EXPLORATIONS #1919 - The Genesee River

By Oliver ChanlerThis is Shirley Griffith.And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about a little known American river that continues to play a part in the history of New York State.

Many great rivers flow through North America. Rivers such as the Mississippi, the Colorado, and the Missouri are famous around the world. Many small American rivers are not so famous. Yet they are important to people who live in nearby towns and cities. As with most rivers around the world, their history is the history of the people who have worked on them and lived nearby.The Genesee River flows north through the eastern state of New York. It is two-hundred-fifty-four kilometers long. It begins in the Allegheny Mountains and flows through western New York into Lake Ontario at Rochester. The valley that surrounds the Genesee River is beautiful, fertile land.

In Nineteen-Forty-Three, a newspaper reporter decided to walk along the length of the Genesee River. Arch Merrill published a book about his walk. It is called "A River Ramble, Saga of the Genesee Valley.

Mr. Merrill lived and worked in Rochester, at the northern end of the river. He had written about the river and the people along its banks for many years, and wanted to know more about the Genesee. So, Mr. Merrill traveled to the state of Pennsylvania, where the river starts.

He found the beginning of the river. It is in the hills of the Allegheny Mountains in the state of Pennsylvania, just a few kilometers south of the New York State border. The Genesee begins as small spring that flows out of the ground in a field where cows eat the green grasses.Other small streams begin joining the little river as it flows along through the farms that sit on gentle green hills. The first town on the river in the state of New York is Wellsville. It was named after Gardner Wells, an early settler in the area. It became known for its oil production.

In Eighteen-Fifty-Seven, oil was discovered in western Pennsylvania. A short time later, oil wells began appearing in the area across the border in New York State.

For almost thirty years the towns in this area knew great wealth. They also experienced the wild activities often found in places that seem to become wealthy and famous overnight. It was like the wild American west when gold was discovered in California.

Today, these formerly oil rich towns are quiet and calm. Their wild days only a distant memory. Yet some oil wells are still working in the area.As the Genesee River flows north from Wellsville, the valley widens and the hills are softer. The towns of Scio, Friendship, Belmont, Belvidere, Belfast, and Angelica do not share the wild histories of the oil towns to the south. They were farm towns and still are today.

Following the American Revolution, a man named Robert Morris borrowed large amounts of money to buy land in western New York state. Mr. Morris owed John B. Church, of Hartford, Connecticut some of that money. Instead of repaying the money, Mr. Morris gave Mr. Church more than forty-thousand hectares of land in southwestern New York State.

In Eighteen-Oh-One, Mr. Church's son Philip took possession of this wild, unsettled land. He built a town and called it Angelica, after his mother.Just north of Angelica is the town of Belfast, named after the city in Northern Ireland. Workers from Ireland had come there to help build the Genesee Valley Canal from Rochester to Belfast. The canal was to extend west from Belfast, to join with the Allegheny River. Goods from the west would be carried on this man-made water way to the Erie Canal at Rochester and then to New York City.

After a few years, work stopped on the Genesee Valley Canal because it was too costly and difficult to complete. People in the area left behind their dreams of great riches and turned to the quieter work of farming.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))As the river flows north by the town of Portageville, it enters a narrow opening in a huge rocky formation left by a glacier millions of years ago. Portage was the name given to this length of the river by early explorers who traveled the river in canoes. The word portage means to carry around. Small boats have to be carried around this area because the Genesee suddenly changes. From a quiet river, slowly wandering through fields, it suddenly becomes a violent, fast-moving body of water. For about twenty-four kilometers the river drops several hundred meters, over three large waterfalls. This area is now a huge state park for the public to enjoy.

Letchworth Park is named for William Pryor Letchworth who bought much of the land in the Nineteenth Century. He wanted to prevent development of the land for industrial purposes. He gave the land to New York State so that it would always be protected. Today, the park includes several thousand hectares of forest. The Genesee flows through the center of the park, its water dropping over the three waterfalls. Letchworth Park is known as "The Grand Canyon of the East."At the northern end of the park is a huge dam. The Mount Morris Dam is named for the town nearby. It is at this place that the river leaves the narrow gorge and enters the huge, fertile Genesee Valley.

From the time of the earliest settlers, the Genesee River flooded the valley almost every year. This made farming on the floor of the valley difficult in many areas. The Mount Morris dam was built to halt the river's flooding. Today, the flat land at the bottom of the wide valley is covered by huge fields of corn, beans, and many other crops. The land is some of the most fertile in the eastern United States.For centuries before white settlers arrived, the Seneca Indians had lived in the Genesee Valley. They were one of the tribes of the Iroquois Nation. Their territory spread across most of what is now western New York State.

In the Seventeen Hundreds settlers began arriving. Disputes arose over the land. In Seventeen-Ninety-Seven, the government and the Seneca Indians signed The Big Tree Treaty. The agreement gave the Senecas ownership of much of the land west of the Genesee River. The treaty was named for a great oak tree that grew on the banks of the Genesee River.

One of the chief negotiators for the Indians was a woman named Mary Jemison. She was a very small white woman who was kidnapped by the Seneca Indians when she was very young. She grew up and became a member of the tribe. She was married to an important Seneca chief. In the negotiations at Big Tree, Mary Jemison demanded and won good terms for the Senecas. She is buried in Letchworth Park.Other negotiators for the Big Tree treaty were James and William Wadsworth. They had settled on eight-hundred hectares of land on the eastern side of the river near Big Tree. After they built a house, the two brothers cleared much of the land and bought more land. James and William Wadsworth sold the land to people who wanted to settle in the area and operate farms. The Wadsworth's started the town of Geneseo which was officially established in Seventeen-Eighty-Nine.

Through the years, the Wadsworth family has continued to play an important part in the Genesee Valley. Family members have served in Congress and performed other public service. The Wadsworth family still owns hundreds of hectares of land in the area.The Genesee River flows past Geneseo north to Lake Ontario, the eastern-most of the Great Lakes. The city of Rochester is where the river meets the lake. Rochester began in Eighteen-Oh-Two. Several waterfalls near the lake provided energy for industry. The waterfalls provided power for mills that ground grains of wheat to make flour.

Rochester soon became a port for ships that sailed the lake. The ships would continue from the lake on Saint Lawrence River which flowed through Canada's eastern provinces and into the North Atlantic Ocean.

Today, Rochester is the third largest city in New York State. It is the headquarters of several major companies including Eastman Kodak which makes film for cameras.

The falls area of the Genesee River in center of Rochester was forgotten for many years. However, new efforts have been made in recent years to clean the river banks. So once again, people can enjoy the beauty of the falls near where the Genesee River ends its journey through New York State.

This Special English program was written by Oliver Chanler and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Shirley Griffith.And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.

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