The following is indeed a SHORT history of Letchworth Park designed to introduce the new visitor to the the Park's historic past. To explore more of that past, use the links found here and in the "Glimpses of the Past" section!
Remember, learning about the Park's history is a life long adventure. Be sure to read some of the sources listed in our bibliography and visit the Park often!
Letchworth State Park was created by the stroke of the pen of New York State Governor Charles Evans Hughes in 1907. It was a fine addition to the fledgling state Park system, the gift of a retired businessman and philanthropist, William Pryor Letchworth.
The new Park consisted of the thousand acre estate called the "Glen Iris" which Letchworth had lovingly developed over half a century. The Park was a treasure chest full of natural splendor and history, awaiting those who were willing to come and explore it. And for almost a century, they have come.
The Seneca called the place Sehgahunda, the Vale of Three Falls. They were descendants of the Old Ones, the Native People who had lived in the Valley for countless generations. The Senecas hunted, fished, and built their villages within the lands that would become Letchworth Park. Among them was Dehgewanus, known by the white men as the Indian Captive Mary Jemison, the Old White Woman of the Genesee.
Dehgewanus came to the Valley during the Revolutionary War, and from her home on the Gardeau Flats witnessed the transition of the Valley from Indian lands to the western frontier of the new United States. Soon pioneers became her neighbors as they built their farms and communities along the Genesee River. When Dehgewanus and her family left Sehgahunda in the early 1830's, the pioneer era had already passed.
From the 1830's to the Civil War progress swept through the lands of Portage. Soon the inhabitants of the Glen found themselves linked by canal and railroad to the outside world. Local products found new markets, and a growing number of tourists came by boats and trains to see the splendor of the Portage Gorge.
But progress had taken its toll. Much of the ancient forest had been reduced to lumber and potash, and the Upper and Middle Falls had been harnessed by mills. Visitors could gaze from the great Portage Wooden High Bridge, but they could only imagine how beautiful the gorge had been only a few decades earlier.
One visitor believed that what had been, could be once more. William Pryor Letchworth bought the land around the Middle Falls and established the Glen Iris Estate. For fifty years he would expand and develop his holdings, carefully restoring the natural beauty of the Valley while opening the grounds to visitors. Mr. Letchworth understood that the Glen's history was also important, and he worked to both preserve and present that history to those who came to his Council Grounds and Museum - both of which are there for today's visitors to enjoy.
It was this Glen Iris Estate, a place of natural beauty and rich history, that he gave to the People of New York State.
After Mr. Letchworth's death at his Glen Iris in 1910, the Park began its transition into being a State Park. At first it was under the control of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, whose Letchworth Park Committee oversaw the first changes. When the Genesee State Park Commission took over in 1930, they planned many additional improvements to the young Park. The Great Depression would have put a halt to all those plans, if not for the Civilian Conservation Corp.
Gasoline rationing closed the Park during much of World War II, but at wars end the stage was set for rapid growth and development. Under the guidance of State Officials, Park administrators, and generations of dedicated Park employees, Letchworth State Park continued to grow and evolve. Now, with nearly 14,000 acres and a wide variety of programs and facilities, the Park is enjoyed by over a million visitors a year.
You can begin to explore the history of this wonderful place by using any of the links above or go back to the table of contents to begin your adventure! Enjoy!