It has been said that "getting away from it all" contributed to the achievements of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and their peers. Edison and Ford had winter estates in Fort Myers, Fla., allowing them to vacation together. Carnegie's Skibo Castle was his Scottish Highlands home, and in his later years he acquired Shadowbrook in Lenox, Mass.
But Quaker businessman William Pryor Letchworth of Buffalo (1823-1910) shared his getaway with the world, having deeded his Wyoming County country estate – Glen Iris – to New York State on the last day of 1906, preserving it for all to wander in wonder.
With Gov. Charles E. Hughes' signature and legislative approval, the Glen Iris mansion, named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, and its 1,000 surrounding acres, the "heart of the park," became Letchworth State Park.
It's the lore of the leaf that draws many to Letchworth. The splendid trees, too numerous to detail here, turn into a collage of color each autumn, delighting thousands. (October is the park's busiest month.)
At the Castile entrance to the Main Park Road, I'm surrounded by a dense cover of trees. Then, out from under cover, the overlooks above the Genesee River gorge appear. They can be located in the park's Self-Guided Driving Tour booklet, available at the Visitor's Center and gift shop. Inspiration Point, the park's most photographed area, was named by Letchworth himself, citing its ability to rejuvenate his spirit.
There is no denying the gorgeous, majestic views from the point and other overlooks, some towering almost 600 feet above the Genesee.
But, while many come to Letchworth to leave it all behind, some are called here to take on life's greatest adventure.
While looking out over the gorge on Valentine's Day in 1978, Sandy Wallace, now a park tour guide and history department associate, turned to find her boyfriend, Ken, down on his knee. Sandy said "yes," and Inspiration Point, one of Letchworth's favorite spots, instantly became Sandy's as well.
At Humphrey's Overlook, across from the Great Bend, you can see south to Portageville in Allegheny County and north to Mount Morris in Livingston County. One man whose proposal was accepted at Humphrey's Overlook has memorialized it with a bench and plaque.
>Above it all
Sean Quigley says he pilots a dozen couples a year for in-flight proposals in Balloons Over Letchworth (www.balloonsoverletchworth.com). "Usually the guy will call ahead to let me know," Quigley says.
As Genesee Falls town justice, Quigley also has performed marriage ceremonies while ballooning over Letchworth. These days he prefers to marry on the ground, but for those willing to provide their own celebrant, marrying over the gorge remains an option.
The Glen Iris Inn has seen many celebrations. Formerly Letchworth's private home, it opens annually on Good Friday, and this year closes on Nov. 4. Its main dining room features a menu reflecting seasonal dishes, and includes gluten-free and vegan items. Caroline's, the inn's restaurant, is named for Letchworth's private secretary, Caroline Bishop. Large weddings are accommodated in tents on grounds outside the inn, above the Middle Falls.
"International visitors from Europe and Asia are often here in the spring," says manager Denise Coffey. She says the appeal of the Glen Iris is its amenities within the park setting: "They're roughing it, but not really." The only television is in the library, but there is no Wi-Fi, and cellphone reception is spotty. "It forces them to disconnect," Coffey says, noting that some have a hard time, while others love it – sipping an afternoon cocktail, sitting on the porch in the evening, the white lights on the falls below. Amenities indeed.
Letchworth had a strong interest and involvement in Native American culture, buying a Seneca Nation Council House in nearby Caneadea, and moving it to his estate. Upon what is called Council Grounds is a statue of Mary Jemison, known as "The White Woman of the Genesee." Captured by Native Americans at 15, she assimilated into the culture and was the subject of "White Woman" by James Seaver, a book still available at Letchworth. When Buffalo's expansion threatened her gravesite, Letchworth had her remains returned to the Genesee. In 1910, over Jemison's tomb, Letchworth commissioned a monument and statue of Mary, and to honor his legacy, every September the park presents a Native American and Pioneer Heritage Day.
Many of Letchworth's stone walls, cabins, shelters and trails were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. A statue in the Lower Falls plateau commemorates that effort.
The William Pryor Letchworth Museum sits behind Glen Iris. The museum was planned by Letchworth and constructed by the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, which maintained the park from Letchworth's death until 1930. There are Native American artifacts, environmental ones and busts of people he admired. Here also is the A.E. Linstedt piano from his parlor, the bell from a schoolhouse he built for local children and a melodeon he donated for their use.
For those whose love is leisure and nature, Letchworth leaves no one behind. Twenty-eight trails, most open year-round, offer almost 70 hiking miles over the park's 14,350 acres. Guided tours and interpretive walks are scheduled year-round, most being led by park naturalist Douglass Bassett.
Trailside Lodge is the site for winter tubing, and cross-country ski hikes start here every winter weekend. The park also allows snowmobiling and is part of the New York State Snowmobile Corridor Trail System.
On my visit, at dusk I descended the 127 steps from the Lower Falls into the gorge to the foot bridge and crossed the river from the park's west side to the east. The canyon narrows here, and looking up, one can truly feel nature's solitude and solemnness. As I climbed back up the gorge steps, five deer were grazing nearby, and I caught myself feeling that I was indeed getting away.
If you go
Letchworth State Park, off Denton Corners Road, Castile (585-493-3600; www.nysparks.com). To get to the park from Buffalo, take Route 400 to Route 20A East, into Warsaw. There, take Route 19 South to Route 19A, which leads to the park.The park has campgrounds, cabins and a lodge for rent. The Glen Iris closes for the season Nov. 4, but it operates three homes and a lodge that are open year-round. Call for availability.