Letchworth State Park, New York - 2016 Physics Teaching, Aviation Photography, Glassblowing Edward Pascuzzi

Voted “Best State Park of 2015” and often called the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park, in western New York (about 40 miles south

of Rochester), lies directly on the winding northly flowing Genesee River which feeds into Lake Ontario.  The park, formerly the 1000 acre estate

of pre-civil war industrialist William Letchworth, now covers more than 14,000 acres of lush forest and contains three large waterfalls at the

southernmost end of the park’s vertical 17 mile expanse.  These falls (the Upper, Middle and Lower) lie along the river which snakes and

meanders through hugely deep gorges (in some locations over 500 feet) as it feeds its way northward through the town of Mt. Morris on its way

to Lake Ontario.  Millions of years of geological history can be directly observed in the rock formations exposed by continual weathering and

erosion.  Additionally, the region’s rich history and heritage of the Seneca Indians is well documented throughout the park with displays, a restored

Seneca Council House, the grave of Mary Jemison and with weekly lectures on local history.  The park is filled with more than 66 miles of hiking

trails and offers activities which range from horseback riding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, rafting, and even hot air ballooning over the

 park.  Additionally, a variety of lodging (cabins, campsites and a full Inn) is available to travelers while at Letchworth, including the beautiful

Glen Iris Inn, (the former home of William Letchworth), a romantic old home which offers a variety of rooms as well as a full restaurant and

banquet and catering services.  The Inn is directly across from the Middle falls and thus, all through the night, the mild roar of the waterfall

can be heard. 

Read more about Letchworth State Park at the New York State Parks Department website and at Wikipedia.

"For years I have devoted my whole thought, strength, and energy to one thing-business, and have made myself master of that which I undertook to perform. I mean now to cultivate most assiduously the social ties which I have neglected so long fearing they may have become so weakened as to have no influence on my soul."  William P. Letchworth        The heart of Letchworth State Park is the famed and romantic Glen Iris Inn, former home from the estate of 19th century entrepreneur, William Pryor Letchworth, who in 1906 donated 1000 acres (and the current Inn) to New York state for the benefit of all to enjoy.  In 1858, Letchworth was looking for the perfect site for a country retreat where he could entertain his family and friends and upon stepping off a train one Spring morning as it slowly approached a bridge high above the Genesee River he knew he’d found the ideal location.  Standing on the bridge, he was touched by the natural beauty of the powerful river rushing below, the massive waterfalls and the rainbows formed through the water spray.  Upon walking along the left bank of the river, Letchworth found a large two-story frame house located near the remains of a burned-out lumber mill. Owned by Michael Smith, the house had been built by Alva Palmer in 1828. The view was spectacular, and as he gazed toward the South overlooking the falls, he knew he had found his country retreat.     Letchworth acquired the house in February 1859 and immediately began renovations. The local Seneca Indians had named the area "An-de-ka-ga-kwa", meaning "the place where the sun lingers", and it has been said through Indian lore that when the sun passes over the glen it pauses a moment longer there than at any other part of the valley. Inspired by this, Letchworth chose the word "Iris", a synonym for "rainbow", and named his estate the Glen Iris.       As he studied the history of the Genesee Valley, Letchworth became particularly interested in the life story of Mary Jemison, the captured child of massacred white settlers raised by local Indians. "The White Woman of the Genesee," as she was called,  had at one time lived several miles north of the Lower Falls, and in an effort to preserve her heritage, Letchworth had her remains interred on the Council House grounds, now part of his estate. 	As a humanitarian and historian, his desire was to have the Glen Iris, with its scenic grandeur, preserved in its natural state so future generations could enjoy the beauty so dear to his heart. Before his death on December 12, 1910, he made provisions for the Glen Iris and surrounding property to be a gift to the people of New York State to be used as a permanent park.  Soon after, in 1914 the American Society provided funds to enlarge the dining room at the Glen Iris and to add twelve new guests rooms and four bathrooms.  It had been a tradition that Letchworth's guests at the Glen Iris plant a tree to commemorate their visit.  Inspired by the tradition, the American Society named the new rooms after the trees that had been so lovingly planted by those long-ago visitors.  For further information about Letchworth, see this page at the Letchworth website; The Gorge Trail (7 miles) The Portage Train Bridge & the Upper Falls The Erie-Lackawanna railroad train bridge that traverses the Genesee river near the Upper Falls at Letchworth State Park has a rich and important history.  First begun in 1852, stone piers, held in place with nearly ten thousand yards of masonry were laid in the riverbed, and slowly acres of great wooden towers were raised by the scores of Irish workmen hired for the project. It was hard and dangerous work, and more than one worker was killed by falling rocks or careless steps that resulted in being swept over the Upper Falls.  Upon completion and opening in August, 1852, the bridge towered a total of 234 feet above the Upper Falls, and was 800 feet long. A railroad station was built on the east end of the Bridge, as was the Cascade House, a hotel for local sightseers. The project had cost nearly two hundred thousand dollars, and had consumed an estimated two hundred and fifty acres of pine forest.   	As the years and the mists of the Upper Falls began to take their toll, by the 1870s there was talk about replacing the Bridge with an iron one. The Erie Railroad floated the idea, but found that the fare-paying public was opposed to tearing down the grand Wooden Bridge.  Unfortunately, in the end it was a natural disaster, not the Erie Railroad Company, that claimed the Portage Bridge. On the night of May 5-6, 1875 watchman William T. Davis inspected the Bridge after a westbound passenger train crossed shortly before 11PM. An hour later he greeted his replacement, Pardon Earl, and headed home. At about 12:45 AM he looked back at the Bridge, and, according to his account, didn't see anything other than "the usual signals." 	The next train was eastbound, and passed Earl's little watchhouse on the east end of the Bridge around 12:50 AM. Earl walked across to the west end, and then returned back. It was then he noticed a small fire near the west end of the bridge. He ran quickly to the fire and tried to stamp it out, but broke through the decking. Next he tried to fight the growing fire with a hose connected to a water pipe, but wasn't able to turn the value on due to corrosion to the metal. The Bridge was doomed. 	Mr. Letchworth awoke in his bedroom at the Glen Iris about three hours later. He quickly went out on the lawn to see what was happening and later reported "the spectacle presented at precisely four o'clock was fearfully grand, every timber in the Bridge seemed then to be ignited, and an open network of the fire was stretched across the upper end of the Valley." A half-hour later the mighty Bridge collapsed, sending a shower of sparks through the Glen. Only the fact that a light rain was now falling saved the buildings on the Glen Iris Estate.  	People from miles around came to see the smoking ruins of the Wooden Bridge, including officials of the Erie Railroad.  The company was determined to rebuild, and this time in iron. They moved swiftly, contracting the ironwork to the Watson Manufacturing Co of Paterson New Jersey only four days after the fire. So quick was their response that rumors, heard in the Valley even today, had the Erie Railroad Company setting the fire, and that the iron was already milled and in warehouses waiting for delivery to the site. Actually, according to the chief engineer George Morison, the ironworkers had to wait for the iron, delaying the raising of the first tower till June 13th. 	Morison also stated that the final design for the new bridge was "prepared in the hurry of a pressing necessity", and that he and the other engineers "were obliged to conform in a measure to the plan of the original timber structure." For example the masonry that had been laid for the original bridge made them extend the width of each of the six towers from the desired 25 or 30 feet to a full 50 feet. But Morison and his crew proceeded quickly, the last tower being erected in only eleven days.  The Bridge was ready for testing by July 31st, and had only cost half as much as the original.  It was an immediate success. 	More than a century has passed since the Iron "Spider" Bridge opened for railroad traffic. Addition work has been done on the Bridge, tracks, and foundations, but it is the same Bridge that still stands today. Although the Bridge is private property and the trains that cross it no longer stop to let their passengers walk high above the Upper Falls, tourists to Letchworth Park still marvel on the manmade wonder called the Portage Bridge. The Glen Iris Inn The Middle Falls Situated just outside of the Glen Iris Inn is the Middle Falls, the tallest and widest of the three large waterfalls along the Genesee River in Letchworth State Park.  Approximately 107 feet high, the falls flow northward from Pennsylvania toward Rochester where they carry water to Lake Ontario, a distance of approximately 230 miles.  At night, large flood lights illuminate the falls for visitors to enjoy. Inspiration Point (View South toward the Middle & Upper Falls) Inspiration Point is a section of the Gorge Trail which is about 1.5 miles north of the Middle Falls and provides superb views to the south on clear mornings.  From this location, both the Middle and Upper Falls are easily seen along the snaking Genesse River, and further south, visible on the horizon, is the Portage Train Bridge (allegedgly to be replaced by approximate 2019).   Note that you can also easily see, to the west, pages of geologic time in the sedimentary rock layers, believed to be the remains of the ancestral Appalachian Mountains which were eroded into inland seas some 350 million years ago during the Devonian Period.  Amazingly, over 100 million years of erosion and deposition are visible in these layers from Inspiration Point.             The variety of hues in the strata is a combination of shales and sandstones, some of which contain organic clays which thus contribute to their darder shades.   Other portions of the rock layers contain iron oxides which give a slight reddish-maroon color.  Interestingly, about midway down the 350 foot cliff is a several ton stalagmite (called a “Tufa”) created from a gently flowing year-round spring that arises from precipitated lime combined with algae and moss.      Lower Falls & Big Bend Toward the north end of the southern third of Letchworth State Park one finds the Lower Falls, a smaller waterfall that carries the Genesee River along its northward path to Canada.  At the Lower Falls, a large trail takes the avid hiker on a descent toward the river, only to be met by a large stone bridge which leads to the river’s east side.  From this eastern location one can easily witness layers of 240 million years of geologic time across the river gorge.

Website and all contents Copyright Edward Pascuzzi 2000, 2015