the Upper Falls, as well as some geologic history of the area. The museum is located across the road from the Glen Iris Inn and has its own parking lot.
A main feature at the museum is an exhibit describing the men who worked at the Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Letchworth. The CCC was established in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help end the Great Depression by putting men back to work. Four camps of men lived and worked in the park; they constructed many of the stone bridges and other masonry still seen there today. Perhaps one of their biggest challenges was building the stone bridge across the gorge in the area of the Lower Falls. The men were paid $30 per month, $25 of which was sent home to their families before they ever saw it. However, they didn’t need much for themselves, since their food, lodging, and clothing were all provided by the CCC.
To many visitors, the most intriguing historical aspects of the park are the buildings and memorial at the Council Grounds, situated on a hill above the museum. You can walk up a trail to reach them, or you can drive. If you drive, be advised that the road is steep and quite narrow for motorhome traffic.
The Council Grounds area includes the Caneadea Council House of the Seneca Indians; the Nancy Jemison cabin; and the Mary Jemison Memorial. Mary Jemison, “the White Woman of the Genesee,” as she came to be called, lived what to most would seem a brave and courageous life. She was born aboard a ship in 1743 as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean; her family had left Ireland to begin a new life in America. Once they arrived, they settled in eastern Pennsylvania. When Mary was 15, during the French and Indian Wars, the rest of her family was captured and later killed by a raiding Indian party. She alone was spared and later adopted by the Indians, who gave her the Indian name “Deh-ge-wa-nus,” which meant “The Two Falling Voices.” That began her life among the Indians, which continued until her death.
Mary arrived in the Letchworth area sometime before the Revolutionary War with her Indian husband and their children. Eventually a treaty with the Seneca Indians gave Mary her own reservation. After the three of her sons died, she moved again, this time to an area near Castile, New York, where she was interviewed by author James Seaver, M.D. The resulting biography, titled A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison, has been reprinted many times and is available at Letchworth State Park.
Mary’s final years were spent on the Buffalo Creek Reservation, where she died in 1833. In 1874 her grave near the city of Buffalo was threatened by expansion plans, so William Letchworth had her remains re-interred at the park. A statue of Mary now rests above her gravesite on the Council Grounds. The Nancy Jemison Cabin at the Council Grounds was a log cabin she built for her daughter Nancy. Letchworth preserved all of this to honor the history of the land.
Off To See The Falls
Letchworth claims 24 total waterfalls, but the three largest are the most noteworthy. If your time in the park is short, you will want to be sure to see the Upper, Middle, and Lower Falls, which can be viewed from the main road. If you enjoy stretching your legs and hiking a bit, you will want to explore some of the other trails at Letchworth, which lead to many of the park’s 21 other waterfalls.
Parking for cars or motorhomes is available near the three main waterfalls. There is no restriction to motorhome traffic within the park, and most roads are easily traveled.
The three main falls can be viewed in any order; that will depend on which of the six park entrances you use. Let’s begin our exploration with the Upper Falls, located near the Portageville entrance. You will probably encounter photographers at work there, all trying to capture the beauty of the rushing waters on film. If you join them and are particularly lucky, you might even get to photograph a train crossing the Erie Railroad High Bridge that spans the falls. This iron bridge replaced the Portage High Bridge mentioned earlier, which was destroyed by fire in 1875. With a height of 234 feet above the river and a span of 800 feet, it was reputed to be the highest and longest wooden bridge in the world at that time. By the way, if you think you want to cross the railroad bridge to get a better look at the falls, don’t do it. Pedestrian traffic on the bridge is illegal, since it is still used for train traffic.
The Middle Falls is the largest waterfall at the park, with an impressive vertical drop of 107 feet and a width of 285 feet. These falls can be viewed from the Glen Iris Inn. While standing at the edge of the cliff, one can often feel the mist coming off the water. Because of their location near the Glen Iris Inn, these falls are illuminated from May through October for nighttime viewing. A path leads down to the falls for a closer view.
As you drive to the Lower Falls, you will pass a scenic viewing area called Inspiration Point. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the name is the same as one in Yellowstone National Park. From this location it is possible to view both the Middle and Upper falls, but bring your binoculars anyway, since the Upper Falls are a fair distance away.
Upon reaching the parking lot for the Lower Falls, you must take a short walk and then descend 127 steps to the falls level. With a vertical drop of approximately 50 feet, this is the smallest of the three waterfalls. A much smaller section is situated in front of the main waterfall. A short path leads to a stone footbridge across the gorge, which provides a good viewing area for the falls. The bridge also provides access to a short trail on the other side of the river.
If hiking is on your agenda, pick up a hiking trail map provided by the park, choose your trail, and enjoy. A Waterfall Guide To Letchworth State Park is a great guidebook published by the Glen Iris Inn that also contains detailed maps to the falls.
If you bring your bicycles along with your motorhome, you’ll find use for them on Letchworth’s trails, too. In addition, guided horseback rides are offered at the park on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day through late October, and beginners are welcome.
Don’t forget that the waterfalls aren’t the only natural attraction in the park. Scenic overlooks of the Genesee River canyon are breathtaking. The cliffs are up to 600 feet high, and although they are special attractions at any time of the year, the canyons are particularly spectacular in autumn, when the forests have turned to red and gold.
Several picnic areas are situated along the road that goes through the park, equipped with tables, grills, and shelters. Some shelters can be reserved; phone the park for details. And if you appreciate fine dining in an indoor setting, you may want to call ahead for a table at the Glen Iris Inn, as reservations are suggested. Phone (585) 493-2622.
For those who want to experience the canyon, river, and falls in a more exciting way, balloon trips, white-water rafting excursions, and guided canoe trips are available. Reservations are necessary, however. For more information about canoe and white-water rafting excursions, phone Adventure Calls Outfitters at (888) 270-2410. For information about hot-air balloon rides above this beautiful landscape, contact Balloons Over Letchworth at (585) 493-3340 or visit www.balloonsoverletchworth.com.
A Living History Side Trip
A fine living history museum with original historical buildings awaits at the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, just 30 miles north of Letchworth via State Route 36. One of the largest living history museums in the United States, the museum has 58 buildings dating from 1797 to 1884. The homes, schools, churches, and businesses are not reconstructions, but original structures that have been moved and restored. They include the impressive octagon-shaped Hyde House that originally stood in Friendship, New York, and the Romulus Female Seminary, a private girls’ school once located in Romulus. The museum also boasts 21 active businesses, where visitors get a glimpse into the lives of occupations such as shoemaking, blacksmithing, dressmaking, gunsmithing, and tinsmithing.
The museum continues to expand. A replica of a 19th-century baseball park was added in 2001 and an opera house brought in from South Butler will open this year. The Silver Base Ball Park is actually used on weekends when teams dressed in 19th-century uniforms compete using the rules of that era. Other workers in period dress are on hand to help visitors understand the lives of village people and the history and crafts of the era. If you go, plan to spend four to five hours investigating the many sites and shops. A country store, an old-fashioned bakery (open on weekends only), a restaurant, a bookstore, and a gift shop are also on the premises.
Also included in the museum admission is access to the John L. Wehle Gallery of Wildlife & Sporting Art, and the Genesee Country Nature Center, offering nearly 5 miles of hiking trails.
The Genesee Country Village & Museum is at 1410 Flint Hill Road in Mumford. Between May 1 and June 30 it is open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and weekends and holidays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. From July 1 to Labor Day it is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.50 for seniors age 62 and older, $7 for children ages 4 to 16, and free to children age 3 and younger. For more information, phone (585) 538-6822 or visit www.gcv.org.
Camping And Visiting Letchworth
Letchworth State Park is open daily. The entry fee is $5 per vehicle. Day-use hours are 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Phone the park visitors center at (585) 493-3600 for more information, or visit www.letchworthpark.com.
The Highbanks camping area in Letchworth State Park requires a minimum two-night stay. Sites are all wooded and reasonably level, and all are back-ins. Only electrical hookups are available; water spigots are nearby for fill-up use only. A dump station is available. The campground has 270 sites that can handle units up to 40 feet in length. Make reservations by phoning the New York State Camping/Cabin Reservation System at (800) 456-2267, or, if you have questions, phone the campground at (585) 237-3303.
To find commercial campgrounds in the area, check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, found in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching magazine and online at www.fmca.com.
Commercial campgrounds located within a few miles of Letchworth State Park include:
Camping At Mariposa Ponds
7632 Centerville Road
Houghton, NY 14744
Mariposa Ponds is south of the Portageville entrance to Letchworth State Park. It offers full hookups and a limited number of sites with 50-amp service. This campground is billed as a quiet, family facility that enables visitors to learn about and enjoy the natural beauties of rural western New York. Ponds and plantings have been specially designed to attract butterflies, of which there are many. Reservations may be necessary, especially on weekends.
Four Winds Recreational Resort & Campground
7350 Tenefly Road
Portageville, NY 14536
This campground is 3 miles from Letchworth State Park and offers fishing; rest rooms; 20-, 30-, and 50-amp hookups; and a camp store.