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u-NY-que VI- the Historic Genesee River

March 17, 2010
Timothy McDonnell


   I have been writing about the special geography of New York State for two years now. In the previous edition, I discussed the importance of the Hudson River to our history, economic growth, and the diffusion of ideas. This was a very appropriate for last year, the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Henry Hudson on the river that bears his name. In 2010, National Geographic has decided to make Fresh Water the theme for Geography Awareness Week (November 14-20). So, I am continuing the series with a look at another New York river, the Genesee.

There is only one river that completely crosses the state, and it is the Genesee. It's headwaters are in northern Pennsylvania on the Allegheny Plateau. Around 180 miles later it ends its journey at Lake Ontario in Rochester, dropping nearly 2000 feet in elevation along the way. Now as geographers, something should immediately click in our sharp spatial-thinking brains. The river flows NORTH! I was recently informed by a Global History teacher (he dropped Geography from the title), that the only river that flows north is the Nile. He used to live in Rochester, which makes this a very sad story. Rivers always flow downhill, and that can be any compass direction.

Photo on the left: The High Falls in Rochester, NY. Note the tunnels that were once used for hydropower. Photo on the right: Fog fills in the gorge at Letchworth State Park near Castile, NY.

The Genesee River probably predates the Ice Age, but it has been significantly modified by the erosive force of the moving continental glaciers. Most of river now sits in a glacial trough, a U-shaped valley with a flat bottom, and a wide flood plain. Around Avon and Geneseo, the river meanders lazily to the north. You can even find oxbow lakes, showing where the river changed course after a flood. The biggest changes are found in two locations - Letchworth State Park and in the City of Rochester. After the last Ice Age ended, the Genesee changed course in both places and carved out very impressive gorges. There are also three waterfalls in Letchworth and in Rochester. How many cities do you know that can claim that distinction? Anyone who wants to understand the geography of this region should visit all the waterfalls, to enjoy their beauty and their role in the development of the region.

The history of the Genesee Valley has been impacted by the physical geography left by the Ice Age. For many centuries this was part of the ancestral home of the Seneca people, Native Americans who belonged to the Iroquois Confederacy, or the Haudenosaunee, "People of the Longhouse." They settled in the fertile valley, and grew their three staple crops - corn, beans, and squash (The Three Sisters). During the American Revolution, the Seneca fought with the British. An American army, led by Gen. Clinton and Sullivan, invaded the valley, destroying much of the farmland along the way. The Seneca never recovered from this tragic loss. They were forced on reservations to the west after the war ended.

There was one important exception. During the French and Indian War, young Mary Jemison was captured during a raid in Pennsylvania. She later was adopted by the Seneca Nation. She gave birth and raised several children, and her decendents still live with the Seneca. After the Revolution, she was able to obtain land during a peace treaty in the Gardeau section of what-is-now Letchworth State Park. Mary Jemison lived there for most of the rest of her life. In the late 1800s, William Pryor Letchworth, moved her grave to a hilltop above the Middle Falls, and her cabin was reconstructed there as well.

Photo on the left: Glen Iris Inn, the home of William Pryor Letchworth; Photo of the right: The Ballot Box, part of a monument for Susan B. Anthony, who voted illegally there in 1872.

 Speaking of Mr. Letchworth, he is one of those remarkable 19th men who used his own finances to promote social causes, such as taking people suffering from epilepsy out of the insane asylums. His main passion was saving the beautiful gorge that surrounded his home, Glen Iris. Before he moved there, it had been deforested, and there will mills and factories in the valley. He bought up the land, and worked out a plan to return the gorge back to nature. Upon his death in 1910, it became a park.

As for the other gorge, the city of Rochester grew around it. Wheat was grown throughout the Genesee Valley and brought to Rochester to be ground into flour at the mills powered by the rivers falls and rapids. But in the early 1800s, Rochester was on the frontier. That changed with the building of the Erie Canal (1817-1825). "Clinton's Ditch" passed right through the middle of town, just a short distance from the mills. A magnificent 800-ft. aqueduct carried the canal over the Genesee River (see photo below). Cheap transportation opened up markets, both domestic and foreign. The Flour City became the nation's first boom town.

The Erie Canal did not just carry commodities; it also helped to spread ideas. The Genesee County became a hotbed for many reform movements: temperance, abolitionism, and women's rights. Two giant reformers made Rochester their home - Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Here Douglass wrote and published his newspaper, The North Star. He was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad. He often personally put Freedom Seekers on boats in the Genesee River below the falls, where they completed their journeys to freedom across Lake Ontario to Canada. Anthony and her partner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Seneca Falls, were the Mothers of Women's Rights. Susan B. worked for many decades to get women the vote. She herself voted illegally in Rochester in 1872. She was arrested and tried in nearby Canandaigua. The judge mandated a guilty sentence, and Miss Anthony became a martyr for the cause. Unfortunately, she died before the passage of the 19th Amendment. Her home on Madison Street is a living museum today.

The Genesee River never was important for transportation, but its power helped bring America into the Industrial Age. Its rich history and stunning beauty is a source of pride for Western New Yorkers. It symbolizes the importance of protecting our fresh water resources, so they can be enjoyed by all.