Upper Falls Letchworth State Park Waterfall Wednesday blog cover
Adventures,  Painting Series,  Waterfall Wednesday

Waterfall Wednesday: Letchworth Upper Falls

Today we’re back in Letchworth State Park for the last time to talk about the third main waterfall of this park – Upper Falls.  There’s a lot of interesting bits of rail history that go along with this section of the park and it was so fun learning about it while researching this waterfall. 

Photo of Letchworth State Park by Laura Jaen Smith

Letchworth State Park is known as the Grand Canyon of the East.  It travels along the Genesee River for over 17 miles and spans nearly 15,000 acres in Livingston and Wyoming Counties of western New York State.  Parts of the park are within five different towns – Leicester, Mount Morris, Portage, Castile, and Genesee Falls.  Letchworth State Park is about 40 miles south of Rochester and 50 miles southeast of Buffalo.

The park has at least 26 different waterfalls, though the most popular are the three main ones along the Genesee River – Lower FallsMiddle Falls, and Upper Falls.  Inspiration Point is a favorite viewing spot where you can view both Middle and Upper Falls at the same time. 

The Seneca called the area Sehgahunda, meaning the “Vale of Three Falls.”  The park has over 50 miles of hiking trails.  Many of the trails in the park today are based on actual Seneca trails, which were used for river access from their nearby villages.  

The gorge trail is 1.8 miles from Lower Falls to Upper Falls (many drive to the parking areas for each end separately instead of walking the whole trail). 

Photo of Letchworth State Park by Laura Jaen Smith. View of Middle Falls and Upper Falls in distance.

Upper Falls is the last waterfall along the gorge trail, just a short walk from Middle Falls, Glen Iris Inn, and the parking area.  Upper Falls is a horseshoe waterfall that stands 71 feet high and 70 feet wide.  One of its most notable features is the bridge that stands above it. 

In the early 1800’s, the original bridge that stood in this spot was the Portage Wooden High Bridge.  It was the tallest and longest wooden railroad bridge of its kind.  The bridge allowed tourists to cross in order to view the vistas of Portage Gorge. 

On May 5, 1875, the wooden railroad bridge was destroyed in a terrible fire. The bridge was a total loss.  Immediately after the fire, the Erie Railroad Company took action to replace the wooden Portage Bridge with an iron and steel design.  Construction began June 8, 1875 and the new bridge opened for traffic 53 days later on July 31, 1875.  The bridge was 820 feet long and 240 feet high.  The last of the 1875 bridge was demolished 143 years later on the morning of March 20, 2018.


Laura Jaen Smith in front of Letchworth State Park Upper Falls
Photo of Letchworth State Park Upper Falls by Laura Jaen Smith.

Construction of the current bridge began on October 27, 2015 and on December 11, 2017, the first train crossed the new bridge.  It was officially named the Genesee Arch Bridge on May 24, 2018 by the Norfolk Southern Railway. 

The old iron truss bridge built in 1875 was demolished because it was unable to safely and efficiently keep up with modern freight rail needs.  Car weights had to be reduced 13,000 pounds below industry standard and the train speed was restricted to 10 mph.  With the new bridge rail cars can now travel over the Southern Tier Line loaded to the industry standard of 286,000 pounds and operate at speeds up to 30 mph.  The upgrades have eliminated a major rail bottleneck for freight shippers in this region of the country. 

The Genesee Arch Bridge is the first true arch built for the railroad industry since the 1940’s. 

The bridge required much innovation in design and a lot of care was taken for environmental factors.  The design and construction of the new arch structure spans the entirety of the gorge while returning the river to its natural state for the first time in over 170 years by leaving no physical footprint in the Genesee River below.

Strategies were carried out to avoid any impact to the park trails, facilities, or wildlife – including the nesting American Bald Eagles located within sight of the bridge.

Photo of Letchworth State Park giant chair photo op by Laura Jaen Smith.

Painting Letchworth Upper Falls

Letchworth State Park Upper Falls by Laura Jaen Smith. Square acrylic landscape painting of waterfall.
Letchworth Upper Falls, 6x6 acrylic on wood panel, available to own

Letchworth Upper Falls was fun to paint with all of its different colors and textures.  I particularly enjoyed the green of the water and the mist coming up from the falls.  I found the rock to the left of the falls challenging.  It has a weird smooth texture on the top portion and is very light in color.  I struggled to not make it look like a potato but I think in the end it came out pretty well.  

This waterfall differs from many of the other waterfalls in my 50 New York Waterfalls series.  Because I visited this park in early spring before the trees had even bloomed, the vegetation was very sparse which made the color palette different.  

Below are the three waterfall paintings from Letchworth Falls State Park.

Letchworth State Park Collection - Upper Falls, Middle Falls, and Lower Falls by Laura Jaen Smith. Three square acrylic waterfall paintings

There are so many interesting things that I learned about Letchworth State Park that I wasn’t able to include throughout my blog posts.  It is rich in local history as well as in the different activities and events that are offered throughout the park.  

Do you have a favorite feature of the park or piece of history from Letchworth State Park?

Resources & Further Learning

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