Minnehaha Falls Waterfall Wednesday blog cover
Adventures,  Painting Series,  Waterfall Wednesday

Waterfall Wednesday: Minnehaha Falls

Do you know what Minnesota and New York have in common?  They both have a waterfall named Minnehaha Falls.  But do you know which came first and what inspired the name?

We’re back again in Watkins Glen State Park today to talk about Minnehaha Falls.  I must admit that this particular waterfall seems to pale in comparison when you can see Cavern Cascade in the distance and experience walking behind it.  It may not initially seem as interesting as the other major waterfalls in this park, but the more I researched this waterfall, the more fascinating it became. 

Photo of Watkins Glen State Park NY by Laura Jaen Smith.

Watkins Glen State Park is located along Route 14 on the southern end of Seneca Lake in the small village of Watkins Glen.  The state park features 19 waterfalls along the Gorge Trail of the park.  During my 50 New York Waterfalls project I painted seven of the main ones.

So far I’ve shared about Triple Cascade with historic photos, walking behind Cavern Cascade, renovations around Sentry Cascade, Central Cascade with its resident artist, and the origins of the name for Pluto Falls.  In a couple weeks we’ll finished out this gorge by talking about Rainbow Falls.

Minnehaha Falls is located towards the beginning of the Gorge Trail after Sentry Cascade and just before Cavern Cascade.  It is 21 feet high and approximately 24 feet wide (depending on current water flow). 

Something that makes this particular waterfall unique is the heart-shaped pool below it.  Watkins Glen State Park has a couple different areas where there are potholes or plunge pools, but this is the only heart-shaped one and it has inspired theories in its creation and local legends.  One such legend is that an Native American maiden jumped from the cliff after the murder of her lover and the pool took on the shape of her broken heart. 

Photo of Minnehaha Falls Watkins Glen State Park NY by Laura Jaen Smith.
Photo of heart-shaped pool Watkins Glen State Park NY by Laura Jaen Smith.

Minnehaha Falls gets its name from the waterfall of the same name in Minnesota.  Both the waterfall and the name Minnehaha gained notoriety after being featured in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.  In it, Hiawatha, a Native American hero, falls in love with a maiden named Minnehaha or Laughing Waters (named after the waterfall).  

Since the release of the poem, the name Minnehaha has become very common, especially in the Great Lakes region.  There are cities, roads, waterfalls, creeks, bays, and lakes named after her.  

Looking at the painting by Albert Bierstadt, it’s not hard to see why our Minnehaha Falls would have been given this same name.  (It is half the size of its namesake, though – a mini Minnehaha… haha.)  

For context, remember the gorge was opened as a retreat to the public by Ells in 1863 (13 years after Bierstadt’s painting and 8 years after Longfellow’s poem).  Also, James Hope who resided in the park was also a member of the same Hudson River School of Painting as Bierstadt.  Without further research I wouldn’t be able to say if the waterfall was named prior to 1863, at this time, or when it reopened in the 1930’s under state ownership.    

Minnehaha Falls by Albert Bierstadt. Hudson River School painting of waterfall in Minnesota.
Oil painting of Minnehaha Falls (Minnesota) by Albert Bierstadt of the Hudson River School of Painting in 1850, image courtesy of Wikipedia

The poem itself is quite lengthy (I found a youtube recording which is linked below that is four hours long).  Here is an excerpt from the Song of Hiawatha, Section IV where Hiawatha first meets Minnehaha:

Homeward now went Hiawatha;
Pleasant was the landscape round him,
Pleasant was the air above him,
For the bitterness of anger
Had departed wholly from him,
From his brain the thought of vengeance,
From his heart the burning fever.
Only once his pace he slackened,
Only once he paused or halted,
Paused to purchase heads of arrows
Of the ancient Arrow-maker,
In the land of the Dacotahs,
Where the Falls of Minnehaha
Flash and gleam among the oak-trees,
Laugh and leap into the valley.
There the ancient Arrow-maker
Made his arrow-heads of sandstone,
Arrow-heads of chalcedony,
Arrow-heads of flint and jasper,
Smoothed and sharpened at the edges,
Hard and polished, keen and costly.
With him dwelt his dark-eyed daughter,
Wayward as the Minnehaha,
With her moods of shade and sunshine,
Eyes that smiled and frowned alternate,
Feet as rapid as the river,
Tresses flowing like the water,
And as musical a laughter;
And he named her from the river,
From the water-fall he named her,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water.
Was it then for heads of arrows,
Arrow-heads of chalcedony,
Arrow-heads of flint and jasper,
That my Hiawatha halted
In the land of the Dacotahs?
Was it not to see the maiden,
See the face of Laughing Water
Peeping from behind the curtain,
Hear the rustling of her garments
From behind the waving curtain,
As one sees the Minnehaha
Gleaming, glancing through the branches,
As one hears the Laughing Water
From behind its screen of branches?
Who shall say what thoughts and visions
Fill the fiery brains of young men?
Who shall say what dreams of beauty
Filled the heart of Hiawatha?
All he told to old Nokomis,
When he reached the lodge at sunset,
Was the meeting with his father,
Was his fight with Mudjekeewis;
Not a word he said of arrows,
Not a word of Laughing Water. 

Painting Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls by Laura Jaen Smith. Square acrylic landscape painting of waterfall in Watkins Glen State Park from 50 NY Waterfalls series.

This painting was created as the 39th painting in the series of 50 waterfall paintings.  I’m generally one to press up closely to a deadline, so that means that by the time I reached this painting I was in marathon mode.  The end of the project is kind of a blur.  I do remember that I really liked painting the rocks in this one.  There were so many textures and colors.  I like how the striations feel like stripes that guide you along the gorge.  You almost can see Cavern Cascade peeking in the background too.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, for the project I painted seven of the waterfalls in Watkins Glen State Park.  You’re probably noticing that there are only six paintings in the picture.  The painting of Triple Cascade was part of my Waterfalls of the Finger Lakes solo exhibition this past fall and sold during the show.  The six remaining paintings are available as a collection in my shop (click on the picture for more information).

Watkins Glen State Park Collection by Laura Jaen Smith. Six square acrylic paintings of waterfalls from gorge - Sentry Cascade, Minnehaha Falls, Cavern Cascade, Pluto Falls, Central Cascade, Rainbow Falls.
Available to Own

Have you visited Minnehaha Falls?

Resources & Further Learning

Leave a Reply