Letchworth Middle Falls The Genesee Region

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Triphammer Wheel

1. The Triphammer Wheel at the High Falls Center: Water from the Genesee River was diverted by Brown's Race around the High Falls. It spilled over this water wheel which powered a tool-making operation. Nearby mills ground flour.

Broad St. Aqueduct

2. Broad Street Bridge: This beautiful Roman Arch bridge was originally constructed to take the Erie Canal over the Genesee River. The close proximity of the canal to the flour mills allowed Rochester to grow exponentially in the mid-1800s.

Lower Falls

2. Lower Falls are located about three miles north of downtown Rochester. Water is partially diverted from the river to generate electricity. It is the last drop before the river reaches Lake Ontario.

Canandaigua Lake

3. Highland Park is the home to the Lilac Festival in May. It sits on a glacial moraine that stretches east-west across Rochester.

Charlotte Lighthouse

4. Charlotte Lighthouse
sits on a bluff overlooking the Port of Rochester. It is now a museum open to the public.

The Geneseo Bear

5. Geneseo is a college town located in the middle section of the Genesee Country. Pictured above is the Bear.

Glen Iris Inn
 6. Glen Iris Inn  was originally the home of William Pryor Letchworth, the founder of the state park. The Middle Falls are nearby.

Mary Jemison

7. Mary Jemison Statue: Captured by Native Americans in Pennsylvania, Mary was adopted by the Senecas. She lived much of her life in present-day Letchworth State Park, and is now buried there.

The Locks

9. Genesee Locks: The old Genesee Canal had to climb the barrier of the Letchworth Gorge. Near Oakland there are the remains of five locks that accomplished that feat.

Upper Genesee River

10. Upper Genesee River (near Belfast): If you follow the river south on Route 19 you pass through many small towns and farms. The river here is usually shallow, but it is prone to flooding. Eventually you will reach the Pennsylvania state line, where the Genesee River originates.


The Genesee Region:

The Geography of Water Power


There is only one river that completely crosses New York State, and that is the Genesee. It rises in the hills of northern Pennsylvania and flows north about 180 miles until it empties into Lake Ontario. Along the way it travels through some of the most productive farm country in the state. It tumbles over six waterfalls - three in the city of Rochester, and three in the incredible Letchworth State Park.

As is the case with most of New York, this region was extensively glaciated during the last Ice Age. The Genesee Valley was modified by the action of glacial erosion and deposition. Most of the valley was deepened and widened by the ice invasion. When the glaciers receded, they left behind deep deposits of sediments with very fertile soil. The river tried to reestablish its old route, but it was diverted in two places. One was near Avon, forcing the river into a new course farther west. (The old Genesee went through the Irondeqouit Valley, but the new river flows directly through the city of Rochester. Part of the old course is now flooded over by Lake Ontario, and is known as Irondequoit Bay).  
The second diversion was at Portageville. A huge moraine prevented the river from re-entering its old valley, and the river carved a gorge around the detour. This canyon is found in Letchworth State Park.

The river is not important as a water highway. Much of the river is unnavigable, and it is often too shallow for boats even where there are no rapids or falls. After the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, citizens of the valley demanded that a lateral canal be built along the Genesee River, connecting Rochester with the Allegheny River and Pennsylvania. This Genesee Valley Canal was constructed, but it was not commercially successful, since it had to fight geography, whereas the Erie complemented it. By the 1870s, the canal was abandoned to be replaced by railroads.

The real significance of the Genesee has nothing to do with transportation, but with water power. It was the falls in Rochester that turned a backwater village into a major flour-milling boomtown. It was the periodic flooding of the middle Genesee that produced the high fertility so important for wheat farming. And it was the awesome erosive force of the river in Letchworth that inspired western New Yorkers to preserve a special landscape.


1. The Rochester Area: Rochester is the third largest city in the state. Two hundred years ago, it was wilderness, but the water power of the falls of the Genesee brought settlers into the area. Your first stop should be the High Falls Visitor Center, located on Platt Street north of downtown. (There are many signs directing you there).
Not only will you see the 90-foot falls, but you will also see the buildings that held the mills that gave Rochester its nickname, "The Flour City." Next to the mills there is a water wheel from the old Triphammer forge (pictured on the right). And in front of the buildings there is a restored mill race, that took the water around the falls, forced it to spill over the wheels and back into the river. Make sure you go inside the Visitor Center. It has a great (free) exhibit area with more information about the falls and the city's history. During the summer months, there are laser shows in the gorge. Get information from the desk at the Visitor Center.

2. The two other falls are little more difficult to get to. The Lower Falls are about two miles north, at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Driving Park Avenue. You can see the falls from the bridge, or you can walk down the upstream path and see them more closely. If you continue on this path, you will also be able to view the Middle Falls. However, for the best close-up view of the Lower Falls go over the bridge to the east side of the river, and then down Seth Green Drive. This is a favorite local fishing spot, and the sedimentary rock formations are especially colorful here.

Return downtown and turn on to Broad Street. You will soon be on a bridge. Park on the bridge. This modern roadway sits on top of the old Erie Canal Aqueduct. It is over 800 feet long, and it carried the canal over the raging rapids of the Genesee.  Today the canal goes around Rochester, not through it. There is a plan to fill the old aqueduct with water and make it into an urban park.

The High Falls with its flour mills and the Erie Canal are only a short distance apart. What role did the close proximity of these two locations, one natural and one man-made, have to do with the growth of Rochester in the 19th century?

3. Turn right on South Avenue. About two miles south of downtown Rochester, you cross an east-west trending hill, a glacial moraine. This irregular wall of rock and dirt was dumped there by the receding glaciers around 9000 years ago. The best places to see this moraine is Cobbs Hill Park (Monroe Ave.), Highland Park (home to Rochester's famous Lilac Festival), and Mt. Hope Cemetery. This Victorian cemetery is a fascinating place to visit. Tours are often available. Many of Rochester's most celebrated citizens are buried here, including Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. She, of course, was the co-leader of the Women's Suffrage Movement, and he was a former slave who became the great abolitionist speaker and newpaper editor. The paper, the North Star, was published in Rochester.

Question! Why did both of these champions of human rights choose to live in Rochester? Why didn't they settle in New York or Boston? What have you learned about the geography of this region that might give you a clue?

4. Go back to Lake Avenue. Follow it all the way to the end. You are now in Charlotte (pronounced shar-LOT) at the mouth of the Genesee River at Lake Ontario. It was once a busy industrial port, but now it mostly caters to pleasure craft. This is the home of Ontario Beach, and the Port of Rochester, and now it is the host for the Spirit of Rochester (a fast ferry) to Toronto across the lake.

In season, this is a nice place to swim, but the beach, unfortunately, closes frequently due to high bacterial counts in the lake. (This is the drawback of being located at the mouth of a major river).

Question! The original owner of the fast ferry had to shut down during the summer of 2004. Recently, the City of Rochester purchased the boat in an auction, and service should resume in the spring of 2005. Is this a good move for the city? What benefits (if any) will it bring this community?

One spot you want to visit is the lighthouse, sitting on a bluff overlooking the harbor. There is a nice museum inside, and the view from the top is striking. Make sure you get to see the harbor view!

Question! The downtown of Rochester is several miles upstream, not here at the harbor, as you might expect. Why is Charlotte a satellite community within the city of Rochester and not its hub?
HINT: Where are the falls, and what do they have to do with the answer to this geographic question?

THE MIDDLE SECTION: As you travel south of Rochester, you gradually leave the urban sprawl and the scene becomes mostly rural. No signs of waterfalls or gorges here. This is the old valley widened into a glacial trough (a U-shaped valley). Today the farmers grow mostly corn and feed for their animals, but in the 19th century, wheat was king.

Why were these farms important to the city of Rochester to the north in the 1800's?
Main Street, Geneseo, NY  
5. Travel through the picturesque villages of Avon (pronounced AAAH-von) and Geneseo, which predates Rochester. Geneseo is a college town today, one of the satellites of the State University of New York (SUNY). Check out the businesses downtown. What evidences do you see that they depend on college students for their survival?
Don't forget to visit the statue of the Bear in the town center. It proves that you are a true geographer!

Take Route 20A south out of Geneseo. You will notice the deep glacial trough ahead that holds the Genesee River.

Question! Why is the town built on the ridge overlooking the valley? Why not in the valley itself?

The road takes you down into the valley. It is perhaps the flattest place in this part of New York. Farms stretch in all directions. You pass through Cuylerville, the site of the infamous Torture Tree, where two Revolutionary soldiers were executed by the Senecas during the Clinton-Sullivan campaign. The purpose of their venture into the Genesee Country was to destroy the farms of the Seneca people, who sided with the British. Even in the 18th century, this was an agricultural center.
Move on through Leicester (pronounced Lester) and toward Mount Morris, the home of the Pledge of the Alliange (or, at least, its author). Just before entering Mount Morris, turn into the entrance for Letchworth State Park.


6. As was indicated earlier, this is a new section of the river. In other words, it is post-glacial, about 9000 years old, which is very young, geologically speaking. The park is seventeen miles long, and there are many places you need to stop to appreciate its splendor. One is the Mt. Morris Dam, which is used mostly for flood control. During Hurricane Agnes in 1971, the dam held back the waters, preventing disastrous flooding downstream. Next is the view of the Hogback, a bend in the river around steep cliffs. This is often called the Highbanks Gorge. Farther south, or upstream (remember the Genesee flows north), you will pass through the remains of Gibsonville, one of two ghost towns in the park.

Question! Why did farm towns like Gibsonville struggle to survive and finally fail?

7. The middle of the park, or the Gardeau section, was the home for many years to Mary Jemison, the White Woman of the Genesee. She was captured in Pennsylvania by Native Americans, and she eventually married into the Seneca Nation. After the Revolution, the Senecas had to cede much of their land to the state, but she managed to hold on to a large plot near this location for herself. (Mary is buried in the southern part of the park, next to the memorial statue, high up on a hill).

Next stops are at Tea Table Rock and Wolf Creek Glen. Wolf Creek is a tributary of the Genesee that falls through a series of cascades before joining the Big River. The scenery here is spectacular. As the road winds southward, you can stop for many great views of the gorge. It is here where the river most resembles an eastern facsimile of the Grand Canyon.

8. Finally, you come to the Falls: Lower, Middle, Upper. Each is awesome in its own way. The Lower Falls blasts through a flume. The Upper Falls passes underneath a magnificent railroad tressle. But the king is the Middle Falls (pictured at the top of the page), which is not only the largest, but also the home of Glen Iris, now an inn, but once the home to the park's founder, William Pryor Letchworth. He is one of the great personalities that Upstate New York produced during the 19th century. He became a successful businessman in Buffalo, and he first saw the gorge from a train as it passed over the tressle. Letchworth soon returned and bought up most of the land around the falls. His efforts at conservation became a model for the rest of the state. He willed his land to the state, which created the state park in 1903.

Question: The park was not wilderness when Letchworth first arrived here. As you walk around the inn and the trails by the river, what evidence do you see that the forests are secondary growth?

Spend some time visiting the little museum across the parking lot from the Glen Iris Inn. Look for pictures of the falls before it was protected as a park. Notice dam and mills from the mid-1800's. Mr. Letchworth supervised their removal.  While in the museum, ask to see the short film about the flood from Hurricane Agnes in 1971. Very impressive!

Question: Even before Letchworth's arrival, this settlement wasn't very large. Why didn't a city or even a village spring up here by the banks of this mighty waterfall? (What is lacking here that is found in Rochester?)

9. A short drive south takes you out of the park. You enter the small village of Portageville. If you drive up the hill (Rte. 436), you climb up a moraine. This barrier left by the retreating glaciers is reponsible for the creation of the Letchworth Gorge. There is a section of the park on this side of the river with an easy trail that follows the abandoned channel of the Genesee Canal. This old lateral canal connected Olean (near the Pennsylvania border) to Rochester. The trail hugs the cliff far above the river.

Question: Why was a canal built here in the first place? Why did it fail after only a couple decades of service? What physical geographic fact proved to be the canal's downfall?

If you drive farther down Rte. 436, you enter the little town of Oakland, and you will see the remains of five locks of the old canal. You can park your car and walk through most of them. During the operation of the canal, the locks lifted the packets from the old valley of the Genesee to the new one and beyond. It was quite an engineering feat for its time.

At this point you can travel back towards Rochester on Route 436. You will see great views of the old Genesee Valley off to your right. When you get to Mt. Morris, you will climb down into this valley. From here you can travel east to the Finger Lakes, or westward toward the Niagara Frontier.

10. Another option is to return to Portageville and follow Routes 19A/19 south along the upper Genesee River. If you wish, you can foolow its course to its origins near Gold, PA, just south of the state line. How does this section of the valley compare to the Middle Section around Geneseo or Avon? What seems to be the economic base for this region?

Final Questions! How do rivers influence the patterns of human settlement? Why do cities form in some locations and not in others? And how does human activity affect the physical landscape of a river valley, for better or for worse?

After completing the tour of the Genesee Valley, visit the three
adjacent regions: Seaway, Niagara Frontier, and the Finger Lakes.
Click on the links below to go to those web pages:



  Shequaga Falls
Niagara Frontier
Finger Lakes

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