Special Report


The roots of the women's suffrage movement can be located here: in Seneca Falls, the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated, with Susan B. Anthony) is a historic landmark. Of the right to vote, Stanton declared: "Have it we must." (Library of Congress)
"Imagine the luxury of it," Mark Twain (in his study near Elmira, 1903) wrote of the area's appeal. (Mark Twain Archive, Elmira College)

How New York’s Finger Lakes Inspired American Notables

New York’s breathtaking Finger Lakes district has influenced historical figures from Mark Twain to Harriet Tubman

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"It is the loveliest study you ever saw," Mark Twain wrote to a friend about the octagonal hilltop pavilion his in-laws provided him in 1874. Located at Quarry Farm, just outside the town of Elmira in northwestern New York, Twain's aerie commanded ravishing views of farms and hills retreating into blue mists. To the north lay Seneca Lake, one of 11 slender bodies of water that give the Finger Lakes area its name. "When the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes...and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it," Twain exulted.

The author spent 20 summers there. Five mornings a week, after a breakfast of steak and coffee at his in-laws' house, he would tuck a bundle of papers under an arm and trudge up the hill to his study. Puffing away on cigars, he wrote as many as 65 pages a day by hand. It was here that Twain wrote much of his two masterpieces, Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and Huckleberry Finn, in 1884. (The pavilion was moved to nearby Elmira College in 1952.)

Twain is but one of many historical figures linked to this fertile 4,692-square-mile corner of New York state, anchored on the north by Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, and on the south by smaller cities such as Corning, Elmira and Ithaca. A short list of other notable names includes the women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton; banker Frederick Ferris Thompson and his wife, Mary Clark Thompson, who oversaw the creation of one of the nation's great gardens; William Pryor Letchworth, a manufacturer turned pioneering environmentalist who restored a deforested wasteland into the graceful state park bearing his name; and Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who led scores of runaways to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Driving north from Twain’s pavilion near Elmira (pop. 30,073), I pass century-old stands of oak, and fields of corn stretching to the horizon. At an overlook on Seneca Lake, I see why the Iroquois believed the Finger Lakes were created by the Great Spirit's hands as he spread them upon the land to bless it. Geologists offer a more prosaic explanation: ice age glaciers gouged the terrain as they advanced and retreated millennia ago. In the early 1800s, the watery network they created became the basis for the Erie Canal system connecting the area to the Hudson River and New York City. "When the canal opened in 1825, this region became the nation's breadbasket," says local historian Frances Dumas.

Manufacturing and commercial wealth followed. Twain, as it happens, had married into one of the richest Finger Lakes families. His wife, Olivia, was the daughter of Jervis Langdon, a shopkeeper turned millionaire coal merchant. Like many local entrepreneurs, Langdon held socially progressive views. A fervent abolitionist, in 1838 he offered shelter in his home to a runaway slave, the future intellectual and political leader Frederick Douglass. To Twain, "whose own father had abused and sold slaves and helped send abolitionists to prison, the Langdons were a revelation," wrote Geoffrey C. Ward and Dayton Duncan in their 2001 Twain biography, Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography.

Some 70 miles north of Elmira, near the far end of Seneca Lake, I arrive at Seneca Falls (pop. 9,412), where Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) sounded the call for equality of the sexes. She and her husband, Henry, moved to this mill town in 1847. Their modest house at 32 Washington Street, where the Stantons raised their seven children, is now a museum full of such curiosities as a plaster cast of the interlocking forearms of Elizabeth and fellow suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

For Elizabeth Stanton, accustomed to Boston, Seneca Falls came as a shock. The dearth of intellectual and cultural life left her, she said, with "mental hunger." She was appalled by the domestic violence among her neighbors. "If a drunken husband was pounding his wife, the children would run for me," she recalled. Only a year after moving here, Stanton joined local women and their spouses over tea to discuss ways to "remedy the wrongs of society and of woman in particular." On July 11, 1848, they placed a notice in the local Seneca County Courier newspaper, announcing "a convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of Woman" at Seneca Falls on July 19 and 20.

At the convention, 68 women and 32 men passed all 11 resolutions before balking at the one calling for women's suffrage—a privilege then not granted anywhere in the world. "The right is ours," Stanton told the conventioneers. "Have it we must. Use it we will." In the end, the measure was approved, probably thanks to Stanton's friend Frederick Douglass, who convinced the gathering that without their passing the right to vote, Congress would never grant the other rights they sought. Today, Wesleyan Chapel, where the convention was held, Stanton's house and other properties constitute the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

At the time Stanton was battling for equality, just 15 miles east, on the edge of Owasco Lake in the town of Auburn (pop. 28,080), Harriet Tubman was championing another great crusade—the end of slavery. Herself an escaped slave from a Maryland plantation, Tubman made 19 clandestine trips to the South to lead some 70 slaves to freedom. When the Civil War ended in 1865, she moved into an Auburn house provided by her friend William Seward, a passionate abolitionist and secretary of state for both Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson. Tubman would live there until her death, at age 93, in 1913, eking out the funding to turn the house and its 26 acres into a nursing home. "In the last five years of her life, she opened her home for sick and elderly former slaves," says Christine Carter, the guide at the Harriet Tubman House, a 1952 replacement for the original.

William Pryor Letchworth had unlimited means to underwrite his passion—the environment. Having amassed a fortune from the manufacture of metal components for harnesses and wagons, the lifelong bachelor retired at age 48 to his country house, Glen Iris, to devote himself to philanthropy. In 1906, in a move that outflanked an electric power company wanting to build a dam on the property, he donated 1,000 acres for a preserve that would become Letchworth State Park. Located 35 miles south of Rochester, the park (which adds slivers of land to this day) had incorporated most of its 14,392 acres by the early 1930s. During the Great Depression, the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees here by the tens of thousands. Letchworth State Park stretches 17 miles north to south, but averages only 1 mile in width. Its axis is a gorge carved out by retreating glaciers and deepened by the Genesee River. At some points, the height from riverbed to gorge summit reaches 600 feet, earning the park the sobriquet "The Grand Canyon of the East." Three impressive cataracts punctuate the river. The Lower Falls lies at the base of a 127-step stairway down the gorge. "You can see why they are my favorite falls," says park manager Roland Beck. "Most visitors never make it down here." Beck lives year-round at Letchworth with his wife and three children, in a house on a bluff overlooking the Genesee, miles away from the nearest community. "I have no neighbors, but some people don't consider that a minus," he deadpans.


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