LETCHWORTH STATE PARK, NEW YORK — A 17-mile-long, 1½-mile-wide narrow strip of land that straddles the Genesee River, Letchworth State Park, is located about 60 miles southeast of Buffalo, New York and 475 miles north of Charleston.
Meandering along a yawning gorge, at times 600 feet deep at Great Bend near the Castile entrance, the park is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the East” and is billed as one of the most scenically magnificent areas in the eastern U.S.
In late September, I made my second visit to the park, quite a feat for someone whose motto is “so many places to go; so little time.” It had been years since my last visit and it was time for a second look, especially since it was near East Aurora, where I’d just toured the historic Roycroft Campus.
For first time visitors, I suggest entering the park on the north end at the Mount Morris entrance. Not only will it introduce you to the park via the impressive dam overlook, it’ll also save for later the large cluster of sites at the south end that include the park’s three main waterfalls.
At the dam overlook parking lot that services the visitors’ center, I was able to get an up-close look at the 1,800-foot-deep cement structure that’s about as tall as Niagara Falls — or two Eiffel Towers.
Later, making my way south, I stopped at several other overlooks, each with its own special vista. Past Humphrey’s Overlook, I veered off onto Route 1 for a look at the Civilian Conservation Corps statue. It honors the 3,000 men who served in four camps between 1933 and 1941 and built roads, cabins, picnic areas and many of the stone walls you’ll find in the park to this day.
During a stop at the Humphrey Nature Center, I learned about programming that focuses on the park’s geology, wildlife and flora, viewed a video that takes you through the gorge in all four seasons and learned about a project now underway to build an autism nature trail, which will be the first of its kind in the nation.
Further along, the Middle Falls near the Glen Iris Inn is the tallest of the three at 107 feet. William P. Letchworth, a wealthy Buffalo businessman, discovered the falls and surrounding area during a train ride across the nearby bridge and saved it for future generations to enjoy. Wanting a place to retire to so he could entertain family and friends, he also discovered a large, two-story frame house built in 1828.
In 1859, after buying the property and 1,000 contiguous acres on both sides of the Genesee, Letchworth began farming most of the land and named his new home Glen Iris. Another word for rainbow, iris is an appropriate part of the title because the spray from the nearby waterfall often creates a rainbow in the gorge.
Before his death in 1910, Letchworth bequeathed his house and property to the state with the provision that the river and surrounding area be left alone. Eventually, the state added 13,350 more acres to what eventually became the “crown jewel” of the New York state park system.
Framing the Middle Falls, the Portage Bridge has quite a history. A railroad artery, billed as the tallest wooden bridge in the world when it was constructed in 1852, burned in May of 1875. Fortunately, a new metal bridge that was under construction nearby, opened to traffic a little more than two months later.
In December 2017, a third bridge was completed to connect both sides of the gorge and is now part of the iconic image that captures both it and the falls far below in the Genesee River.
Across the road from the Glen Iris Inn, the Letchworth Museum is devoted to holdings of the park’s namesake and boasts the world’s most complete mastodon skull, found 7 miles away in Pike, New York, in 1876.
The museum’s Seneca Room is devoted to Native American relics such as tools, pottery, beadwork, clothing, crafts and firearms, and the Letchworth Room holds many of Letchworth’s personal effects and books as well as attempts to document the life history of the park’s benefactor. Hundreds of other artifacts help sketch pioneer life, early park history and the prehistoric era of the Genesee Valley. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week from May through October. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Behind the museum, the Council Grounds were once used as a meeting place for the Seneca Native Americans. The grounds hold a pre-Revolutionary War council house where the last Iroquois council on the Genesee was held on Oct. 1, 1872. Nearby a statue marks the final resting place of Mary Jemison, the “White Woman of the Genesee,” a Caucasian female who was captured by Native Americans in Adams County, Pennsylvania, while still a child of 13.
Even though Jemison’s family was slain during the raid, Mary opted to spend the remainder of her life with the Native Americans, whom she grew to love and respect. Her memorial statue depicts her, dressed in Native American garb and carrying her son, Tom, on her back in a cradle board. The black walnut tree that shelters her grave was planted by her grandson, James, circa 1875, from a nut taken from a tree at her original burial site. The rugged log cabin located across the field once belonged to Jemison’s daughter, Nancy.
If you’re into hiking, Letchworth has 28 trails, ranging from a half-mile to over 21 miles, that are rated easy to moderate difficulty. The 7-mile-long Gorge Trail at the south end of the park passes by all three waterfalls and is considered the most scenic.
For more information, phone 585-493-3600 or visit website parks.ny.gov.
For a place to stay, the Quality Inn at 4242 Lakeville Road in the college town of Geneseo, is near the Mt. Morris entrance to the park and offers a free hot breakfast, fitness room, free premium Wi-Fi and a seasonal outdoor pool. Phone 585-243-0500.
For a place to dine, the Lumber Yard, 18 S. Federal St. in Perry has been serving American fare since 1981. As might be expected, the restaurant has a lumber mill exterior and a lumberjack theme inside. The owner and staff are very friendly, the place is immaculate and the food great. Suggested dishes: Lumberjack Chips appetizer (homemade potato chips with smoked Gouda sauce, chopped tomato and green onion) and prime rib (served daily in various size portions and with add-ons like shrimp, scallops, crab and more).
At the park’s south end, Letchworth Pines is a bowling alley and restaurant combo. The two are connected but separate enough so the folks in one don’t disturb the people in the other. With inexpensive food and a cozy bar area full of locals the day of my visit, the restaurant, located at 6985 State Route 19a in Portageville, has a down-home vibe as authentic as any down South. The service may not be the quickest, but the food makes up for any lapses in that regard. Thursday is wing night (35 cents each), Monday is taco night ($1 each) and other specials are offered almost every other night. Phone 585-468-2166.