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Memorial Trees

The best-known viewpoints at Letchworth State Park are overlooks that encompass the picturesque on a grand, awe-inspiring scale—what you might call a macroscopic perspective. From Inspiration Point we behold a composition of rock, water, trees, sky, and wildness, all the elements of landscape that painter Thomas Cole praised as “the silent energy of nature stirr[ing] the soul to its inmost depths.” It was one such moment, on the Erie Railroad viaduct overlooking the Upper and Middle Falls with Inspiration Point in the distance, that inspired William P. Letchworth to purchase a section of Genesee gorge property he would name Glen Iris. By 1906 he had deeded his land to the State of New York and it remains a memorial to his love of nature.

Yet Letchworth also was sensitive to beauty on a more intimate, microscopic scale—an attention to individual trees and not just the forest. In fact, for many years he planted so-called “memorial trees” that celebrated a memorable occasion with some public figure, or simply to honor a relative or close friend. In 1872, having refurbished the old Seneca Council House on his grounds, Letchworth invited descendents of Joseph Brant, Mary Jemison, and Red Jacket to celebrate a “Last Council” at a rebuilt structure along with dignitaries like ex-President Millard Fillmore. Each planted a tree, including roots from one near Jemison’s grave at the Indian Mission cemetery in Buffalo that was accompanying her remains to a new plot at the Council Grounds (Larned 66-68). Such memorial trees, however, were just a fraction of the estimated 10,000 Letchworth planted, and as he neared the end of his life a different sort of legacy presented itself.

Although Letchworth had reforested his property for decades, the idea for an arboreal “demonstration station” seems to have dated from a 1908 conversation between his friend Charles M. Dow and Professor Liberty S. Bailey of the Cornell Agricultural College and was influenced by European concepts of forestry. As explained by Dow in 1912, who became Director of Letchworth Park after William’s death, 500 acres were to become “A Great Living Tree Museum”:

In each of these blocks, irregular in form, each an acre or more in area, and set out with due regard for landscape and color effects, planting will be so close as rapidly to establish forest conditions, so that Letchworth Park will contain in miniature a forest of a richness and variety which can be witnessed nowhere else on the globe....Here the visitor will be able to see growing, not singly on a lawn, but planted so as to form an actual forest, trees of whose existence he may not even have known, but whose practical value for forest-planting in the United States may still be exceedingly high. (203)

This map of an area near Inspiration Point dates to the late 1920s, when the Garden Club of America surveyed tree blocks that had been planted between 1912 and 1917; they measured average height and diameter, and engaged in selective thinning. In the years since, thinking about monocultural tree plantations has changed dramatically, but park visitors still can see signs marking the original groupings even as native species begin to intermingle.

What’s perceived as scenic and “natural” in Letchworth Park belies all of the (artificial) work that has gone into creating it—and Dow’s analogy of a museum, or perhaps something more like a bio-cultural archive, may be more accurate. Just in the area surrounding Inspiration Point are very different types of memorials: the tree groups of the Forest Arboretum; a Pioneer Cemetery comprised of settlers prior to Letchworth’s purchase; a momument to the 1st New York Dragoons from the Civil War; a replica of the schoolhouse Letchworth built for local students in 1874. And of course, as vistors look out toward the gorge, the monument of Glen Iris itself: for it was through Letchworth’s untiring efforts that plans for a proposed Portageville Dam by the Genesee River Company were thwarted and the viewpoint was preserved.

Works Consulted

—Cole, Thomas. “Essay on American Scenery.” American Magazine Monthley 1 (Jan. 1836): 1-12. Web version available at HathiTrust.

—Dow, Charles M. “A Great Living Tree Museum: The Letchworth Park Arboretum.” American Review of Reviews 45 (1912): 203-208. Web version available at HathiTrust.

—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.