The History of Genesee Valley goes back almost ten thousand years to the ice age when the land was formed by a Glacier moving north. The glacier carved out the beautiful valleys and ridges people come to admire today. The area's first inhabitants followed the Mastodons here when the land was still a frozen tundra.
*The William Pryor Letchworth Museum in the park showcases a fossil of a Mastodon Skull found in the neighboring town of Pike*
Not only did the rich and beautiful land within the current day boundaries of Letchworth State Park attract the mastodons and the first men that hunted them, many years later it become a vital part of the Seneca tribe's livelihood. After the French invasion of the Northern and Eastern Seneca Territories in 1687 the people were forced Southwest. Once safe, they began building large villages, three were inside the park. The valley was appropriately named "Sehgahunda" translating to "Vale of Three Falls".
The Great Genesee River
The Genesee River is the heart of the Genesee Valley and if one of the main reasons the areas around it have made history with their fertile and picturesque land.
The Genesee River is one of the few rivers that flows North
The river is 157 miles long with its source in Ulysses, Pennsylvania and winding it's way north into Lake Ontario
There are multiple waterfalls that are part of the Genesee River; 3 of which are located in Letchworth State Park the others are north in Rochester
The lands around the Genesee River were in great demand and in a negotiation between Massachusetts and New York, the land became part of Massachusetts. Once sold the land would return to New York, allowing Massachusetts to profit on said deal.
It took a few years for Pioneers to settle the land due to distance from main cities. The first family was that of Reuben and Perry Jones in 1816, near the present day Park Visitors Center. They quickly built farms and as others joined them, two small villages were formed: Gibsonville and St. Helena.
Using the river and surrounding forests the Pioneers thrived on farming, lumbering and making potash. It did not take long for them to start taking a toll on the land. Mills were built along the North and Middle Falls. In order to move the lumber that was being made from the ancient trees of the depleting forests, the Genesee Valley Canal was built.
The Genesee Valley Canal connected the Erie Canal near Rochester to the Allegany River Systems near Olean. Construction started in 1836 and the first 53 miles from the Erie Canal to the Middle Falls where finished in 1841. Working to build a canal of this size in the rough uneven terrain around the Genesee proved to be a challenge and delayed the project from 1842-1848. An aqueduct had to be built that was over 40 feet tall so the canal could cross over the Genesee River. Final completion in 1862 brought the length to 124 miles. In 1878, the canal was abandoned and the rights were sold in 1880. The cliff that the canal ran along can be easily viewed from Inspiration point on the West side of Letchworth State Park. On the East side of the gorge, "Trail 7" runs along the old canal route. Construction of the Genesee Valley Canal along with an up-and-coming railroad began to take a severe toll on the land. The beautiful lands would have been destroyed if a wealthy business man from Buffalo by the name of William Pryor Letchworth had not stepped in.
"White Woman of the Genesee"
One of the many settlers that lived in the Valley was Mary Jemison and her children. She was a small child herself when her family was captured by French Soldiers and Shawnee warriors after raiding their village in 1758. As the only surviving member of her family when the group reached Fort Duquesne (current day Pittsburgh), she was purchased by a group of Seneca Indians. They took her to Ohio where she was adopted into the tribe. She married a Delaware Indian named Sheninjee and had 2 children. Their firstborn was a daughter, who did not survive. She then gave birth to a son named Thomas in memory of her father. Sheninjee afraid that an invasion would result in the loss of his wife, they started the trip back to his homeland along the Genesee River. The trip was almost seven hundred miles and cost Sheninjee his life after he fell ill in the harsh winter.
Mary finished her trip joining the Seneca tribe of Little Beard near present day Cuylerville. She remarried and had six more children. Mary lived here with her new tribe in peace until the Revolutionary War. The tribes sided with the British making them targets for the American Army. In 1779, George Washington sent his army of over five thousand men to force the Seneca Indians to abandon their position in the war. Mary and her children fled to an abandoned village just south of their home. Here she rebuilt her life with her husband, children and two run-away slaves.
The Man Behind the Name, Letchworth
William Pryor Letchworth was born on May 26, 1823 to a Quaker family in Brownville, NY. He was raised to value hard work and developing his intelligence. He became a wealthy businessman in the Iron Industry of Buffalo.
Once in his mid-thirties, he had started to grow tired of the hectic business and city life. While enjoying a train tour that stopped in Genesee Valley, he found his escape from the city. In this valley, he would build his home and the valley itself would become his passionate life's work.
In 1859, he made his first land purchase along the Genesee above the Middle Falls. Here he began building his beloved Glen Iris Estate. His goal was to bring the land back to its natural beauty and soon his vision began coming to life. He created a winding path, rustic bridges, lakes and a gravity fed fountain that runs year round. The great estate was always buzzing with Mr.Letchworth's family and friends who were always welcome to come enjoy the sites.
After retiring to his Estate at the age of 48, Letchworth began working on a new project, when he accepted a position on the New York State Board of Charities. He became very passionate about studying the treatment of epileptics and poor children throughout Europe and the United States. His writings on the subject helped him work with New York to create systems and institutions to help those who could not help themselves. He retired from the board in 1897, but continued his work with social care from his study while overseeing his estate.
When the Genesee River Company was established in 1898 and threatened the existence of the Glen Iris Estate. They wanted to use the Genesee River as a power source and built a dam just south of the Portage Bridge near Mr. Letchworth's beloved home. The original plan for the Glen Iris was for it to be donated as an orphanage. Knowing that this would not protect it, Letchworth offered his estate and land to New York State as a public park in 1906. He made sure that the Glen Iris would be protected and he was granted life use.
Modern Day Letchworth State Park
Mr. Letchworth donated one thousand acres that included the Glen Iris to the State of New York, by 1970 the park had grown to consist of over 14,000 acres. The huge popularity of the first automobiles and tourism helped create the demand for the park to start expanding.
When the park was established, the New York State policy that any land acquired by the State be managed by a private group. The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society was put in charge of Letchworth. This organization took care of hiring workers to take care of the property as well as giving the instructions for operation. In time the Conservation Department of the State was created and a Park Commissioner was appointed. Today, we have the Office of Parks and Recreation based in Albany.