Some History of the Watkins Glen gorge.The Finger Lakes were merely another wilderness in 1794, when John W. Watkins and the Royal R. Flint took ownership of some property there. Known then as the land of the Seneca's, many clans of Native American had lived there for centuries. Thick forests blanketed hollows and hills between long narrow lakes. Game was plentiful, and the natives were amenable to trading with settlers. At the south end of Seneca Lake the two established a settlement.
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Unbroken forest stretched across the valley there, surrounding a large swamp at the lake's end. To the north, the lake extended 38 miles between wooded shores. It must have been a magnificent site throughout, but one feature was particularly extraordinary, a gorge on the western hill.
Cut through the hillside, the gorge opened to the lake valley at its base. Its tall cliffs overlooked the course of a descending stream. And the stream was exquisite. Pool after pool stepped down the hillside, each emptying to the next through a chute, cascade, or ribbony channel. Beneath the cliffs, pools had been rounded into perfect circles or smooth ovals. Jagged rock overhead had become etched, carved, and smoothed into the streambed below.
So remarkable was the glen, that the developing town was named in honor of it, along with its founder John Watkins. From the high cliffs, onlookers would come to see the sculptured bed of the glen. Trails were worn by their footsteps along the gorge's rim, first by natives and later by townsfolk.
By the dawning of the industrial age, Watkins Glen had grown into a small town. Steamboats ran on the Finger Lakes at the time, and vast hayfields grew above them to feed the horses of New York City. While Ezra Cornell was founding a university one lake over in Watkins Glen's sister town Ithaca, a wealthy British businessman and journalist from Elmira named Morvalden Ells had undertaken another project in Watkins Glen. On July 4, 1863 Freer's Glen opened with the first trail through the gorge itself.
The gorge became popular very quickly. Bought by New York State in 1906, it became the first state park in the Finger Lakes region. Since 1924, it has been managed by the Finger Lakes Region of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Original weak wooden pathways were replaced by more permanent stone trails, as the park's popularity continued to grow. In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps in an effort to put to work unemployed males between the ages of 18 and 25 whose families were on relief. The plan was to put 500,000 young people to work (in the US) in forests, parks and rangelands. This group of young men was responsible for building many of the present day pathways and pavilions. The tunnels in the gorge were hand cut in the rock. By the 1980's nearly a million visitors were coming to the gorge each year. A spectacular sound and light show, Timespell, was held in the gorge twice each evening (until 2001), helped add to the park's popularity.
The detail of the gorge and its history remain as intriguing to onlookers today as they must have to onlookers far in the past. For any natural wonder, explanations need to be obtained. How did the gorge form and what has its history been like? Answers certainly exist now, even if the remain incomplete. Thus a story of Watkins Glen deserves to be told, to etch out a picture of what we now know.
Four hundred million years ago, the most advanced creatures on earth were jawed fish. Ancient oceans held these first jawed vertebrates as the world entered a geological age know today as the Devonian. Entering the Devonian, the world's dry land was already populated by plants, along with insects to feed on them and each other. Some anthropoid families, including the scorpions and dragonflies had already developed, essentially the same as they are today. Although changes were do doubt occurring on land, the Devonian is most noted for changes that happened in the ocean. It is often regarded as the age of fish. In this short period from four hundred to three hundred and fifty million years ago, the fish family tree underwent an explosive diversification. The first sharks were born, then the first bony fish, then also the first lobe finned fish, close relative of amphibians. In fact, the Devonian proved to be such an eventful time that by its close, the first amphibians themselves had branched off and colonized the land.
Territory which is now central New York sat beneath shallow seas during the Devonian. Because of continental drift the land was actually south of the equator then. Land masses on the Devonian equator included Scandanavia, Greenland, Hudson Bay and Oregon, though the actual shapes of the continents were different.
Watkins Glen's history began on this Devonian sea floor, where the gorge's rock was first laid down as silt. Floods on land carried sediments out to sea, where they were deposited inlayer after layer on the bottom. Who knows what unusual fish might have swam over that sea floor, but their fossils are rarely preserved in rocks nearby. Instead, trilobites, crinoids, horn coral and clam like brachiopods dominate local fossils.
With time the Devonian sediments were gradually compressed into rock by subsequent strata deposited on top. At the time of the dinosaurs, the rocks were probably beneath dry land but covered by many layers of later deposits. The thundering feet of dinosaurs running above them would have been muffled to an imperceptible patter. Even the distant impact of an asteroid several miles around would have sent little more than a shudder through the Watkins Glen rocks, though it meant the end of the dinosaurs overhead. In the year or two of dusty darkness following the great impact, all but the smallest reptiles starves.
As modern mammals developed on the land, the Watkins Glen rocks were slowly working their way toward the surface. Mountain building forces from beneath had steadily pressed the land upward, leaving cracks and fault lines in the rock as monuments to the titanic upheaval. Strata up above had steadily been eroding away. For the past few hundred thousand years, essentially the same rocks have rested near the surface at Watkins Glen, though the gorge itself is probably little more than ten thousand years old. During this recent time, leading up to the gorge's formation, some of the most unusual events in the Glen's whole history have occurred.
Around one hundred thousand years ago, the summer climate in the northern hemisphere began to get cooler. Farther north the winter snow would fail to melt some summers. When this happened, local temperatures fell as the white snow reflected more warming sunlight back to space. Before long a cycle of cooling had taken hold. From a center in Labrador where the first snows accumulated, glaciers advanced to the south. Fed by moisture evaporated from warm ocean currents, the Labrador glaciers continued to expand. By nineteen thousand years ago at the height of the ice age, the glaciers extended south fully to Pennsylvania. Watkins Glen and the whole Finger Lakes Region were covered with up to a mile of ice. Winter snow accumulating farther north forced the ice itself to flow, dragging rocks and debris for hundreds of miles. This glacial scouring carved "v" shaped river valleys into the wide "u" shaped valleys, which now hold the Finger Lakes.
When the glaciers finally began to retreat, by around twelve thousand years ago central New York was becoming uncovered again. The first people to see Watkins Glen may have been a band of hunters trailing some of the mammoths near the glacier's edge. At the time the gorge would have been little more than a shallow gully down the hillside. Because the gorge itself shows no signs of accumulated glacial debris it is thought to have formed entirely since the last ice age. Erosion of the modern gorge was probably just beginning with a roaring flood of glacial melt water.
Some evidence of the glaciers can still be seen in the gorge. Shale, the gray and layered remnant of the one time Devonian seafloor, is the main rock present. It forms the walls and the floor of the gorge, but occasional stray rocks or "glacial erratics" appear in the streambed. Often standing out as more brightly colored and rounded rocks, they represent a displaced stone of some foreign type, carried down from the north by a glacier.
The elevation rise from the main entrance to the north is 520'. The main is 490', north is 1010' above sea level. 3 Miles-Round Trip, 832 Steps,19 Waterfalls
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