A River Ramble

Saga of the Genesee Valley

by Arch Merrill

Originally published

Cinderella Story

Cinderella-storyTHERE is a Cinderella chapter to the story of the Genesee.

The stream's beginning is modest, a little brook in the mountains. It later takes on the proportions of a river but an inconspicuous and unspectacular one, save for its occasional tantrums in the springtime.

For more than half its length, it plods prosaically through theAllegany hills-until it reaches the borders of Wyoming Countyand enters Letchworth Park, called Portage in other days.

There Nature touches the river with a magic wand and likeCinderella at the stroke of midnight, it throws off its drab, workadaygarb and dons robes of dazzling splendor.

The commonplace stream becomes spectacular, magnificent.

On the way northward, the changing landscape has hinted ofimpending drama. After one leaves the broad flats of Fillmore andRossburg, the scenery takes on a wilder, harsher note.

The hillsides are rocky and barren but they yield a crop oftheir own-huge slabs of stone that sometimes find their way togreat cities and feel the tread of thousands in busy office buildings.The bluestone industry south of Portageville is not an insignificant one.

At Portageville the Genesee encounters a mountainous barrier. Against this mass of Devonian rock, the waters for centuries have waged a war of attrition, etching a narrow chasm through it, to cascade over three cataracts amid a scene of natural grandeur that is without equal anywhere.

Upper-FallsI shall not attempt to describe the beauty of the three falls of Portage, of the high banks or the 15 miles of green and sylvan gorge. Letchworth Park has been called the Grand Canyon of the East. That is not hyperbole.

I assume that all Western New Yorkers are familiar with the glories of the park. If they are not, if they have journeyed to far places to gratify their love of the beautiful and neglected a scenic wonderland in their own back yard, they are to be pitied.

The Indians who once ruled this whole Genesee Country had better sense. The untutored savage felt in his bones the matchless beauty of the place and wove songs and legends about "the three singing falls of the Jungles" at Portage, the carrying place for the war canoes.

* * * * *

When I visited Letchworth on my jaunt along the river, it was a "ghost park," thanks to gasoline rationing and the ban on pleasure driving. I encountered only five people in the state-owned playground and three of them were workmen.

The CCC boys who labored there in peacetime have done wonders in beautifying the park, have built miles of walls and walks, but few people see them or use them in this year of war.

But the Council House of the Senecas still stands, just as William Pryor Letchworth had it reconstructed after it was moved from the old Indian village at Caneadea in 1871, On its walls of pine logs many initials have been cut by swains and sweethearts since that day.

Much water has flowed over the falls of Portage since the day in October, 1872, when in the old Council House glowed the last council fire of the Seneca Nation. In fully panoply of war paint and feathers, descendants of Red Jacket, of Cornplanter, of Mary Jemison and many another forest notable sat on the low benches on the clay floor around that fire. The venerable Millard Fillmore, former president of the United States, attended the ceremony, which saw Letchworth adopted into the tribe, with much speech making in the Indian tongue.

Near the Council House, Mary Jemison, the White Womanof the Genesee, stands in sculptured stone, her papoose strapped onher back, just as in that faraway time when she walked the wilderness trails from the Ohio to join her adopted people in the Genesee Country. The bones of the "White Woman rest now in this picturesque spot, in the land that she tilled and loved, the land where she dwelt for so many years among the Indians who had taken her into captivity when she was a young girl, into whose race she twice married and whose blood ran through the veins of her eight children.

SenecaIts quiet unbroken by visitors was the nearby Museum, housing one of the finest collections of Indian relics and regalia in America.

Closed was Glen Iris, the noble white pillared yellow mansion where Letchworth lived and which is now an inn. No gay voices of picnickers merged with the roar of the Middle Falls below, as in the halycon days of peace.

In wartime much beauty is "going to waste,"

* * * * *

In yellowing old newspaper files of 1903, I ran across this little "reader" ad:

"Fifty cents round trip to romantic Portage Falls. Special train leaves Rochester Sunday at 9:30 a. m.; leaves Portage Station4:45 p. m."

Maybe there are oldtimers who will remember riding the redexcursion trains that rolled out of the old Pennsylvania Station onWest Main Street (West Avenue then) on those Sundays oflong ago.

The old Erie bridge is still there, a web of steel against thesky, high above the foaming waters of the Upper Falls. The firstbridge on that site was built in 1852 by the Attica and HornellRailroad. It was for years the largest wooden bridge in the worldand 246 acres of timber were used in its construction. Pomp andceremony attended its dedication. William H. Seward came toaddress the throng. So did Washington Hunt, governor of NewYork, who as a boy lived at Hunt's Hollow, a few miles fromPortage. There was a mammoth barbecue and roast ox was served.History relates that "the meat somehow caused a cholera."

There was another gorgeous but grimmer spectacle in 1875when the great wooden bridge burned down and its blazing timbersfell splashing into the Genesee.

Crews of grim and sweating men, toiling 47 nights and days,replaced it with an iron bridge, a record accomplishment for thetime.

In the side of a rocky hill along the river is a dark and gloomycave that is a symbol of an engineering defeat of long ago.

When the Genesee Valley Canal was being built in the 1840's,great difficulties were encountered in the stretch between Portageville and Nunda. A cut through the ridge, dividing the Genesee and Cashaqua valleys, 75 feet deep, mostly solid rock, and involving 17 lift locks in five miles, was necessary to carry the canal around the towering hills overhanging the river. It was proposed to build a tunnel through the hill, 1,082 feet long, 27 feet high and 20 feet wide. Sliding shelves of rock forced abandonment of this daring plan after a quarter of a million dollars of the state's moneyhad been sunk in that hole in the hillside.

But the engineers really triumphed in pinning the canal to the hillside, 150 feet above the torrent at the very edge of the cliff, with a narrow towpath, winding under the high bridge. The canalcrossed the river by means of a wooden aqueduct, supported onstone piers. A stage service was maintained for timid passengerswho preferred to bypass this hazardous stretch.

In 1878 the waterway was abandoned and today the Oleanbranch of the Pennsylvania generally follows the old canal bed.

In the hills between Portageville and Nunda, the old stonelocks are still there, as staunch as the day they were laid, by hand,stone upon stone. The deep cut through the rocky hills is a tributeto the determination and stamina of the pioneers. For the rock wasblasted out by hand drills and black powder. There were no steamshovels and the earth was removed by horse scrapers and in manyplaces where horses could not be used, the soil and broken rockwere carried away in the leather aprons of the workmen.

The building of the canal was the signal for many demonstrations in the towns along its route. At Nunda, which in the Indiantongue means "where the hills come together," the villagers couldnot wait for the completion of the project but staged a gala Independence Day celebration in 1838, featured by a parade and adinner "which concluded with 26 formal toasts and a 26-gun salute."

Henry R. Selden of Elm Place, Avon, to whom I am indebtedfor much lore of the old canal, made this pertinent comment onthe Nunda celebration:

"One regards with respect, even awe, those who presumablystood up under the barrage of toasts, especially if they used thestrong waters which were accepted beverages on the canal in 1838."

* * * * *

One fall, years ago, a poetess named Helen Hunt Jackson, whomarried a Hunt of that Hunt's Hollow clan that produced a governor of the state, Washington Hunt, rambled the rugged hills ofthe Nunda region and wrote a poem that is in many a school booktoday. It is called "October's Bright Blue Weather." Here is astanza:

"When on the ground, red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine climbing."

Helen Hunt Jackson is in her grave but the woodbine still climbs over the old stone walls of the canal in the shadowy Nunda hills.

On the high plateau above the locks north of Portageville an historical marker indicates the site of a drill ground of the Civil War.

One can in fancy hear sharp commands ring out and the fieldresound to the tread of many feet, as a veritable rabble in arms,farmers from the hills, mechanics from the river towns, few evenwith uniforms, learn the ABCs of war.

The blood of many of those recruits was to stain Southernbattlefields and many of them never saw the hills and valleys of theGenesee again.

So many recruits flocked to Portage that the barracks, hastilybuilt, could not accommodate all of them. Old buildings still standin Portageville which housed the citizen soldiers of 1861.

Ten years before, Portage had been the scene of a differentsort of conflict. "The Portage Riot" of 1851 occasioned considerableexcitement throughout the country. Here is the way Lockwood L. Doty tells the story in his "History of Livingston County":

"A large number of the laborers on the section of the NewYork and Erie Railroad, running through Portage, struck for higherwages and as is generally the case, not only refused to work themselves but would not permit others to do so. So annoying were the strikers in their efforts to prevent others from working that a requisition was made on the civil authorities of Livingston and Wyoming counties."

"A half dozen officers repaired to the scene. A desperate encounter ensued between the officers and the disaffected workers in which a number of the latter were shot, two at least fatally. Then a requisition was made to Captain Hamilton at Geneseo for the services ofthe Big Tree Artillery and that organization started for the scene ofconflict. The sight of the militia cowed the rioters and without anyserious objection, 20 of their number were arrested, The principaloffenders were properly punished."

So you see there were labor troubles back in 1851 and no Smith-Connally law or Labor Relations Board.

We cannot leave Letchworth Park behind without paying tribute to the public spirited millionaire whose benefactions preserved its beauty for unborn generations.

William Pryor Letchworth had amassed a fortune in Buffalo industry. Struck with the beauty of Portage, he established a home there which he called Glen Iris. When he first came to Portage, there was a sawmill at the Middle Falls, the whole place was littered with stumps and piles of sawdust and waste lumber.

He first bought 100 acres in 1859, cleaned up the debris and added to his estate until 1,000 acres of scenic charm and the three falls were his. He saw that covetous eyes would be cast on the mighty water power of the cataracts and that commercialization might forever mar the beauty of the spot. So to forestall a projected huge power dam at the falls, he deeded over 1,000 acres to the State of New York.

That was the beginning of Letchworth State Park, which now embraces 8,000 acres.

Walk along the road along the gorge from Letchworth to Squawkie Hill and you walk with beauty all the way.

* * * * *

The road is not a smooth one, yet is far smoother than the one that the moccasined feet of Mary Jemison knew. Some day there may be a smooth, wide boulevard along "The Palisades of Western New York." Now too few people find their way to the majesticbeauty that is the High Banks of the Genesee.

Down in the flats lies Gardeau, the tract that was ceded to Mary Jemison at the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797 over the protests of the orator, Red Jacket, and where the White Woman and her descendants lived for many years.

And along the narrow chasm between two high hills sleeps the "lost village" of St. Helena, a thriving town in the 1860s. Now two or three scattered farmhouses, a few ruins overgrown with brambles, an old hillside cemetery, mark the site. It is more desolate than the St. Helena isle on which Napoleon breathed his last.

De-yu-it-ga-oh. That was the Indian name for Squawkie Hill and that is the name on the historical marker today on the last highbluff of the Genesee, at the end of the long line of cliffs.

But it is generally known as Squawkie Hill. In the days whenthe Senecas were the great warriors of this continent, they broughttheir captives to this hill. Many of the prisoners were Sauks, whichaccounts for the name,

There are only a few farmhouses, a road house, an old Indianspring, a few trees that the Senecas planted to mark this once important village of the Iroquois. Once Mary Jemison lived there andjoined the line of squaws that marched, hoe over shoulder, to tillthe gardens in the broad flats under the hill.

On Squawkie Hill was held the Indian sacrifice of the WhiteDog, the New Year ceremony, a great event in the village of bark-roofed log houses.

The site was set aside as a reservation by the Big Tree Treatybut as more and more white settlers came to the Valley, the Senecasleft for other hunting grounds and in 1825 the Indian title toSquawkie Hill was extinguished.

There was a farewell dance on the hill when the Senecas sadly said adieu to this citadel of their ancient empire along the Genesee.

De-yu-it-ga-oh in the Indian language means "where the valley begins to widen." Below Squawkie Hill stretches the broad and fertile "Pleasant Valley" and the harsh hills become gentle and rolling.

The bright lights go out, the music dies away, the flashing princess robes are cast aside.

The Genesee's Cinderella hour of glamour is done. The river resumes the even tenor of her ways.

But her hour of glory has been a splendid one.

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