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Letchworth State Park, renowned as the "Grand Canyon of the East," is one of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern U.S. The Genesee River roars through the gorge over three major waterfalls between cliffs--as high as 600 feet in some places--surrounded by lush forests. Hikers can choose among 66 miles of hiking trails. Trails are also available for horseback riding, biking, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. Letchworth offers nature, history and performing arts programs, guided walks, tours, a summer lecture series, whitewater rafting, kayaking, a pool for swimming and hot air ballooning. Experiencing Letchworth by hot air balloon is unforgettable.
The Seneca Indians called the area Sehgahunda, meaning the "Vale of Three Falls," forming several villages within what are now the park boundaries. Many of the trails in the park today are based on actual Seneca trails, which were used for river access.
During the French & Indian War in 1758 the teenage Mary Jemison of a Pennsylvania colony was taken captive by Shawnee Indians. She was accepted and raised in the Seneca ways and was called by her new family Dehgewanus, "Two Falling Voices." Years later, she journeyed to Sehgahunda, losing her Delaware Indian husband to illness along the way. She took up residence with a related clan in the Gardeau Flats area. Over time the area shifted from Seneca Nation to frontier settlements. Mary Jemison, the "Old White Woman of the Genesee," witnesses the sale and misuse of Sehgahunda land and the demise of the native inhabitants. She was eventually moved to a reservation in Buffalo where she passed. Now she is buried near the Glen Iris Inn and Middle Falls. A granite marker and statue mark the location.
Staring in the early 1800's, the area was developing rapidly, gaining railroad access and canals. Tourism boomed as word spread of the grand vistas of the Portage Gorge. Along with progress came environmental destruction. The land was stripped of trees and industrialization lined the falls with mills and factories. The Portage Wooden High Bridge (the tallest and longest wooden railroad bridge of its kind) whisked tourists over the Upper Falls offering one of the few spectacular views of the gorge left.
One of those tourists was William Pryor Letchworth, a successful iron tycoon from Buffalo, who was seeking an escape from the drudgery of business in the big city. Impressed by the remaining natural beauty of the Portage Gorge area and eager to preserve it as a paradise, he began purchasing land around the middle falls and built a small mansion, which he dubbed the Glen Iris. As it became available, he purchased adjacent land, began restoring the natural beauty and shared it with visitors. His efforts helped to transform the area into the tranquil, yet accessible natural area it is today.
Mr. Letchworth also concentrated on preserving the native heritage of his estate. He collected artifacts, documents and worked with surviving Native Americans to preserve and present the area's history for visitors. To facilitate this he established the Council Grounds and Letchworth Museum. He also recognized Mary Jemison's importance to the area and arranged to have her remains moved from her threatened reservation gravesite to rest in peace, close to home at the Glen Iris Estate.
Mr. Letchworth was more than a nature lover. He was a philanthropist at heart. He spent the latter portion of his life traveling across the county and into Europe establishing and supporting children's charities. Although he wanted to donate the Glen Iris to an orphanage upon his death, industry was eyeing the Portage Gorge for hydroelectric power. The Genesee River Company had plans to dam the gorge just above the upper falls. Mr. Letchworth feared that what he dedicated his life to preserving would be in jeopardy. In a deal struck with the state of NY in 1906, the Glen Iris Estate would become a state park, and be afforded the protections against private development. It officially became Letchworth State Park in 1907. Mr. Letchworth died 3 years later.
October 23rd, 2012
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