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NSG Visit September 20, 2003

Letchworth State Park

The Letchworth Legacy


Donovan A. Shilling

Clear blue skies on Saturday, September 20th held a gentle coolness, a hint of Autumn that greeted the 18 New Society of the Genesee members who traveled to Letchworth State Park, "Jewel of the New York State Park System." Called the "Grand Canyon of the East," the seventeen-mile-long park, with its 14,350 acres, border the mighty Genesee River with its spectacular 600-foot gorge and three major waterfalls offering some of the most magnificent scenery in all of Eastern United States.

Most of our group arrived at Glen Iris about 11:30 a.m. We walked a few paces to the edge of the gorge to enjoy the view of the 110-foot Middle Falls and in the distance, the impressive Portage Bridge. Two bridges were built, the first constructed of wood timbers in 1875 and the current one of iron girders. They allowed the Erie Railroad to cross the yawning chasm created by the eroding waters of the Genesee River. Marveling at this viaduct that so gracefully spans the gorge we almost forgot the scheduled time to dine in the stately Glen Iris Inn and Restaurant, original home of William Pryor Letchworth. The cuisine, served in Caroline's Dining Room with its formal ambiance made the experience most memorable.

We were joined by our guide, Tom Cook, a social studies teacher at the Nunda Middle School. Tom is familiar with the history and geology of the surrounding area, once having been employed as a guide by the park department. He explained the origin of the Inn's name telling us that "Iris" was the goddess of the rainbow, a fitting name for William Letchworth's 1299-acre estate. Its white pillared mansion overlooks the scenic Middle Falls where a misty rainbow often rises above the cascading waters. Letchworth, who earned his fortune in the steel business, purchased the site for $2000 in 1858.

As a confirmed bachelor, he spent much of his time improving his grounds with the aid of William Webster, a landscape artist. His secretary, Caroline Bishop, may have also been an inspiration and help-mate when Mr. Letchworth began collecting curiosities and writing stories and poems. Using the pen name Sacksa Hilda, he wrote a number of romance novels and poetry, submitting his work to various women's magazines popular during his era.

Tom also spoke of Elisha Johnson, the Rochester engineer who constructed much of the Genesee Valley Canal starting work in the 1830s. The path of the canal was hewn out of the rock along the precipitous crest of the canyon's east bank, a remarkable feat of engineering for its time. Elisha Johnson also built a most unusual home, known at Hornby Lodge, near this work site. Formed around the trunk of a huge oak tree, it was said to be a treasure house filled with an assortment of fossils, minerals and collections of stuffed birds and woodland animals. These were placed in various handy places decorating many of the tree's branches, and in large museum-type cases. The second floor was reached by way of a winding stairway circling the massive oak tree's trunk.

Tom next took us to visit the Council Grounds, on a bluff a short distance above Glen Iris. Created by William Letchworth in 1872, it holds the Caneadea Council House, the Nancy Jemison Cabin and the grave site and statue of Mary Jemison. Tom explained that Mary Jemison had been captured by the Senecas at age fifteen and adopted into the Seneca Nation as Deh-Ge-Wa-Nus. She was married to two Indians, one a chief, and had many children.

Dedicated in 1910, a rather poignant statue of Mary Jemison and her papoose stands above her grave site. She passed away in 1833 living into her 90s. Today a locust tree, generations old, spreads its massive branches shading the site of this remarkable person known to history as "The White Woman of the Genesee."

Later many of the group visited the nearby Genesee Valley Museum with its Native American artifacts, a mastodon skeleton, and relics associated with Mary Jemison and the Letchworth Park area. The Society excursion on such a delightful day, was well worth the six dollar park admission which was, by the way, repaid to us when we dined at the Glen Iris Inn.

© 2003, Donovan A. Shilling
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