Early Description of the Portage Falls
Generations of visitors had been coming to the three falls of the Upper Genesee River before William Pryor Letchworth established his Glen Iris Estate in 1859. One such sightseer was "Alpha", a resident of the nearby community of Nunda Valley (present day Nunda.) After a visit to the falls he (or she) sent a letter describing the trip to the Angelica Republican, an early Allegany County NY newspaper. ( The falls were part of Allegany County at that time, and remained so until 1846.) "Alpha's" letter was later reprinted in the Mt. Morris Spectator of Thursday, October 6, 1836.
The description is interesting in many ways. The letter provides an early description of the Portage Falls, pre-dating the publication of geologist James Hall's account by eight years. The account also presents some interesting details about the area during this time period. Among them are the description of a popular picnic rock at Upper Falls, an autographed cave at the Lower Falls, and confirmation that the stairway at Dehgayaso Creek pre-dated Mr. Letchworth by more than twenty years. These significant tidbits are almost hidden in the thick and flowerly layers of early 19th century prose.
I was tempted to edit out some of the account, but decided not to for within Alpha's writing one finds interesting and often conflicting views of the Portage Falls area. Sometimes the writer is caught up in the transcendental quality of the magnificent scenery that lifts him above the mundane and earthly struggles of human existence. Other times Alpha values the falls as a great investment opportunity, a place where "the din and bustle of industry and enterprise,(and) the busy hum of manufacturing machinery" will soon be heard. The effort to reconcile these two conflicting visions of the land - the preservation of the natural landscape and its physical development, has continued to be part of Letchworth Park's story down to the present day.
The account below has been copied in its entirety and follows the original spelling, punctuation, and emphasis found in the Mt. Morris Spectator. The only change was the translation of the passage originally written in Latin.
Special thanks to Leicester Town Historian Tom Roffe for finding the account, and to my wife Anne for providing a translation of the Latin passage.
Mount Morris Spectator, Thursday, October 6, 1836.
(From the Angelica Republican)
Mr. Editor— The Genesee River, whose banks have been the scene of so much that is interesting in history, presents some of the boldest and most beautiful scenery in Western NY. Upon its banks, where once roamed the Aborigines of this country, -(a now dispersed and departed race)- in their native wildness and unbought freedom, are rapidly multiplying the footsteps of industry, civilization, and refinement.- Upon its borders and in the broad and fertile region through which it winds it meandering current, where there was once heard but the shouts of savage triumph, - now resounds the voice of the diligent husbandman sowing in hope and reaping in joy.
‘Mid the peaceful lowings of his peaceful herds’ here where once Sol rose in his own brilliancy upon the wild animal of the Indian hunting grounds, and his swift pursuer in the eager excitations of the chase, he now looks upon other and living proofs of liberal enterprise, upon fresh and gathering evidences of its future high destinies. To unemployed Wealth, it offers every inducement for active and valuable investment: to hardy industry, a spacious and productive region to subdue with the hand of perseverance and spirit of times – to Genius a pure atmosphere for its flights’ and to Pleasure’s laughing eye and joyous brow every variety of scenery that beauty can adorn, or sublimity exact, or taste appreciate or admire.
As an example nearest Home, Mr. Editor, allow me to mention, en passant, the ‘Genesee Falls’ about five miles west of Nunda Valley, and a half mile below Portageville. The river falls, in the distance of about a mile between three and four hundred feet, divided into three perpendicular falls. The upper falls are about ninety feet. The rock in the centre of the stream has so fallen, or is so formed that a line drawn direct across from the lowest points on the sides of the stream, would nearly form a triangle. There is a beautiful ledge of rock on the west bank just below this fall varying in height from one to four feet above the water’s surface, and of sufficient width to admit some thirty or forty persons at once. Parties have here frequently, under the shade of the mighty rock and the overhanging cliffs, and amid the music of their ceaseless roar, partaken of a cold collation with the zest, and glee, and enjoyment, peculiar to the gay excitements and exercises of a ramble to luxuriate in the beauty and boldness of the surrounding scenery; and then while floating down to the MIDDLE and MIGHTIEST Fall, perchance to the tune of the ‘Bonny Boat,’- have mingled with the majestic music of the voice and waters, the spirit stirring strains of softer and sweeter melody.
The middle fall is of one hundred and two feet height, and the rock projecting more in the centre gives the sheet of water a broader and bolder sweep, blending the sublime and beautiful. Below this fall there is a narrow cavern some twenty or thirty feet high making into the bank of the stream near fifty or sixty feet, and of sufficient width to admit a few persons at a time in a small boat or skiff, at low waters. Below too, the bright bow of promise and of peace in its various and vivid hues exultingly dances upon the tremulous bosom of the flood, as if rejoicing at the brightness of its own beauty and shad—or the truth wisdom and benevolence of the Eternal Source of its passing away existence. A short distance below this have recently been erected several flights of steps, by which to descend to the level below the fall and go round the bend of the banks, which here erect themselves in towering grandeur some four or five hundred feet over your head with their projecting brink, their shelving and leaning sides richly clad in the variegated drapery of the deepest foliage and the sweetest flowers that the botanist can analyze or their most impassioned amateur admire. At the further point of the slippery edge to which you can go, with the waters dashing wildly upon you, in sight of the Cave, and with the snowy and falling column in bold relief before; at summer’s calmest and most noiseless hour, Eolus and the Water God will raise a tempest around you that reminds one of Virgil’s description of Juno in her ire summoning the elements to her aid to lavish their force with maden’d fury upon fated Eneas: ( Here is the English translation of the Latin passage which followedin the article:) 'When Aeolus, the god of winds, had spoken, he reversed his trident and struck the hollow mountain on the side: and the winds, formed ranks, rushed out by the door he'd made, and whirled across the earth.'
From this point one has an upward view that defies description. To those who have beheld it, ‘twere trite, tame and tasteless. One may here be impressed with the littleness of man and his schemes, and the Almightiness of that divinity who moulds nature at his will and wields the water and the winds in the hollow of his hands!
About a mile adown the river is the 3d and lower fall, once the loftiest and as many think, still the most interesting and picturesque. Time and attrition have here wrought a wondrous change in the channel having forced the current into a deep, narrow, and winding pass in the rock on the east bank thus much diminishing the height from which the water was once precipitated thereby leaving the whole of the former bed on the stream a dry smooth bold rock of some fifteen or twenty yards in length and six or eight wide, forming a beautiful “Table rock of more surface that that of Niagara; and herein very like some good folks, Mr. Editor, more of the superfices, but not quite so much of the solid contents.
Just as the place where the water turns its flyin course for the last time above the precipice, rises in bold relief the unapproachable, as in defiance of the dashing an furious and wild whirl of the Hydra Spirits, a Tower of rock and earth, surmounted by trees and shrubbery, entirely separated from the main bank which but a short time since was connected with it at the top by a sort of natural bridge. At the lower corner of Table Rock is a small circular Cave ten feet in height and six in diameter, on the sides of which many a wiglit and woman too seems to have modestly sought an obscure and secluded fame by inscribing their names and dates there and consigning them to the immortalist of Nature’s monument. Here the Geologist may find every kind of strata and substrata for his searching, “earthly and unetherial investigation, and for his sound, solid and unmetaphyical abstractions. Here too, the Botanists eager eye may glance on every class and order of wild flowers blooming brightly and kindly up in his pathway, that asks the admiration of proud man, as if submitting itself meekly to the dissecting spirit of his analysys: Queen lilies and the painted populace, Who dwell in field and lead ambrosial lives.
These falls posses one of the best hydraulic powers in the state. At no distant day the Canalman’s Bugle note will re-echo to these rocks, while these will mingle with the now solitary music of their roar. – the din and bustle of industry and enterprise, the busy hum of manufacturing machinery, wave and crowd and collision of mighty population driven to and fro by the impulses of pleasure, wealth interest and ambition.
ALPHA. Nunda Valley, Aug. 1835