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u-NY-que VIII: Treasuring our Geographic Beauty

August 21, 2012
Timothy McDonnell


Many people visiting New York for the first time are surprised to find a variety of scenic wonders from the skyline of Manhattan to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks; from thundering Niagara Falls to the wild beaches of Long Island's North Coast. There are many other beautiful places in between.

But we are geographers, so we are interested in more than a nice photo to share on Facebook. The landscapes of New York impact our history, our economy, and our culture. We want you to treasure the geographic beauty! In this article, we are giving you eight examples from all over the state. We are the Empire State, and here are some reasons why!

1. New York's Fruit Belt: If you drive along the southern shoreline of Lake Ontario, you are apple country. Why here? This is a narrow band of a microclimate. The large lake prevents early blooming in spring, and it delays the first frost in fall. This makes it ideal for apple orchards (and other fruits, too). Similarly, grapes grow well along the shores of Lake Erie (south of Buffalo) and on the slopes of the Finger Lakes. In geography, we call these spatial analogies (similar conditions in different locations).

2. Long Island Moraines: Quick question - Which is farther east, the "Hamptons" or Hartford, CT? If you said Connecticut, you are wrong. Long Island extends around 100 miles from Queens to Montauk into the Atlantic Ocean. Actually, the existence of this island is fleeting. It is a relic of the Ice Age. Around 20,000 years ago, the glaciers stopped advancing. Before they melted backwards, debris eroded from as far away as Canada was dumped at the ice margin. It built up two ridges of dirt and rock, known to geologists as terminal moraines. The Ronkonkoma is farther south (Southampton and Montauk) and the Harbor Moraine staddles Long Island's north coast. They form the spine of the island, and this explains why the eastern end has a "fork." When the Ice Age ended, the Atlantic Ocean began to attack the moraines. The northern shoreline has a steep scarp of glacial debris. The beach is littered with rocks of all sizes and types, a gift from the glaciers that left many millenia ago.

3. The Susquehanna Watershed: New York  is a wet state. We can boast many lakes, wetlands, and rivers. The headwaters of some important watersheds begin in our highlands. The Hudson and the Black Rivers begin the Adirondacks. The Delaware River begins in the Catskills, and the Susquehanna has most of its roots in New York's Southern Tier. For example, little Tinker Falls (pictured below) is found in northern Cortland County. It is a tributary to the Tioughnioga River, which joins the Susquehanna proper near Binghamton. Hundreds of other small streams form other parts of the watershed. Cities like Elmira, Corning, Hornell, and Cooperstown are all found near these rivers. This means that they are connected by water to Pennsylvania and to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The Southern Tier faces away from the rest of New York, making a unique region in the state.

4. The Tug Hill Plateau: Another isolated region of New York lies between Lake Ontario's east shore and the Black River Valley. It is the Tug Hill, a plateau held up by resistant limestone, an island in the sky. There are few roads here, and fewer people. It is also the home to one of our infamous Lake Effect Belts. Two-hundred inches of annual snowfall is not uncommon. Farming here is a tough existence, and many family farms have been abandoned. The Tug Hill does have wind, so recently wind farms have sprung up along its edges, especially near Lowville in Lewis County. Here the towering mills dominate the landscape, like the skyscrapers on Manhattan. The money farmers receive for renting out space for the mills, allows them to stay on their land.

5. Rochester's Genesee (High) Falls: The Genesee River springs out of the ground in northern Pennsylvania. It flows north out of the Allegheny country and crosses the entire state before ending its journey at Lake Ontario at Rochester. There are six impressive waterfalls on the Genesee. Three of them are in Letchworth State Park ("The Grand Canyon of the East"), and the other three are in Rochester. How many cities can boast that? In the 1800s, flour mills sprang up around the falls, especially the High Falls near downtown. This was the milling capital of America. Just a few blocks away, the Erie Canal passed through the "Flour City." This provided cheap transportation to the markets in New York City and even Europe. This made Rochester the first boom town in the United States.

6. Mighty Niagara: Of course, the most famous cataract in New York (and just about anywhere else) is Niagara Falls. Not only is this one of the most popular tourist destinations in North America, but it also home to the first commercially successful electric generation plants in the world. Nearby Buffalo was the first "Electric City." The falls are important to our history in another way. The Niagara River is the outlet of Lake Erie and all the Upper Great Lakes behind it. The river tumbles over the falls and rapids, eventually flowing into Lake Ontario, a drop of over 300 feet in elevation. In colonial times, this was a major obstacle for travel to the West. Whoever controlled the portage around the Falls, controlled the trade to the continent's interior (especially the Fur Trade). When New Yorkers built the Erie Canal (1817-1825), it went to Buffalo NOT to Lake Ontario. That connected the state to the Great Lakes, the only reliable transportation route by water in the 19th Century.

7. Hudson Highlands: The Hudson River flows south from the Adirondacks (near Mt. Marcy) to New York Harbor. South of Albany, it is an estuary (at sea level) all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. This valley, like many other features in the state, are the result of glacial erosion during the last Ice Age. This valley cuts through one of the ranges of the Appalachian Mountains, known locally as the Hudson Highlands. Here the mountains come right down to the water. But, while Niagara Falls is an obstacle, the estuary here is totally navigable. The Erie Canal ended in Albany, but the trade continued by steamship down the Hudson to the Port of New York. This made the canal a great success, and New York the first among American cities. Without the Hudson River Estuary, this would not have been possible.

8. The BIG Apple: Speaking of NYC, it was not the premier city of colonial times. That honor went to Philadelphia. But the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 changed that. New York City now funneled almost all of the trade from the Midwest. Crops grown in Indiana were loaded on steamships and sent along the Great Lakes to Buffalo. They were then loaded on canal boats and pulled by mules 360 miles to Albany. Then the boats were towed by steamships on the Hudson River all the way to New York City. Meanwhile manufactured goods went the other way. Photo #8 shows Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry. This is one of the greatest natural harbors anywhere. Wall Street's "Stock Exchange," first involved living livestock! The wealth accumulated made the City the financial capital of the world. Although the Erie Canal is not the important commercial highway it used to be, New York City is still our First City!

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