Glimpses of the Past
People, Places, and Things in Letchworth Park History

The Glen Iris Threatened
The Portageville Dam Project

After working for nearly four decades on his beloved Glen Iris, Mr. Letchworth should have been able to relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor. But in the late 1890's, he faced a threat so severe that it changed the history of the Glen Iris Estate. Ironically, the source of the danger was the same River that had shaped the Portage Gorge and brought Letchworth to the Valley.
The Genesee River always posed both promise and problems to the communities along its shores. This was especially true to the City of Rochester, far to the North of the Glen Iris. Although the Genesee's waters were essential to Rochester's very life, it also periodically ravaged the City with devastating floods. There were others times when drought sapped the River, leaving little water to feed the Erie Canal.
Rochester officials called for action after a particularity costly flood in 1865. Studies were done and recommendations made, mostly in the Lower Genesee and Rochester area. Eventually, though, attention turned toward a water storage project in the southern Genesee Valley.
A report in 1890 proposed building a dam in the vicinity of Mt. Morris. Additional reports in 1892 and 1893 also supported such a dam. As a result, the State set aside $10,000 to carry out a more detailed study, and hired engineer George W Rafter to carry it out. Rafter explored three sites near Mt. Morris, including one near the Hogsback.
Based on the Report, a bill to construct a dam 130 feet high at Mr. Morris was passed by the legislature 1894 but vetoed by Governor Morton. Another attempt the following year suffered a similar fate, with Norton stating that it provided no provision for private interests sharing any of the cost. Why would there be private interest in the dam? The answer had to do with a new technology ­ the production of electric power.
George Rafter wrote another report in 1896, this one focusing on a new site at Portageville, just 1400 feet upstream from the Erie Railroad Bridge. The report claimed that the new site would provide twice the storage capacity of the Mt. Morris site, would be safer, and could provide a "great increase in the water power development." Two years later the Legislature debated a bill that would create the Genesee River Company. The Company, in turn, would build the Portageville Dam.
At the Glen Iris, Mr. Letchworth watched the developing crisis with growing concern. A dam at Portageville? What would become of the Falls? "Are the populous communities that succeed us to be denied breathing placed and the enjoyment of the natural beauty God has given us?" Letchworth wrote, "Must everything be sacrificed to Mammon and adversely to the interests of the people?" He attempted to block the charter, but he experienced something rare for him ­ defeat. The new Company was chartered and given "the right to utilize all the waterpower incidentally created by the construction of the main dam or reservoir"
According to Letchworth's biographer, Joseph Larned, the Genesee River Company had been given extensive powers. "They could take property, even of cemeteries, by condemnation. They could acquire property belonging to the state or others authorities; they could use public streets and highways; they could fix their own charges for power, light, etc."
It appears the only thing the Genesee Valley Company couldn't do was raise money. Their charter specified that they had until April of 1903 to raise their capital and begin the work. When the deadline passed, Mr. Letchworth breathed a sigh of relief.
But three years later the battle began again.
The State Legislature voted to resurrect the Company at the end of its session in 1906. Caught off guard, Mr. Letchworth could do little to prevent it's passage. Governor Higgins signed the bill and the Genesee River Company had another five years to begin building the Dam.
Mr. Letchworth had to find a way to check the renewed threat. He had willed the Estate to the Wyoming Benevolent Institute in 1870, hoping to turn the Estate into a place that would benefit orphans and needy children. That had been his dream, but the Company now threatened everything. Health failing, Mr Letchworth was is desperate need of strong political allies.

See Project Maps

This was the time that the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society entered the scene. With their help, Letchworth State Park was created in 1906. But this still didn't stop the project. The next year the State Legislature directed the State Water Supply Commission to make the surveys and maps necessary for the completion of the project. In addition, that same year the Supervisors of Monroe County on the lower Genesee filed a petition to regulate the flow of the Genesee. The proposed dam at Portageville still loomed over the Glen Iris. Mr. Letchworth and the Society fought back. Using all the lobbying power they could muster, they skirmished with the Company and its allies again and again. The key was the State Water Supply Commission ­ they would have the final say on the project.
The Commission finally met to decide the issue on May of 1911. Interested parties from both sides attended the hearing, but Mr. Letchworth was absent from the proceedings ­ he had passed away at the Glen Iris five months earlier. Mr Adelbert Moot, a lawyer from Buffalo, presented the case for the Scenic Society and the new Letchworth Park. Mr. Letchworth, he argued, placed the State under the obligations or a contract when they accepted his gift. Since it was specified that the land "Shall be forever dedicated to the purpose of a public park or reservation", any other purpose that detracted from this would violate the contract. Moot argued that since the Constitution of the United States prohibits states from enacting laws which impair contracts. The building of the Portageville Dam was an unconstitutional act. If the work began, he warned, the Federal courts might stop the construction, or, at the very least, the deed to the State would become invalid and the Park would revert to Mr. Letchworth's heirs.
The Commission handed down its decision on June 16th, 1911. In its decision the Commission acknowledged that the application was "complicated by the existence Letchworth Park.". Voting two to one to reject the Portageville project, the Commission decided "On account of the impracticability of regulating the flow of the Genesee River and making the assessments for the cost thereof under the river improvement act, and the wider objection that an attempt to conserve the waters powers of the State under such narrow limits will impede the greater movement in behalf of a general systematic development of such power for a general welfare, this application is denied."
Although the basis for the rejection left some uneasy, the Glen Iris and Letchworth Park were saved ­ at least for a generation. In the late Twenties talk of tapping the upper Genesee for power was renewed, as Rochester Gas and Electric had expanded its holdings downstream from the Park. Dam building, like many other projects and schemes were set aside during the Great Depression and Second World War.
A Dam would be built ­ but at Mt Morris as had been originally recommended. And it took the Federal Government to do it - the Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the construction of the Mt. Morris Flood Control Dam which was complete in 1953. This structure preserves the heart of the Park because the water level behind a full dam would only reach the base of Lower Falls. The closest the Dam came to being full was the flood associated with Hurricane Agnes (Flood of 72). At that time water was released from the control gates in the bottom of the Dam because a huge pile of debris was afloat behind the Dam which could not be allowed to spill over top with the rising flood.
Interestingly, the Portageville site was again the center of a dam project. In the 1970's the Corps looked into building Rafter's Dam near the Portage High Bridge, part of a general study of the entire Genesee River Basin that included about five other impoundments in the area south of Portageville. But officials found local valley folk and Letchworth Park lovers in strong opposition once more and the project was tabled again.
A century ago Mr.Letchworth was fighting to save his beloved Glen Iris Estate. As caretakers of his great gift, we must stay vigilant and watch for any threats that could cast their shadow over the lands we know as Letchworth State Park


Tom Breslin
Tom Cook
November 2004


See more drawings of the Portageville Dam project and project maps


Image of Rafter site dam from Report on Flood Conditions in the Genesee River, by Edwin Fisher, 1937
Genesee River Storage & Power Studies State Water Supply Commission, 1908
Larned pp 370-398
Beale pp 175-186

Special thanks to Mr. James E. M Stewart, Former Senior Park Engineer
for his help with these pages.


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all rights reserved by Tom Cook and Tom Breslin