Grand Canyon of the East

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1907

Central New Yorker William Letchworth made a fortune in the iron business, then retired at age 48 to a property he had purchased in the spectacular deep gorge carved by the Genesee River as it snakes its way north to Lake Ontario near Rochester, New York. His retirement was a busy one—he poured himself into good works as president of the New York State Board of Charities. Letchworth inspected and reformed hundreds of orphan asylums, juvenile reformatories, and poor-houses. He then toured, at his own expense, model facilities in the U.S. and Europe for housing the insane, epileptics, and poor children, and wrote two definitive books on these subjects that were later used to establish new hospitals and homes offering a better standard of care. Eventually he served as president of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, and the National Association for the Study of Epilepsy.

A Quaker raised to value not only hard work, self-improvement, and charity but also nature, Letchworth poured himself into improving his property in the Genesee gorge. He then allowed unfettered access to tourists drawn by the waterfalls and rugged scenery (immortalized by painter Thomas Cole among others) in what is still referred to as the Grand Canyon of the East. Late in Letchworth’s life, there were moves afoot to dam the Genesee River to power mills and factories. To preserve the rare beauty of the area he donated his thousand acres to create a state park in 1907. Today Letchworth remains one of the most visited state parks in the eastern U.S.

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