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Our beautiful, cascading waterfalls

TRI-COUNTY AREA—The work on this project started about 20,000 years ago, and she’s not finished yet. The spectacular scenery of Yates and Schuyler county in the Finger Lakes is a record of her moods, ups and downs, hot times and cold ones, and the results of Mother Nature’s handiwork are simply splendid. The Finger Lakes are rich in the scenic beauty of waterfalls, endlessly fascinating for the energy, beauty and roar of moving water, the sparkle of sun on white water and the refreshing spray on those able to get close to the action.
Our lakes and gorges began as river valleys, gouged by the minuet of advancing and retreating glaciers. Where geology interrupts the flow of water, it cascades off rock shelves, the action of the water eventually creating a pool beneath that waterfall. With time and weather, waterfalls change, backing up, wearing down rock and smoothing eventually into streambeds.
An area waterfall “census” can only be a guesstimate—some area falls are small, existing only for short seasonal periods of rain and snow-melt run-off. Most are on private land. Many have been several-times-re-named and are known by multiple names.
In Yates County, two waterfalls on the Keuka Outlet Trail were used to power mills established by followers of Jemima Wilkinson, a charismatic religious leader in the late 18th/early 19th centuries who moved to the Penn Yan/Dresden area with her followers. These included mills for grinding flour and grains, a saw mill, paper mill, distillery and several factories.
The foundations of several mill sites are still visible, “But those mills have been shut down for a hundred years,” says Art Miller, former manager of the Outlet Trail. “There used to be 20 to 30 mills on the outlet which would use the water for power.”
More recently, Miller, who teaches kayak skills, found a new use for the 10 feet high Cascade Falls. In previous years, he used the falls and the white water around it to cement kayaking skills. Going over the falls gives people “a real rush of excitement and a feeling of accomplishment,” Miller says, adding, “We don’t let people go over unless they have high intermediate skills and an excellent Eskimo roll (a maneuver allowing the kayaker to right the vessel after it’s rolled over, submerging its human occupant).” Short videos of young kayakers meeting the challenge may be viewed at his website But he does not recommend the much higher Seneca Falls to anyone in a boat—“That’s 25 feet high and really nasty. I wouldn’t go over it—there’s a 90 percent chance you’re going to get hurt,” he says. Cascade Falls and the nearby parts of the Outlet waterway were formerly used by Miller and others to coach Olympic kayakers.
Most of the other Yates County waterfalls are on private land, including Glenora Falls, a large run of water dropping into Seneca Lake, visible from the lake’s east side, eight to 10 miles north of Watkins Glen.
Joan Vanheusen, owns a bed and breakfast in a house near Glenora Falls, built as a boarding house in the 1820s to house and feed the factory workers who labored in the Mills powered by the creeks running into the falls. “it was a little industrial area,” she says, noting that enterprises included a grist mill and a basket factory.
“During the floods of 1935, part of the rock and ironwork shoring up a millrace broke loose and sped downstream causing havoc and a lot of devastation,” Vanheusen reports. “A house near the end of the falls broke loose and sailed out onto Seneca Lake. It traveled four to five miles before it sank off Fir Tree Point.” Some areas where mills once ran still retain traces of the businesses of those earlier times.
Some of Schuyler County’s waterfalls have become the subjects of legend. She-Qua-Ga Falls at the end of Montour Falls’ sGenesee Street, was sketched in 1820 by Louis Philippe before he was King of France—his sketch now resides in the Louvre; Seneca Chief Red Jacket was said to visit the falls to test the strength of his oratory against the noise of the tumbling waters.
Nearby, Aunt Sarah’s Falls got its name either from an Indian squaw or from a courageous older woman who led a small settlement’s resistance to an Indian raid that occurred when the men-folk had taken grain to be ground, thoughtlessly taking all their weapons with them. Either way, the falls on Route 14 just north of the village—there are abut 20 others to fit this description, but Aunt Sarah’s is the largest—was named for a gutsy woman.
The recent history of the falls at Havana Glen, a beautiful hidden gem off Route 14, runs parallel to its different and better-known neighbors, the falls in Watkins Glen State Park, visible from Franklin Street. Andrew Tompkins, Director of the Schuyler County Historical Society, supplied the following information on the history and development of the area’s major waterfalls.
When Morvalden Ells opened the falls in Watkins Glen—then called Freer’s Glen - to the tourist trade in 1863, the venture proved wildly successful. Hoping to enjoy some of those tourist dollars themselves, entrepreneurs scrambled to open Havana—then called McClure’s Glen—in 1867. The local Masonic Lodge constructed pathways and staircases in record time; and the place name was changed to Masonic Glen to commemorate their efforts. In 1870 the name was changed for the last time—so far—to Havana Glen.
In those post Civil War years, railroads made travel easier, opening Upstate attractions to visitors who flocked to explore and marvel, particularly when Eagle Cliff Falls at Havana Glen was hyped as “It challenges the admiration of the world,” and “It rivals the Grand Canyon, but with more water,” this last penned by a Mr. Cass, who with Colonel Cook—younger brother of the Charles Cook who built what is now the Fire Academy in Montour Falls—purchased the property in 1879. In 1881, nearly 10,000 people paid admission to see Havana Glen and enjoy horse races at the track next to it.
But after those glory days, in 1906 the property containing the falls in Watkins Glen was purchased by New York State. Watkins Glen State Park has 19 waterfalls, none of them especially high but spectacular nonetheless. When the park was opened to the public for free, interest in paying to see Havana Glen rapidly declined. An attempt to confer state park honors on Havana Glen was vetoed by the State Legislature. In 1937, Havana Glen was purchased by the town of Montour.
Hector Falls, on Route 414 on the east side of Seneca Lake, is easily viewed from the road—made safer by a new bridge spanning the falls some years ago which also added a few spaces for short term parking and admiration. Like most of the area waterfalls, this too once powered a mill, in this spot a fulling mill where home-woven cloth was brought to be washed and finished. Schuyler has several other major waterfalls including Deckertown Falls, Twin Falls and the falls at Excelsior Glen, as well as uncounted smaller falls on private property.
In Hammondsport, a waterfall that many people know about is only accessible from private property. The Hammondsport gorge and waterfall is located on the west side of the village. The flume in Hammondsport runs through the village and flows down to Keuka Lake.
Only the falls remain relatively unchanged in human memory, magnificent testimony to the power of nature. “I photograph a number of waterfalls every year,” says Dewey Neild, an Ithaca photographer who’s made collecting and capturing waterfalls on film something of a specialty. “I try to get them in different moods. Every waterfall has a different mood in different years and different seasons. I rediscover them all the time.” Some of Neild’s photos may be viewed at
Do you love waterfalls? Do you love taking photographs waterfalls? If you do, you can share your photos with readers from The Observer and the REVIEW&EXPRESS by simply uploading your images here.  Follow the prompts to upload your digital images.
After you send your favorite area waterfall photos-then just go to our web site at Look on the left-hand navigation bar and click on the NEWS category under the PHOTO GALLERY icon.
You will find some great waterfall photos from the region.

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