Skip to main content

Travel Narratives

Stereopticon card: Middle Fall of Genesee, at Portage, NY

From a series of stereocards titled "View on the Line of Erie Railway," an early photograph of Middle Falls shows the environmental effects of a sawmill located there. After purchasing this tract of land in 1859, William Pryor Letchworth began a long program of reforestation. (Click on photograph to view original stereocard.)

Before Kodak “Picture Spots,” even before George Eastman invented the first Kodak camera in 1888, how did people envision the area now called Letchworth State Park? A famous moment in its history occurred in spring of 1858 when William Letchworth, returning from a tour in Europe, stopped at the Erie Railroad’s bridge at Portage. A 1912 biography sets the tableau: “From the bridge he saw how nature had produced here a perfect masterpiece of scenic composition, blending beauty with grandeur in transcendent accord, and how man had done what he could with his tools of destruction to wreck the noble piece of work” (Larned 42). The “vandalism” described here had been wrought by a dam and sawmills dating to the 1820s, along with deforestation of the surrounding area; after purchasing this land in 1859 Letchworth spent many years restoring the falls area. The less obvious point to make, though, is that his original (spectacular) viewpoint had itself been artificially created and had an ecological cost—according to his biographer, some 246 acres of pine forest just to construct the Erie bridge (61).

So it makes sense to think of modern viewpoints as a technology, in this case depending upon railroads for travel and social practices like tourism that sought out the picturesque. A good example of this travel writing is W.S. Ward’s “The Valley of the Genesee,” which appeared in the William Cullen Bryant’s massive, two-volume Picturesque America; or, The Land We Live In (1872/1874). Ward, too, mentions the railroad viaduct at Portage but argues that “the straight lines, sharp angles, and cut-stone buttresses of a railway-bridge do not belong to that order of beauty” (354). Instead, his tour follows the Genesee River downstream and pauses at selected viewpoints en route to the Geneseo Flats past Mt. Morris: the Upper, Middle, and Lower falls; the Seneca Council House; and the gorge itself, whose depth ranges from two hundred to six hundred feet. These locations are described individually but also work more systematically to create an experience distinctive to travel writing:

Railroad Bridge, Portage

J. Douglas Woodward, "Railroad Bridge, Portage" (1874). Engraving contrasts natural scenery and the spectacular Erie Railroad viaduct over the Genesee River at Upper Falls. It was common for trains to pause here so that passengers could view the scenery.

—Careful descriptions of the landscape envision it as a picture with emotional effects. An impatient contemporary reader of such passages needs to remember that more details are needed because usually there aren’t any photographs!

—Readers become a mobilized presence in the scene, whether traversing “down a wild mountain-road” to the Lower Falls or “standing upon one of the projecting rocks” at that viewpoint (360). This anticipates Hollywood tracking shots and even contemporary drone videos.

—When illustrations are used, they follow the conventions of landscape painting to indicate an immense scale of scenery through tiny human figures, what Ward describes as “pigmy men and horses gathering in a miniature harvest of maize or wheat” (360) as seen from a gorge overlook.

—The picturesque is a rare, desirable fraction of nature whose value is comparative. From deep in the Letchworth gorge, “it is hard to imagine that, just beyond that line of Norway pines that forms a fringe against the sky above, lie fertile fields and quiet homes.” The (active) dynamic of seeking out unusual views will continue to be practiced by off-trail hikers, bird-watchers, and geocachers.

—The American picturesque, “nature” in its purest form, references indigenous cultures yet remains haunted by colonial history. For example, Ward’s longest description is of the Seneca Council House symbolizing “the last scene in the history of that wild race whose light has gone out with the rising of the new sun.” Is Christopher Columbus therefore the ideal beholder?

None of these devices or themes is unique to Ward’s essay, to Letchworth Park, or really to American viewpoints in general. It makes sense, then, to recognize them as aspects of a subtle, persistent technology that continues to shape our perception of the scenic.

Works Consulted

—Larned, J. N. The life and work of William Pryor Letchworth, Student and Minister of Public Benevolence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912. Web version available at Internet Archive.

—Ward, W.S. “The Valley of the Genesee.” 353-369 in Picturesque America; or, The Land We Live In. Vol. 2. Ed. William Cullen Bryant. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1874. Web version available at Internet Archive.

Travel Narratives