Adventurous visitors nowadays know St Helena as the stone bridge abutment where they exit the river after canoe or raft trips. Regular visitors who travel north toward Perry know St. Helena as a three level picnic area a short distance beyond the Wolf Creek gorge and picnic spot, and hikers know it as the picnic area where Trails 1 and 13 meet. Trail 13 is the remnants of one of the roads that led to the once thriving village.
It's hard to imagine that a prospering community once existed there. Born in the confident days of the pioneer period, St. Helena rose to local fame and slowly faded from its once prominent position after the bridge that once carried a local road across the river at that point had washed out during high water, and the use of water powered mills declined. Today, when flood waters are held back by the Mount Morris dam the low lying flats at St Helena are under water.
Our favorite source of information on the St. Helena is Mildred Anderson's efforts at preservation of local history. Most helpful is "St Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee" which she co-wrote Marian Piper Willey in 1954. An "appendix" was added in 1970 at the time of the 6th printing. The added material deals mainly with the flood history of the valley up to 1970. The flood of 1972 prompted Mildred to write a whole new booklet about its consequences.
According to Mrs. Anderson, the land originally was given to Mary Jemison by the Treaty of the Big Tree in 1797 and all who settled there up until about 1823 were "squatters." In that year the complex process of arranging for Mary Jemison to be able to sell land was completed and Micah Brooks, Jellis Clute, and Henry Gibson were given a deed to land that included the area we know as St Helena. These lands included the flats down river from the Portage Falls and the rapids of the Big Bend gorge. It was the perfect place to utilize the River, both for waterpower for milling and for floating products downstream to markets. These were the keys to most developments in western New York, and this held true for St. Helena as well.
In 1835, soon after the first families came to start a new community, a covered bridge with lattice work sides was built across the River at St. Helena. Since this bridge was the only dry way across the Genesee between the Middle Falls and Mt. Morris, it is no surprise that a small but bustling village had taken shape by the time of the Civil War. One account states that St. Helena in 1860 "was one of the prosperous hamlets along the river, with a flour mill, two sawmills, shingle mill, paper mill, and two general stores, a hotel and 25 dwellings. (See the 1866 map of St. Helena).
As the village developed so did the need for a school. In 1856 a "large commodious structure" was erected on Main Street to replace an earlier building. The building would accommodate 75 but the winter term struggled with as many as 90 students
This was the heyday of St. Helena. Residents such as the Pipers, Orsburns, Merithews, Giffords, Burnaps, and a score of others enjoyed all aspects of community life : town meetings, school, church services, singing schools, socials, and friendly gossip. They worked their farms, tended their businesses, raised their children, and buried their dead in a small cemetery on the hillside to the west of village.
But St Helena's days were numbered. In 1867 the mill burned and the post office was discontinued. (In 1897 the post office was restore for a short time when Mrs. Lucy Wallace was named postmistress. It would seem that St Helena would stand out as one of the first for equal rights for women!). The River which gave the community life also threatened it, as floods and ice jams took their toll. In 1884 the bridge was taken out by ice, and it took two years to replace it. This bridge lasted until 1904, when ice swept it away. The iron bridge that replaced it was built about four feet higher, so the ice would be able to flow under it. A new bridge, however, couldn't stop the slow death of the town.
By 1920 there were just a half dozen families living on the flats. The number of students at the school fell to as few as two and the school was closed. The river wore away more and more of the land, claiming the south end of Water Street. Among the last families to leave was the Teeple Family, whose farm was swept away by yet another flood. The last to leave may have been Mrs. Nellie Streeter and her son George, who moved in 1948.
The bridge stood for two more years, as did the St. Helena gauging station that had been measuring the river's flow since 1908. By then the Mt. Morris Dam was nearly complete, and the lands of St. Helena were claimed as part of the lake which would be formed during flood times. Now only bridge abutments, a few foundations, and the small cemetery on the hillside remained.
The Corps of Engineers moved the St. Helena cemetery in 1952. Among the few markers they found was that of an infant son of " Wm and E Morse, July 8, 1841. In all, ninety-two graves were moved to a special section of Grace cemetery in Castile.
So if you go to the St. Helena area on your next visit to Letchworth, remember that it is more than a hiking trail, picnic area, or a mysterious stone abutment in the River. St. Helena was once a thriving community that lived and died by the Genesee River, a "ghost town" whose memories will haunt Letchworth Park forever.
Anderson, St. Helena
Anderson, Genesee Echoes