We went chasing waterfalls to Letchworth State Park in western New York state. The park is a seventeen-mile strip along the Genesee River as it flows north to Lake Ontario. (Yes, there are a lot of rivers that flow north.) We were chasing waterfalls, and the park has three large ones. They were all magnificent, but they made me feel old. The spouse and I wished we had visited the park decades ago (but we never heard of Letchworth until much later) because we would have done much more hiking on the well-maintained trails.
Our country has many wonderful state parks, but surely few of us are familiar with even most of them, and the 2015 newspaper poll that labeled Letchworth the number one state park in the country was a bit silly. However, having been there, that outcome seems at least defensible.
On the other hand, while the Genesee flows through a scenic gorge that was beautiful from every angle, it does seem a stretch to call Letchworth, as some do, “the Grand Canyon of the East.” It does not have the depth of the Grand Canyon with different climates and flora as you descend. It does not have the colors of the Grand Canyon. It does not have the burros of the Grand Canyon. It is not the Grand Canyon of the East. Letchworth, instead, has beauty and charm of its own. And it has its own history.
William Pryor Letchworth donated a thousand acres to New York state in 1906 that formed the heart of Letchworth State Park. Mr. Letchworth, a successful industrialist and businessman from nearby Buffalo, had started buying the land a half century before. Pictures at the park show that the riverbank was clear cut and studded with ugly lumbering mills. W. P. Letchworth razed the mills and allowed most of the land to reseed naturally. A house was also part of the purchase. Letchworh had this site landscaped by William Webster, who had been mentored by Frederick Law Olmstead. Letchworth named this estate Glen Iris. Glen Iris functions today as an inn.
The restaurant in the inn, where we had an ok lunch, is named Caroline’s. The back of the menu explained why but left me with some questions. Letchworth did much charitable and social work with a special concern for children, and in 1875 he inspected all the state institutions that housed children. The menu indicates that Caroline Bishop met Letchworth when she was fifteen and was impressed by him. She completed her education and taught school for ten years but then in 1883 became a secretary and executive assistant to Letchworth, who was sixty. The menu states, “Caroline was his true right hand—from research and writing assistance for his numerous books to knowing every detail of his business and legal documents.”
She was with Letchworth when he suffered a stroke and when he died seven years later in 1910. She became superintendent of the park at its inception and later the curator and librarian of the museum that stands on the Glen Iris grounds. She worked at the park until shortly before her death in 1926.
William Pryor Letchworth was a noteworthy man, and his name lives as does a bit of his story in Letchworth State Park. Caroline Bishop must have been a noteworthy woman. How many females were superintendents of state parks in 1915 or helped create a museum that still attracts people? But as with many other noteworthy women, even with her abilities widely apparent, she was consigned to be the sidekick to a “great man.” Most of these women are lost to history, so I was glad that the restaurant in Glen Iris was named after her, and I could learn something about Caroline Bishop.
But, I must confess, I wanted to know a bit more. The brief accounts of Mr. Letchworth I have read mention no marriage but an active male social life. The brief accounts of Bishop’s life do not mention any social life except for what seems the delicately put statement that Caroline “was also a close companion [to Letchworth], because once she began as his assistance (sic), she never left his side.” My prurient side was left hanging. Tell me more, please, tell me more.
Caroline Bishop’s roles in the life of Mr. Letchworth and in the creation of the park named after him may have been largely forgotten and she may have been little known in her lifetime except as an easily forgettable minor adjunct to Letchworh, but another woman with a connection to the land that would become Letchworth State Park, Mary Jemison, was widely known.
(continued October 11)