Pieces of the Past
Artifacts, Documents, and Primary Sources
from Letchworth Park History

The completion of the great Portage Wooden Bridge brought many visitors to the Portage area to see the marvelous new railroad trestle. Tourists, such as the the one that wrote the following account, were quick to notice that the engineering wonder was not the only thing to see on a visit to the Portage Gorge. It is clear that several years before Mr. Letchworth arrived to establish his Glen Iris Estate, people were enchanted by the natural beauty of the region.

Here is the account as it appears in the New York Daily Times on September 28, 1852.



"Walks Along the Railways-III"

"Portage Station, Buffalo and New-York Railroad."

"I write from a little roadside inn, the site of which cannot fail to be soon occupied by a first class hotel. This has long been a place of great resort for all the surrounding country ; but lying away from the main lines of travel, it has scarcely been heard of at a distance. Geologists, indeed, known of it as giving name to the remarkable " Portage Group," and as furnishing the most striking illustration of the matter in which deep gorges ­ or canyons, for we must naturalize that word ­ have been worn through the solid rock by the slow action of a stream apparently quite in adequate to produce such a result; but it has not been generally known that some of the most unique and picturesque scenery in the country is grouped together here. The opening of this Railroad, which, in connection with the Erie road forms the best route between New-York and Buffalo, has brought this section of the country into the line of travel, and must make Portage a line of resort ranking with Niagara and the White Mountains.

The Buffalo and New-York Railroad connects with the Erie road at Hornellsville, 128 miles from Dunkirk. It crosses the tremendous gorge of the Genesee River, about a mile from the village of Portage. This gorge commences at Portage, and extends, measured along its windings some twelve or fifteen miles, pursuing a general northern course. The Genesee Valley Canal crosses the river at the head of the gorge, upon a fine aqueduct of stone. Leaving this, and following the course of the stream, the banks grow higher and more precipitous, until we reach the lofty bridge by which the Railroad crosses the chasm. This bridge is about 800 feet in length, with an extreme height above the water of 234 feet. The roadway is sustained by lofty trestle piers of wood resting upon stone abutments. There is nothing very in imposing in the structure itself, beyond what arises from its stupendous height. It presents to the eye little more than an enormous mass of timber, braced, and bound, and bolted, crossing and recrossing in every direction ; but has none of that self-sustained, airy and grateful lightness which gives such a charm to the beautiful arch of the Cascade Bridge.

At the very foot of the bridge is the " Upper Fall," a picturesque cascade of ninety feet in height. The shape of the fall is very nearly that of a half of a horse-shoe, the the chord of the semi-circle being formed by the cliff which forms the eastern wall of the gorge, which is here a perpendicular precipice of 150 feet or more in height, crowned by a steep, sloping bank. The water makes the descent by a single leap, broken, here and there, by projecting rocks. At the foot of the fall, a large number of saw logs had lodged among the broken rocks. Scrambling over these, barefoot, at a cost of a few partial plunges into the water from their slippery sides, I succeed in gaining the most favorable point for a sketch, at the foot of the fall. From this point the roadway of the bridge is fully 325 feet in the air, directly overhead, and the effect is very fine.

Below the fall, the gorge widens for a quarter of a mile into a deep basin, with steeply sloping sides, down which a road winds, in a zig-zag direction, to the bottom, where it crosses the river by a bridge thrown immediately over the " Middle Fall." At this fall, the water springs, by a single leap of 116 feet, into a deep semi-circular chasin, the walls of which are of solid rock, fully 300 feet in height, the top considerably overhanging the base. Close by the fall is a singular cavern, worn into rock by the action of the water. The mouth forms a regular Gothic arch, twenty feet high ; and it expends seventy feet into the rock. It is known as " Devil's Oven." I was desirous of exploring its recesses, but the boat, which had been placed in the pool, was carried down stream by a recent freshnet, and I could reach the Oven only by dint of more swimming than I felt inclined to extend.

On the western brink of this chain, and commanding a full view of its depths, of both falls, and of the railroad bridge, stand's the little inn at which I am now sojourning. The aspect of the Middle Fall is injured from most points of view, by the bridge above it, and by a mill upon its brink.
The basin below the fall, stretches out into a tremendous gorge, the sides of which retaining their perpendicular direction, rapidly increase in height, till they attain an elevation of 400 feet ­ which they retain for some miles without interruption. The proprietor of a little cake-and-beer shop, has constructed a stair-case, down which one can pick his way into the chasm, at the expense of one shilling in cash, and a moderate amount of muscular exertion. But to make the ascent and regain upper air- hic labor, hoc opus est- let no one descend without having previously well considered his climbing powers.

By dint of carefully picking my way along the base of the over-hanging cliff, and more or less wading in the rapid, though shallow stream, with the chance, at any moment, of a detached rock toppling from above upon my head, I succeeded in making my way down the canyon for a couple of miles to the Lower Fall. The canal is carried along the eastern brink of a chasm for a considerable distance, protected in a part by a stone parapet. In one place, an immense amount of rubbish, excavated from the canal, has been shot over the side of the chasm, somewhat marring the general effect. But as there was no other possible place to deposit it, I could hardly join in the wish, expressed to me by an enthusiastic tourist, that " it had rather been shot down the throat of the Vandal contractor or engineer."

The Lower Fall, or rather group of falls and rapids, is the most unique of the whole series. Within the memory of man the river here flowed at the bottom of the gorge, over a bed of smooth, hard table-rock, and precipitated itself at a single leap down a precipice of ninety-six feet. This table-rock is composed of a stratum of hard sand-stone, not more than two feet thick, resting upon a much softer stone. The course of the ravine here makes a bend, and the main body of the water was thrown to the right side of this table-rock, and against the perpendicular right wall of the chasm. The two feet of hard stone was at length worn through at this side, down to the soft rock below, which rapidly gave way, and a narrow channel was formed, some sixty feet in depth, and not more than twenty or thirty feet wide. Through this the whole body of water now pours, making in its descent two considerable leap, before reaching the line of the original precipice, where it completes the descent by a final plunge of some thirty feet. The rock over which the water originally flowed is thus left perfectly dry. By a peculiar conformation of the rock, which can hardly be made intelligible without a diagram, a cliff at the edge of this last fall, fully one hundred and fifty feet high, has been separated half-way to its base from the side of the chasm, and stands an isolated column of a few feet square, and fully seventy-five feet high, with its top covered by shrubbery. The action of the water, and of the ice in winter, is wearing away the base of this pillar, and it must fall within the course of a few years.

The edge of the cliff near the Lower Fall is a favorite spot for Pic-Nics, being clothed with a fine grove. While I was sketching the Lower Fall, I was observed by a Pic-Nic party, who politely invited me to join them. Being pressed for time, I was obliged to decline. I half inclined to suspect that they supposed me to be some poverty-stricken artist to whom a comfortable dinner would have been a God-send ­ as to tell the truth, they were fully justified in inferring from my appearance at the time, for a series of dusty walks and strenuous climbing had not contributed much to give me a fashionable exterior.

Some two miles further down the River are what are called the " High Banks." The walls of the gorge here rise for some miles to a height of 600 feet, as I was told. I was only able to go to the top of this part of the chasm, without exploring its depths, far down which flows the Genesee, seeming in the distance to be scarcely larger than a silver line. I do not imagine that there would be any special difficulty in tracing the gorge from the Lower Fall down through the High Banks. At all events, it would be well worth the trial, which I hope to make next season.

The whole descent which the Genesee makes in passing through the Portage canon is 600 feet, of which, at least, 400 are made on the distance of two miles from the Upper to the Lower Fall. It is worthy of notice that this long winding gorge is not the original channel of the River, which once ran through a valley, the course of which can still be traced in almost a straight line from the head to the foot of the gorge. In the course of time, this valley became filled by depositions of sand, and the country above Portage was converted into a lake, the waters of which broke and wore for themselves this channel through the rocks, rather than excavate the much shorter course through sand which choked the original bed of the stream.

The country in the vicinity of Portage is extremely beautiful. Going down the River, it soon passes into the famous " Genesee Country," whose gently rolling character and high cultivation have made it known as the finest portion of Western New-York. Looking across the chasm at the High Banks, the opposite table-land presents a fine specimen of this species of rural landscape. "


Also see our Glimpse of the Portage Bridge and also read the Hunt Letter, written about the same time as the article.



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