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Famous People of the Finger Lakes

William Pryor Letchworth (1823-1910)


William Pryor Letchworth (1823-1910)Born in Brownsville, New York on May 26, 1823, William Pryor Letchworth was the fourth of eight children. Quakers, the Letchworths valued hard work, charity, and intellectual development. Letchworth began work as an apprentice in a saddlery hardware business in Buffalo and eventually became a partner in company. The business prospered to such an extent that it employed as many as 800 men at one time.


Now a rich man, Letchworth began looking for a country retreat. In the spring of 1858, he made a trip to the Genesee River gorge for the first time. As he was looking at the gorge at the Middle Falls, a rainbow appeared over the gorge. Captivated by the natural beauty of the region, he offered to buy a house and 200 acres near the southern end of the gorge. The house he named Glen Iris after Iris, the goddess of rainbows. Eventually, Letchworth purchased enough land to protect all three of the gorge's waterfalls from development and use by utility companies. Over the years, Letchworth spent more than half a million dollars improving the estate, which included an arboretum with 10,000 trees and shrubs.

Rainbow over Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park.

Letchworth's land preservation work often overshadows his many other charitable efforts. He took an interest in epileptics and established Craig Colony for Epileptics at Sonyea, the first comprehensive epilepsy treatment facility in the United States. He also wrote the report "Care and Treatment of Epileptics," summarizing contemporary medical and social knowledge of the condition.


As a commissioner on the State's Board of Charities, Letchworth worked to improve the social condition and the care of the needy, especially orphans, juvenile delinquents in reformatories, and families living in poor-houses. He took an interest in the care and treatment of the insane and, after spending months in Europe, wrote The Insane in Foreign Counties, which was considered a standard reference. He was also instrumental in the establishment of a home for the retarded in Rockland County called Letchworth Village as well as the establishment of Industry, a boys detention home in Rush.


The Genesee River, like so many large rivers, provides an opportunity for the generation of electricity. To this end, a utility company called the Genesee River Company was formed, which planned to dam the river just south of the Portage Bridge. Although Letchworth had originally intended on turning Glen Iris into an orphanage, he decided instead to deed the 1,000-acre Glen Iris estate to the State of New York in 1906, effectively protecting the entire area from use by utility companies. After his death in 1910, Glen Iris was used as an administrative building for the park. In 1914, the building was expanded by the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society to offer dining and lodging facilities to park visitors.

The gorge at Letchworth State Park.

For more information about William Pryor Letchworth, see: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/glimpse1.html.


Revised 24 April 2015








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