Rochester's Waterfalls

The first Europeans to see the Genesee River were the French who had settled Quebec City in 1608 and Montreal in 1611. In 1615 Étienne Brûlé became the first French visitor to the area. Missionaries and traders visited Central New York in 1656 and La Salle visited the Lower Genesee-Irondequoit area in 1669. Circa 1751 Father François Picquet visited and wrote a description of the falls. French maps of the period showed the Genesee River and "Les Trois Chutes," the three falls. After the French and Indian War the French ceded their territory east of the Mississippi to the British who began exploring the area.

In the period before the invention of photography some officers received art training so they could record views of topography, battles and other items of military interest. The British officer Thomas Davies visited the southern shore of Lake Ontario and drew sketches of the falls on the Genesee River. These drawings were obscure until 1953 when they appeared in a Christie's auction of materials from the Earl of Derby's library. The drawings, part of a series Six Views of Waterfalls, are believed to have been done in 1761 and engraved in 1768. His view of the Main Falls appears in Blake McKelvey's, Rochester The Water Power City 1812-1854, Harvard University Press, 1945. Casconchiagon is the early Iroquois name for the present Genesee River. The views of the three falls follow.

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Today we recognize three falls on the Genesee River in Rochester. They are the Upper or High Falls, the Middle Falls and the Lower Falls. In his 1838 book, Sketches of Rochester, Henry O’Reilly identifies the Upper Falls, the Middle Falls and the Lower Falls upper and lower step. This is cleared up by a diagram from Thomas X. Grasso’s Geology and Industrial History of the Rochester Gorge Part One, Rochester History, Vol. LIV, Fall, 1992. No. 4.

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O’Reilly’s Upper Falls, which were between the current Main Street and Broad Street bridges, no longer exist. His Middle Falls is our Upper or High Falls. His Lower Falls upper step we call the Middle Falls and his Lower Falls lower step we call the Lower Falls. Also note that he gives the elevation of the High Falls as 96 feet while the modern height is 80 feet. Note the dashed line which shows a lowering in elevation of the river south of the High Falls. What happened? In early Rochester the Genesee River frequently flooded in the area we know as the Four Corners; the intersection of East Main and State Streets. Major floods occurred in 1835 and 1865. The next picture below shows the Main Street Bridge during the flood of 1865 and the second shows Exchange Street during a 1916 flood.

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How could the river be made to hold more water and reduce the danger of flooding? One way was to dredge the river bed deeper. This was done in a project started in late 1914 which reduced the height of the Upper or High Falls. Some pictures of that project from the Rochester Images section of the Monroe County Library website follow.

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Blasting the lip of the High Falls November 1914

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Debris near the lip of the High Falls

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Building a train trestle in the riverbed 1915

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Train on trestle removing debris Erie Canal aqueduct in the right background 1915

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Train under Court Street Bridge 1915

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Diver preparing for underwater work 1916

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Under the Main Street Bridge

More pictures of all the falls can be found on the Rochester Images website. Below are current pictures of the falls. The first two show the Upper or High Falls at different water levels.

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Upper Falls 9-17-11

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Upper Falls 10-29-11

The following show the Lower Falls, the Middle Falls and both falls together. They are less than one-quarter mile apart.

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RG&E Hydroelectric Plant #5 and the Lower Falls 11-26-11

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Middle Falls and Dam 11-26-11

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Lower and Middle Falls 11-26-11

The intake for the hydro plant is behind the Middle Falls dam. This hydro plant supplies power for 30,500 homes and is currently being upgraded.