Local people insist that during the early spring runoff or after a prolonged rainstorm, the roar of Che-qua-ga dominates the village of Montour Falls, often sending a misty spray into nearby neighborhoods. The sight and sound of the plunging 160-foot waterfall are never far away – in fact, just a matter of yards from the center of town. Glance up from a leisurely stroll along Main Street and there it is; encased in jagged ice during the winter, at other times veil-like as it gently sweeps over multiple tiers. Even in the water-rich Finger Lakes, the tumbling cataract at the center of Montour Falls village is truly extraordinary.
Queen Catharine’s Valley
The Seneca village of Queanettquaga once encompassed the falls and a fertile area between the lofty hills at the base of Seneca Lake. On the death of her husband, Seneca Chief Telenemut, “Queen” Catharine Montour (1710 – 1804), a product of generations of mixed French and Iroquois blood, assumed leadership of the prosperous village. It came to be known as “Catharine’s Town,” producing fruits and vegetables in the soil of a rich valley abundant with fish and game. An Iroquois alliance with the British during the American Revolution would prove to be the undoing of Catharine’s realm. Her people were forced to flee when in 1779 the Sullivan Expedition, on the orders of General George Washington, destroyed Catharine’s Town and other allied tribal villages crushing British power in the region.
Most accounts of Catharine’s life are based in myth and legend, and stories vary as to her final years. Some believe she eventually returned to the area while others are convinced she died in Canada, having settled there following the Sullivan raid. A walk along an unmarked, wooded path leads to a sacred mound and memorial honoring Queen Catharine. The secluded plot near the village is the only tangible site that remains in the area of the once prominent Seneca leader.
Past Meets Present
The earliest settlers arrived during the 1790s and in 1836, the town became incorporated as the Village of Havana. A local tale endures that an early cigar-making industry led to the choice of name – promotion and marketing of the tobacco products found to be more successful with a “Made in Havana” message conspicuously printed on the labels.
The village officially was renamed Montour Falls in 1893, having become a commercial center with both the Chemung Canal and Northern Central Railroad passing through the heart of town. Historical buildings of the era remain, enriching the village’s downtown area. The recently renovated 1840 Montour House, a prime hostelry during the busy canal and railroad days, now houses fine loft apartments in its upper levels with commercial space along West Main Street. The Montour Café and Tapas Bar on its main floor is a great gathering place not only for coffee, but pastries or lunch as well, and with outside seating in nice weather. In recent years, the Village Bakery, Harvest Café, JBK Bridal & Prom, and Jerlando’s Pizza are among the shops that have helped revive the business climate along Main Street.
Amid those historic downtown buildings it seems that something intriguing is always underway; festivities to bring the community together. In June it’s the Montour Falls Fire Department Festival & Parade of Bands. Classic cars line Main Street in mid-July for the annual Cruise-In to support local food pantries, and October brings The Falls Harvest Festival topped off with a spectacular fireworks display high over Che-qua-ga Falls. Every Thursday from May through October, the Montour Falls Farmers Market displays the finest local flowers, vegetables, fruits, meats and cheeses. All the events provide plentiful food and entertainment – always with a view of the ever-present waterfall.
The “Glorious T”
At the intersection of West Main and Genesee Streets stands the “Glorious T” Historic District, spearheaded by 19th century resident Charles Cook and placed on the National Register in 1978. Comprised of 24 buildings, many in Greek Revival style, the district is a “must see” during a visit to Montour Falls – a delight for any lover of history and architecture.
Prominent among the sites are Village Hall and the Memorial Library, classic Greek-style buildings which should be seen both inside and out to be appreciated. Both are enhanced by uniquely Doric columns of curved brick created in the 1800s at a local kiln. It doesn’t stop there.
Public buildings and private residences in the district go beyond Greek Revival into Federalist, Victorian, Gothic, Italianate and Queen Anne styles. For the architectural buff, noteworthy features are everywhere: porticos, stained glass, double doors, hanging lamps, gambrel roofs, full length windows, and more.
Coincidentally, Mayor John King and wife Lorna live in a Greek Revival home at the Glorious T intersection adjoining Che-qua-ga Falls and its village park. “We love the location,” says John. “And yes, we are very familiar with the thunder of the falls and its spray.” To really appreciate The T, ask for a detailed self-guided walking tour guide book available at Village Hall.
A Night at the Theatre
You’re never quite sure what pleasant surprise you might stumble across on a trip through the Finger Lakes. In Montour Falls that just may happen to be the Old Havana Courthouse Theatre, where each summer a series of old-fashioned interactive melodramas (promising “all the fun of 1901”) is presented by a local company of energetic actors and script writers. Founders Bill and Donna Christoffels encourage audiences to robustly “applaud virtuous heroines, cheer courageous heroes, and boo dastardly villains” in the cozy auditorium on the second floor of Village Hall. The hilarious dramatizations carry such titles as “The Curious Curse of Manley Manor (or Where There is a Will, There Will Be a Slay)” and “Run to the Roundhouse Nellie! He Can’t Corner You There!” Adds Bill, “It’s all great family fun at an affordable price.”
More to See and Do
Once you’ve taken in Che-qua-ga Falls, visited a local festival, wandered the “Glorious T” neighborhood, or hissed and cheered at a playhouse performance, there are still reasons to linger in Montour Falls. A choice of eateries includes Mura Bella’s Italian Steakhouse, called “a gem” and “delightfully delicious” by some local patrons.
Just outside the village is Havana Glen Park. With hiking trails and more waterfalls it offers an “ol’ swimmin’ hole” experience. Nearby, a historic 1858 six-story brick building built by Charles Cook housed an acclaimed preparatory school for many years. Learning continues in the structure today as thousands train each year at the New York State Academy of Fire Science.
A municipally run campground and marina provides full service camping with close to 200 boat slips, all with easy access to Seneca Lake. The extensive history of Schuyler County is housed in the 1828 Brick Tavern Museum, another local landmark. Hikers and cyclists meander along the forested Catharine Valley Trail, perhaps one of the best ways to sample the changing scenery and multiple glens in what the Senecas called the “Valley of Tumbling Waters,” and the region Queen Catharine Montour once proudly called home.
story and photos by James P. Hughes