Letchworth State Park, located in the Genesee Valley, is an area rich in history. The Seneca Indians, the Keepers of the Western Door of the Great Iroquois League, once inhabited the valley. The land they fished, hunted and lived on was known as “Sehgahunda,” or “the Vale of the Three Falls.” Over many years, the area saw numerous changes due to territorial struggles. The inhabitants suffered at the hands of white settlers, and the majority of the Seneca people left the area.
One of the inhabitants of Sehgahunda was Mary Jemison, or “Dehgewanus,” which means “the old white woman of the Genesee.” A Scottish-Irish immigrant, she was captured during an Indian raid and sold to the Seneca people who gave her shelter and a new life. She chose to remain in the Native American culture, and even married and had children. Upon her death in 1833, she was laid to rest in Letchworth Park at the Middle Falls bluff. Visitors can pay respects and visit her statue at the council grounds on the land she once called home.
What Beautiful Land it Is
Seventeen miles long and over 14,300 acres, the park is one of the largest of the nine state parks in the Genesee State Park and Recreation Region, according to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. It features three large waterfalls on the Genesee River, and over 50 falls are found on tributaries that flow into it. The three falls, named the Upper, Middle and Lower Falls are located at the southern section of the park, known as the Portage Canyon. The highest waterfall in New York state, known as Inspiration Falls, with a drop of 350 feet and a crest only 1 foot wide, is located near Inspiration Point Overlook in the park.
The geology of the Genesee Valley suggests it is relatively young and was formed by glaciers during the Cenozoic era. The glaciers molded hills, Lake Ontario and the Genesee River, along with its waterfalls and gorges. The rock exposed in the gorges at Letchworth State Park is mostly shale, although some limestone and sandstone can be found.
The Man Behind the Name
A businessman and philanthropist, William Letchworth fell in love with the beauty of the Genesee Valley and settled into the area. In 1859, he purchased land and a house, previously used as an inn, near the Portage Falls. He began renovations on his private estate, which he named Glen Iris. On New Year’s Eve 1906, just four years before his death, he gifted his estate and the land to New York state so that a park could be created and the history preserved. At first it served as the park headquarters, but then the Letchworth Park Committee saw an opportunity and transformed Glen Iris back into an inn and lodge. It is located near Middle Falls and now offers fine dining, country inn guest rooms and a gift shop.
Letchworth created the Council Grounds, a spot to honor and preserve the Native American heritage, on a bluff above his estate and moved the ancient Seneca Council House and a Gardeau cabin there. He also built a museum to house Native American artifacts. For his work in keeping the Native American history alive, the Seneca people named him “Haweyiyesta,” which means “the man who always does right.”
Outside of his preservation work, Letchworth was a humanitarian who worked with the sick and the needy. He served on various state and national associations involved with social reform, including the National Association for the Study of Epilepsy and the Care of Treatment for the Epilepsy.
Watch it Grow
Letchworth State Park has grown over the last 100 years into a celebrated treasure. It was recently named as one of Reserve America’s Top Outdoor Locations by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The park was significantly enlarged when New York state acquired land for the Mount Morris flood control dam, which is primarily owned by the federal government and managed by the Corp of Engineers. In addition, the 1960 Land Acquisition Bond Act, passed by the voters of New York, allowed the park to acquire land along River Road in Livingston County and in the north end near the Mount Morris entrance.
The Genesee Valley Museum that Letchworth established in 1898 served as “a depository for archeological relics that shall serve to illustrate the primitive arts of the North American Indians,” according to the official museum guide. The museum and the Native American Council Grounds also received the Glen Iris in 1907.
In 1912, plans were instituted for a new library to be built near Glen Iris to house the enlarging museum collection of Native American relics, as well as Letchworth’s personal library and collection of historical objects. Over the next decade the museum was removed and the library was built. It is located where the gardens of Glen Iris once were and was renamed the William Letchworth Park Museum. It continued to grow as collections were donated and lent from local people and organizations, including the Wyoming County Pioneer Association. In addition, two other facilities, Pinewood Lodge and Caroline’s Cottage, were built for visiting tourists.
Not Just Another Park
There are sights to see and fun to be had. Families are encouraged to experience the history of the park by visiting the museum, walking the Council Grounds, seeing where Letchworth lived in the Glen Iris and enjoying the view of the falls from Portage Bridge. Trails in the park, ranging from one-half to 20 miles with difficulty levels from easy to moderate, are open for hiking, biking, walking and horseback riding. Additional offerings at Letchworth include: camping in one of the 270 electric campsites or 80 cabins, swimming in one of two pools, fishing, whitewater rafting on the Genesee River, rafting in the class II-III whitewater river, and hot air ballooning with Balloons over Letchworth. Winter activities include: cross-country skiing, ice-skating, snow tubing, snowmobiling and riding in a horse-drawn sleigh. A complete schedule of events, ranging from a civil war battle reenactment to the famous Fall Arts and Crafts Sale, is available each year within the park.
by Deirdre Byrne
Deirdre Byrne, a graduate of Ithaca College, is an editorial and production assistant for a publishing company in New York City.