A World Heritage Site in our Backyard: preserving and profiting from the history, culture, and ecology of the Lower Falls Gorge

A World Heritage Site in our Backyard: preserving and profiting from the history, culture, and ecology of the Lower Falls Gorge

All photos provided by George.

From George Payne, we’ve read about Martin Luther King, interfaith dialogue, urban poverty, a response to a PBS documentary, a cleanup at the Lower Falls and seen his photo montage of Rochester.

Today, George shares a vision he and others share for the Lower Falls: to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.  More than just a vision, this goal is moving towards reality through the dedicated efforts of The Lower Falls Foundation.

Restoring and enriching the Lower Falls will positively impact the surrounding neighborhoods. For example, since 2005 Atlanta’s BeltLine project has added green space and promoted redevelopment in neighborhoods not unlike Rochester’s.

With a World Heritage Site as the goal, every step along that path lays the cornerstone for Rochester’s green urban future.

A World Heritage Site in our Backyard: preserving and profiting from the history, culture, and ecology of the Lower Falls Gorge

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage website,

World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.

For the sake of brevity, the first 5 selection criteria are as follows:

(i) to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

(ii) to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

falls in 1890

The Lower Falls in 1890

(iii) to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;

(iv) to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;


George’s photo from Driving Park Bridge.

(v) to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.

It is our contention that the Genesee River Lower Falls Gorge meets all of these requirements.  For starters, the history of the gorge is a phenomenal study in how the four glacial ages effected the geography of eastern North America over the past million years. The most recent glacier that left evidence here was about 100,000 years ago and it caused compression of the earth by as much as 2,500 feet (760 m). About 12,000 years ago, the area underwent massive changes, which included the rerouting of the Genesee and other water bodies. What can be seen today is a remarkable display of ravines, sheer cliffs, cascading waterfalls, exposed rock formations of limestone, sandstone and shale, and an indomitable river flowing northwards toward the massive belly of Lake Ontario. Whether you are canoeing or kayaking along the river’s edge, descending the treacherous “Gorge Trail” from Maplewood Park, or overlooking the monumental landscape from the Veterans Memorial Bridge, the vistas of this landscape are simply breathtaking.postcard

shadows of the western door

Shadows tells the story/mystery of the Mound Builders.

In terms of cultural history, the Lower Falls Gorge has been home to rich and complex human societies for thousands of years. Among the first native settlers in the area include the Algonquin and Seneca. The Algonquin were here first but no one knows for sure when they arrived or where exactly they came from. Likewise, no cultural anthropologist to date has been able to completely decipher the folklore which talks about an ancient tribe of “mound builders” who occupied this space before the Native Americans first encamped here. What we do know is that powerful Seneca assimilated their predecessors and became dominant throughout Western New York.


Seneca image from the National Geographic.

They were called the “Keepers of the Western Door” and they were the largest of the six Native American nations that comprised the Iroquois Confederacy or Six Nations. Their democratic government pre-dated the United States Constitution and influenced thinkers such as Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Madison, and others. If you watched the State of the Union this year, it is worth noting that this practice came from the Seneca, as did our system of checks and balances and the “big clan and little clan” style of political decision making.

In the Seneca language the people are known as O-non-dowa-gah, (pronounced: Oh-n’own-dough-wahgah) or “Great Hill People.” Once the French arrived with their surveying expeditions from Quebec and Montreal, the traditional way of life for the Seneca was all but over. After they sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, they were destined to be driven out for good by General John Sullivan’s military campaign under the orders of President Washington.

But not only is the Lower Falls Gorge a significant Native American settlement, it is also a terminal point on the Underground Railroad i.e, that clandestine system of networking houses, sheds, garages, caves, and other dwelling places and stop off points for escaping humans during the era of slavery. The UR site in the Lower Falls is known as Kelsey’s Landing and has a multifaceted history.

kelseys landing

Tour guide and former city councilperson Bob Stevenson. As George says, Bob is probably the most knowledgeable person in the world when it comes to the Gorge. He helps the Lower Falls Foundation as an adviser.

Alexander Kelsey and associates constructed a landing on the west side of the river across from the settlement of Carthage (east side of the River) around 1844. This location is the furthest south ships could travel towards Rochester from the Great Lakes before reaching the impassable Lower Falls. The rise of Kelsey’s Landing as an official shipping port of Rochester led to the bankruptcy of the landing at Carthage (across the river) and eventually the demise of its surrounding settlement.

Ships would carry cargo and passengers to and from Detroit and ports in Canada. After the Fugitive Slave Act passed, the port helped harbor escaped slaves, who would then board cargo steam ships bound for Canada. In fact, we have discovered in our research that the great orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass used the Kelsey’s Landing passageway on at least two different occasion-once even to free himself after he was implicated in the doomed John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Douglass did not support Brown’s violent raid but he was nonetheless suspected of conspiracy and was forced to flee to England..- See more at: New York Historic/Kelsey’s Landing


Frederick Law Olmsted, oil painting by John Singer Sargent, 1895, Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina

With that story in mind, perhaps it is no accident that Frederick Law Olmsted was the architect of Maplewood Park. Olmsted was not just the world’s most innovative and prolific landscape architect of his time, he was also a fierce and dedicated opponent of slavery. One of his first professional jobs was “foreign” correspondent for the New York Times. Reporting firsthand from within the southern states, Olmsted’s passionate articles described the conditions of slavery for millions of readers in the north. It is not hyperbole to say that Olmsted’s journalism galvanized millions of people to turn against the evils of this most peculiar institution. In this respect he ranks with the likes of Garrison, Whitman and Stowe in terms of his importance to the abolitionist movement. Moreover, in addition to designing such iconic parks such as Yosemite and the grounds of the U.S. Capital, Olmsted was also a co-founder of the Nation magazine and a tireless defender of democratic landscapes. The mark of his genius on all four Rochester parks offers yet one more convincing reason why the Lower Falls Gorge is no ordinary space but a globally significant cultural heritage site.

Of course, human achievements are not all that matters. Although humans have re-imagined and re-shaped this space for thousands of years, the animal and plant lifeforms which live here have been doing so for millions of years. Pamela Reed Sanchez is the Executive Director of the Seneca Park Zoo Society and one of the visionaries behind bringing the One Cubic Foot project to the Lower Genesee Gorge. Interviewed in a D & C article on the project, Sanchez said, “I knew nothing about these creatures before starting this project… “I didn’t know I would fall in love with bugs.” The article goes on to describe how others are welcome to launch their own love affair with “leafhoppers and damselflies — not to mention magnolia warblers, rock bass and green frogs.”

All of these images were captured by renowned photographer David Liittschwager when he made Rochester the latest stop for his One Cubic Foot project. Liittschwager documented 150 species during his time here, all of them either netted or observed inside or on top of a one-cubic-foot metal frame that he set near the bank of the Genesee across from Turning Point Park.salmon

What Liittschwager discovered in his experiment is something that inhabitants of the Lower Falls area have known for centuries. This ecosystem is an extraordinary display of biodiversity! From the Red Spotted Salamander to the Steelhead Trout, the river basin and gorge complex is home to some of the worlds’ most precious biological specimens.


Dr. David Anderson of Nazareth College performing an “Evening with Frederick Douglass at Kelsey’s Landing,”

When all of this history and culture and ecology is added together, it becomes self evident that something must be done to better protect and cherish this unique space. I want to ask a question. What would happen if this landscape was seen as a new World Heritage site? How would this impact the economy of Rochester as a whole? Just dream for a moment about what could happen if we decided to make this project a centerpiece of our future.

As a social purpose enterprise founded on January 1, we have just begun to explore the possibilities of this dream. But we know that people believe in our dream because they are signing up for our cultural heritage cleanups. The belief is also seen in the number of politicians and business people who have quietly or officially endorsed our work. And it shows in the number of teachers and school principles who have expressed interest in the Lower Falls as a destination point for field learning. As we move forward in the next several months, the Lower Falls logoFoundation will continue to sponsor and organize cleanups, promote cultural events like our special “Evening with Frederick Douglass at Kelsey’s Landing,” develop an expeditionary curriculum with Roberto Clemente School #8, and offer free public tours of the Gorge on an ongoing basis. The change is happening right now!

If you are interested in getting involved in this once in a lifetime mission, please contact George Payne at 585-703-9230. This is a movement to transform our community through the power of social history and the beauty of our most vital natural resource.

George Payne (Co-Founder) Lowerfallsfdn.org 


A group of students from The College at Brockport cleaned up trash in Rochester’s Maplewood Park for the Earth Day of Service. [Aaron Cerbone/NEWS EDITOR]

NOTE: Earlier this month, George was extensively interviewed by the Stylus, the student newspaper at the College at Brockport, for Brockport students clean up historical park, the story on an Earth Day cleanup at the Lower Falls.https://talkerofthetown.com/2016/02/01/8436/


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About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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