Much of what is now Western New York is covered by a shallow sea. The erosion of the nearby Arcadian Mountain Range fills this sea with layers of sand and silt. This leads to the formation of the sandstone and shale bedrock that characterizes the Finger Lakes Region.
300 million years ago
The formation of the supercontinent Pangaea causes uplift in the northeast of what is now North America. The inland seas that once covered Western NY and Pennsylvania become land. Streams begin to cut their way through the newly uplifted bedrock.
2.5 million to 12,000 years ago
By this time deep valleys have been cut along what is now the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes water systems. The global climate begins to cool and this time period is marked by mass extinctions, repeated cycles of glaciations and melt (probably more than 40 times).
Glaciers smooth over mountains and gouge out existing valleys, forming the basins for the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes. Massive amounts of melt-water, plugged from draining into the ocean by glacial debris, form massive lakes that fill the gouged river valleys. The Great Lakes and Finger Lakes are remnants of those massive glacial lakes.
12,000 years ago to present day
As the massive lakes that engulfed the present-day Finger Lakes receded, they left large basins and valleys behind. Like many of the Finger Lakes, when Seneca Lake‘s waters receded it exposed enormous sheer cliffs along its southern half. Some of these cliffs still hang directly over the lake today. Others have receded away from the lake due to erosion. Small tributaries to the lakes formed small valleys atop these cliffs and eventually cut deep gorges back into the rock. Watkins Glen and Excelsior Glen on Seneca Lake and Taughannock Falls on Cayuga Lake are excellent examples of these Hanging Valleys that empty into the Finger Lakes’ basins.
In the grand scheme of things, the carving of the gorges that line the Finger Lakes is relatively recent and the speed and grandeur of the gorge that is created depends on a variety of factors, including amount of water, natural fractures in the rock, type of bedrock, and winter climate.
In addition to the carving of the glens by water, much of the erosive force also happens by the fracturing of the rock along joints and natural cracks by ice. Water fills these cracks and expands when it freezes. This pries apart the rock allowing for massive gorges, such as Taughannock to be created in a relatively short time span.
13,000 years ago
The Clovis People
These nomadic hunters begin to populate the American West.
5,500 to 4,000 years ago
The Lamoka Indians, a hunting/fishing/gathering culture, have multiple settlements near Lamoka Lake to the west.
3,000 to 1,000 years ago
The first settlers in Western NY to cultivate crops to supplement their hunting and gathering.
1,000 years ago
The Owasco Indians eventually diverged into many distinct tribes throughout Western and Central New York. The western most tribe, and the inhabitants of the Watkins Glen area, were the Seneca. Known as the “Great Hill People,” the Seneca were the most powerful of the tribes in the region, and when the 5 nations of the Iroquois tribes formed the Iroquois Confederacy around the year 1300, they were the “keepers of the western door,” and responsible for guarding the western flank of the Iroquois confederacy.
Dutch and British explorers trade with the Iroquois for fur. Europeans introduce metal tools, guns, and smallpox.
Missionaries begin to plant European varieties to produce wine. European varieties do not last the harsh winters of New York and are easily overcome by native species.
French and Indian War
The Iroquois fight alongside the British against the French.
Queen Catherine Montour
Catherine, the daughter of a French mother and Mohawk father, who married a Seneca chief, becomes heir to his village of Chequaga, present-day Montour Falls. This village becomes known as Catherinestown.
American Revolutionary War Begins
The Iroquois adopt a neutral stance in the war.
Iroquois Inner Conflict
The tribes of the Iroquois become divided as some, including the Seneca, choose to support the British, while others support the colonists.
Terrorist Attacks on American Settlements
British loyalists (Tories) aided by their Iroquois allies, attack American settlements and kill innocents. The Continental US considers the Iroquois to be a threat to American colonies.
The Sullivan Expedition Begins
Under order of General George Washington, Major General John Sullivan and Brigadier General James Clinton lead a military campaign against British loyalists and the four nations of the Iroquois that sided with them: the Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes. The campaign led a continental force of 2,300 men along the Finger Lakes region to exterminate the “hostile” tribes.
September 1, 1779
Sullivan Expedition Reaches Catherinestown
The expedition reaches Catherinestown (present-day Montour Falls, south of Watkins Glen) to find the great Seneca settlement abandoned. The next day, troops burn homes and crops, and head north along the west side of Seneca Lake.
September 3, 1783
The Treaty of Paris
The American Revolutionary War ends.
November 5, 1784
The Treaty of Fort Stanwix
Signed in present-day Rome, NY, it effectively ended violence between British-loyalist native tribes and the United States. It also set the groundwork for Native American Reservations.
First White Settlers
Silas Walcott and S. Wilson are the first settlers near present-day Montour Falls.
The Watkins-Flint Purchase
John W. Watkins and Royal R. Flint of New York City submit an application to purchase land south of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes for a partnership of prominent investors.
The L’Hommedieu Purchase
Frenchman Ezra L’Hommedieu purchases a small tract of land along the southwest corner of Seneca Lake in present-day Watkins Glen.
A small settlement of less than 50 people thrives at the mouth of Watkins Glen Gorge.
November 11, 1794
The Treaty of Canandaigua
This treaty between the United States and the Iroquois Nation over land boundaries, sought to establish peace between the two parties.
The Watkins-Flint Purchase
John W. Watkins and Royal R. Flint of New York City purchased 325,000 acres of land south of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes from the State of New York.
John W. Watkins and his brother, Charles, arrive at the south end of Seneca Lake and begin to make plans to develop the area. At the time, there were four distinct settlements in the area.
Mills in Watkins Glen
The Watkins brothers construct a sawmill, blacksmith, and gristmill within Watkins Glen, then called “Big Gully.” This significantly boosted the economy for the settlement. John Watkins built a large white mansion on the hill above the gorge.
With lake access closed off from Watkins’ property (by the L’Hommedieu tract of land) and inadequate roads, the economy of the settlements suffers, losing agriculture and milling business to Montour. The large swamp at the head of the lake made much of the land uninhabitable, and caused flooding and disease. After his mansion is destroyed by fire, John Watkins returns to New York City. The settlement experiences a period of stagnant growth for the next 15 or so years.
When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it revolutionized the shipping industry in North America, and hamlets to cities along the canal became players in the national and world market.
Dr. Samuel Watkins Arrives
Following John Watkins’ death, his younger brother, and prominent New York City doctor, inherits the estate and relocates to Seneca Lake. He surveys the land and acquires lake access for the settlement through the L’Hommedieu property. Over the next 40 years he invests significant time and money into the development of the property, constructing roads, homes, shops, and a hotel.
Sam Watkins also constructs flour, saw, and plaster mills within Watkins Glen gorge, damming the gorge upstream (at Stillwater gorge in Glen Alpha and above Cavern Cascade in Glen Oscura).
Opening in 1828, this 20 mile long stretch of the NY State Erie Canal System opened up the two lakes as a transportation hub. Steamboats now frequent the lakes, transporting people and goods.
First Commercial Winery
Samuel Warren creates his first commercial vintage in Livingston County, proving that the Finger Lakes region has potential for a wine industry.
Stretching from the head of Seneca Lake at Watkins Glen to the Chemung River at Elmira, NY, this segment of the canal system revived the economy for towns along the south of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. Finished in 1833, the construction effort resulted in a significant drainage in the swampland at the head of the lake. Now the settlement could be greatly expanded.
Sam Watkins Marries Cynthia Ann Cass
His secretary, less than half his age.
April 11, 1842
Jefferson Village Incorporated
Sam Watkins successfully integrates all the settlements along the southern tip of Seneca Lake into one village.
Watkins Mansion Built
Sam Watkins builds a Greek Revival mansion in the village. After his death, it becomes the Glen City Hotel.
First Railroad in Jefferson
It runs from Canandaigua, down Seneca Lake , through the village of Jefferson, and to Elmira.
May 1, 1851
Samuel Watkins Dies
He passes away from natural causes in his home in Jefferson (present-day Watkins Glen) at the age of 80. His widow begins to campaign to have the village named after her late husband.
February 11, 1852
Cynthia Watkins Re-marries
Ithaca lawyer George Freer.
Jefferson Becomes Watkins
In honor of Samuel Watkins’ success in founding the Village, the name officially changes.
Cynthia Watkins Dies
Her husband, George Freer, inherits her estate, including Big Gully (Watkins Glen).
A newspaper editor from Elmira, Ells moves to the village of Watkins to purchase the local paper. He explored the glen, then privately owned, and wrote a descriptive article of its features. His wonder for the glen, knack for marketing, and the popularity of his descriptive article, inspired him to seek out a partnership with the landowner, George Freer, to open the glen to tourism.
Development of the Glen
Ells hires workers to build wooden stairs, clear and expand paths within the glen, and build a gated entrance outside.
The Coal Industry
John Magee founds the Fall Brook Coal Company, making coal distribution the village’s primary industry. Growth in Schuyler County increases rapidly.
April 12, 1861
The American Civil War Begins
July 4, 1863
The Glen Opens
Named Freer’s Glen: Mysterious Book of Nature, the glen opens for the first time, with only the Entrance Amphitheater to Cavern Cascade accessible. Upwards of 10,000 tickets sold in the first year.
Freer’s Glen Opens for a Second Season
Ells built a stairway (called Long Staircase) that led from Cavern Cascade to the top of the gorge (above Glen Obscura) to a wood refreshment facility called “The Glen Mountain House.” Ells concentrates on running the new establishment.
In July, the trail to Glen Cathedral and to the Glen of Pools and Rainbow Falls is opened.
Journal articles from around the United States begin publishing descriptions of the glen.
Glen of Pools
The section beyond Rainbow Falls is opened for the season.
The Coal Industry Diminishes
Less dependent on lake navigation and more on rail, Fall Brook Coal Company moves to Corning, NY. The village of Watkins becomes more dependent on tourism and agriculture.
E.B. Parsons Buys Freer’s Glen
Freer sells the glen to the entrepreneur from Troy, NY for $25,000. Parsons continues to develop the glen as a tourist attraction. Ells stays on as manager. During this era of ownership, the glen begins to be referred to (unofficially) as “Watkins Glen.”
The Swiss Chalet is Added
Parsons replaces the old Glen Mountain House with this two story resort, styled after a Swiss mountain house. “The Swiss Chalet” opens in May with a full kitchen, dining hall, parlor, and rooms for rent.
James Hope Paints Rainbow Falls
Downstate artist, James Hope, is commissioned to paint Rainbow Falls at Freer’s Glen. He explores the glen and falls in love with it.
The Watkins Sanitarium Opens
This grand resort atop the hills southwest of the lake opens to a boom of tourism. The resort is owned by George Freer.
Mark Twain Visits
He briefly describes the park in Chapter LXXVI of Roughing It:
In one place in the island of Hawaii, we saw a laced and ruffled cataract of limpid water leaping from a sheer precipice fifteen hundred feet high; but that sort of scenery finds its stanchest ally in the arithmetic rather than in spectacular effect. If one desires to be so stirred by a poem of Nature wrought in the happily commingled graces of picturesque rocks, glimpsed distances, foliage, color, shifting lights and shadows, and failing water, that the tears almost come into his eyes so potent is the charm exerted, he need not go away from America to enjoy such an experience. The Rainbow Fall, in Watkins Glen (N.Y.), on the Erie railway, is an example. It would recede into pitiable insignificance if the callous tourist drew on arithmetic on it; but left to compete for the honors simply on scenic grace and beauty–the grand, the august and the sublime being barred the contest–it could challenge the old world and the new to produce its peer.
James Hope Moves Into Watkins Glen
He relocates from New York City to a new studio near the Swiss Chalet and devotes his time to painting the glen. Hope’s Art Gallery becomes a popular attraction at the glen. His son, J.D. Hope photographs the glen in stereoscopic 3D and sells prints to tourists.
John J. Lytle Buys Watkins Glen
E.B. Parsons sells the glen property to John Lytle, from Philadelphia, for $100,000
June 20, 1872
Rock Fall Fatality
While hiking up the Glen Cathedral section of the glen, a man and two women are hit by falling rock. One of the women is killed.
The Grand Glen Mountain House Opens
Lytle builds a large resort atop Glen Obscura across the glen from the Swiss Chalet. The Swiss Chalet is completely converted to a dining facility. The new Mountain House is beautifully landscaped and capable of housing 300 guests. A suspension bridge was built linking the two sides of the glen.
As a competing attraction, Havana Glen opens to tourists south of Watkins Glen in Montour.
St. Mary’s Cemetery Opens
Adjacent to existing Glenwood Cemetery, this property caters to the Catholic population of the village.
P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling World’s Fair Performs
“The Greatest Show on Earth” is put on in the village of Watkins.
Andrew Haswell Green Buys Watkins Glen
Famed, conservationist, lawyer and NYC urban planner, Andre H. Green acquires the glen for $100,000.
In this era, the attraction becomes known as Watkin’s Glen.
The Fall Brook Train Trestle Is Built
The Fall Brook Railway is constructed, and it passes over the Glen. Primarily to ship coal, the railway helps to eliminate Watkins Glen as a hub for barge shipping on Seneca Lake and the Chemung Canal.
The Chemung Canal Closes
Made obsolete by the rail industry. Canal properties and parts were sold off at auction in subsequent years.
Seneca disappear from Watkins Glen
From the Sullivan Campaign, commercial development, racism, and assigned reservations, the Seneca no longer inhabit the Watkins Glen area.
While drilling for petroleum, the Watkins Oil Company finds salt deposits. The Salt industry booms through the 1900s and still exists to this day.
Adirondack and Catskill Parks are Established
New York State designates these lands as protected and to never be sold.
The Glen Springs Sanitarium
Formerly the Watkins Sanitarium, this resort, greatly developed, sees a boom in business as mineral baths become popular for people suffering from a variety of ailments.
October 20, 1892
Artist J.D. Hope Dies
His family continues to operate his gallery.
The New York Central
The Fall Brook Railway is incorporated into the New York Central network of rail.
A Public Park
November 13, 1903
Andrew Haswell Green Dies
The owner of Watkins Glen is fatally shot in a case of mistaken identity.
The Glen Mountain House Burns Down
Beyond repair, the resort is demolished shortly after.
Morvalden Ells Dies
He is buried in nearby Glenwood Cemetery.
New York State Buys the Glen
New York State purchases the glen property from the estate of Andrew Green (per his wishes) for half of his purchase price, just shy of $50,000. The American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (ASHPS), which was founded by Andrew Green little more than 10 year prior, takes on the task of maintaining and operating the Glen as a public park and preserve, rather than as a resort.
Watkins Glen State Reservation Opens
With the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society (ASHPS) at the helm, Watkins Glen Park opens to visitors, free of charge, with repaired pathways and bridges. They create a plan to install permanent concrete paths with iron railings to replace wooden ones that needed constant maintenance.
The Swiss Chalet Closes
With a plan to preserve the Glen, rather than develop it, the ASHPS removes the Swiss Chalet.
More Improvements are Made Under the ASHPS
Park pathways are widened and a large wall constructed along Glen Creek in the Entrance Amphitheater to protect the parking area from flooding. Entrance Tunnel was carved out of the cliffs. More concrete and iron paths and bridges were added in subsequent years as well as Spiral Tunnel which was excavated to allow for entrance to Glen Obscura above Cavern Cascade. Overlooks are created above the Glen’s most prominent features.
August 12, 1908
The First Model T
The first of Henry Ford’s Model T’s comes off the line. This ushers in a new era of transportation, and soon, competitive racing.
As with many tourist resorts during the age of the rail and steamboat, personal automobiles allowed for convenience and speed of travel that allowed families to take day trips rather than spending several days on excursions. This resulted in a decline in rail and resort business.
The State Takes Over The Glen
As the ASHPS mission to preserve, rather than develop, became more clear to the state government, it began to lose its contracts with parks around the state. Without an established parks department, the state began to manage Watkins Glen State Reservation on its own with a make-shift committee.
January 16, 1920
The US Government outlaws alcoholic beverages, crippling the Finger Lakes wine industry. Some wineries are able to sustain themselves by selling grapes as produce, as well as bottles of grape juice with fermentation instructions printed on the labels.
Clute Park Opens
Catering to the increase in automobile traffic, the village of Watkins Glen opens this lakeside camp, picnic, and bathing park. To be named W.W. Clute Memorial Park in later years.
Finger Lakes State Parks Commission Takes Over the Glen
The first established New York State Parks department in the Finger Lakes region begins to manage the park.
The South Entrance Opens
The State purchases land along the south rim, constructs a gate, roads and a massive indoor pavilion.
March 9, 1926
The Village of Watkins Becomes Watkins Glen
With guide books, postcards, and people constantly referring to the small village as the name of its most famous attraction, a village charter is drafted to formally change the name to Watkins Glen.
October 29, 1929
Stock Market Crash
This financial disaster ushers in The Great Depression. Spending drops, causing great harm to the agriculture and tourism industries of the region.
The New Deal
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the New Deal into law, creating the Public Works Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Hector Land Bought By The Federal Government
With many farms in the region struggling, the Federal Government steps in under the New Deal and buys farmland around Hector to save families from bankruptcy. These patches of land will eventually become the Finger Lakes National Forest.
August 28, 1933
Two deer were either chased or wandered into the Glen. The buck became trapped on a ledge in Glen Alpha, while the doe fell to her death. With no means of reaching and rescuing the deer, the stuck deer and its ongoing care and rescue attempts became a daily news story for papers around the US. This resulted in an unintended boom for tourism in the village as people herded into the park to see the trapped deer.
Despite repeated attempts to rescue it, the deer is too scared or content to follow bait. It is coerced out after 2 weeks.
December 5, 1933
Congress repeals the Prohibition Act. The Finger Lakes wine industry begins to grow considerably in following years.
July 7, 1935
The Great Flood
Thunderstorms hit the Finger Lakes region around 4pm, dumping up to 12 inches of rain in as little as 3 hours. The Glen Greek gorge quickly filled with water and debris, taking out the New York Central Railroad trestle and much of the iron and concrete infrastructure of the Gorge Trail. Witnesses claim the flood waters practically filled Watkins Glen gorge. The gift shops at the mouth of the Glen are destroyed, including one that housed J.D. Hope’s works.
Homes and businesses along Glen Creek, and many other Finger Lakes tributaries, were extensively damaged. Over 40 deaths occurred due to these flash floods.
Summer – Fall, 1935
Following the flood, the Civilian Conservation Corps at the Whites Hollow Camp (where the Hidden Valley 4-H camp is today) began rebuilding the damaged infrastructure of the Gorge Trail. Like much of the CCC work performed in Finger Lakes parks, natural stone and mortar were used to create natural-looking paths, bridges and structures.
The Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the construction of two dams on Glen Creek in the west section of the park (1938), and additional flood control measures were installed along the Seneca Lake Inlet (Chemung Canal).
New Rail Bridge
A stronger, more reinforced train trestle is built for the New York Central line, to replace the one destroyed in the previous year.
Watkins Glen Illuminated
Floodlights were installed in Glen Alpha to allow visitors to enter the glen at night.
December 7, 1941
The US Enters World War II
After the Japanese bomb Pear Harbor, young men are needed for military service. CCC camps begin to shut down.
Whites Hollow CCC Camp Shuts Down
The CCC Camp that rebuilt Watkins Glen, shuts down, becoming a farming labor camp.
Racing at the Glen
Hidden Valley Camp
The former CCC camp in Whites Hollow, set for demolition, is resurrected as a 4-H Summer Camp under a co-op of the Finger Lakes Parks Commission and the 4-H Youth Development Organization.
Auto racing enthusiast, Argetsinger, visits Watkins Glen and is inspired by the challenges of the hilly terrain.
October 2, 1948
Watkins Glen Grand Prix
The first road race in Watkins Glen is a huge success. The Grand Prix becomes a yearly event, drawing crowds in the tens of thousands.
September 23, 1950
In the third Grand Prix, racing pioneer Sam Collier dies after crashing his Ferrari 166.
After insurance providers refused to cover the road circuit, officials moved the race to a dedicated track in the Town of Dix.
The race is moved to a permanent facility nearby. The new professional closed circuit allowed for more events, better control over safety and crowds, and allowed racing to flourish. Formula One, NASCAR, and many other racing organizations would tour to the Glen in subsequent years. The village of Watkins Glen becomes known more for racing than for the Glen.
March 17, 1962
The First Finger Lakes Trail Conference Meeting
The first meeting of this organization would kick off a huge effort to create a massive network of trails across New York State, including one segment that traverses the southern rim of Watkins Glen.
The state adds the Olympic-size pool, changing rooms and snack bar to the South Entrance.
The closed circuit course is rebuilt with more daring curves and an extension.
July 28, 1973
Summer Jam at Watkins Glen
An estimated 600,000 rock fans came to the Raceway to see The Allman Brothers Band, The Band, and the Grateful Dead perform and set a Guinness World Record for “Largest audience at a pop festival.”
Wine and Tourism
The Farm Winery Act
Although the wine industry in New York was strong since the repeal of prohibition, it was primarily large distributors of wine that were able to afford production and sell wine. This new act, allowed for smaller producers to sell wine directly to the public, which led to wineries as tourist destinations.
Glenora Wine Cellars Opens
Opening north of Watkins Glen, this winery grows to become one of the region’s largest independent wineries.
Wagner Vineyards Opens
In Lodi, north of Watkins, on the east side of Seneca Lake. The opening of Wagner and Glenora proves that independent wineries can thrive in New York State.
The Jefferson House is Demolished
Under hard economic times, the village’s oldest hotel is razed.
Decline of Racing at the Glen
The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation files for bankruptcy and the course is sold at auction the following year.
“Thunder in the Glen”
Although not technically IN the Glen, the American Power Boat Association hosts their championship races at Seneca Lake, calling it “Thunder in the Glen.”
Finger Lakes National Forest
Farmland bought by the Federal Government 50 years ago under the New Deal, and since reclaimed by nature, is declared a National Forest.
State Park Entrance and Visitor Center
Watkins Glen State park opens with a new entrance, parking area and visitor center.
Looking to drum up park traffic after hours, Watkins Glen State Park launches the Timespell Light and Laser Show. This educational laser show was projected on the cliff of Glen Alpha.
A large historic timeline of the natural history of the Glen is painted on a rail along Glen Creek and the parking lot.
Racing Returns to the Glen
Under sponsorship from Corning Glass Works, Watkins Glen hosts the IMSA’s Camel Continental. This successful venture ushers in several other major racing events in subsequent years.
Watkins Glen Lakefront
A new Lakefront Park was completed along the rail line, with a new fishing pier and pavilion.
The Seneca Lake Wine Trail
The Seneca Lake Wine Trail Conglomerate is formed to promote independent wineries as tourist destinations.
NASCAR Returns to the Glen
Under sponsorship from Budweiser, NASCAR returns to race at Watkins Glen.
Cascata Winery Opens
Located within Watkins Glen this boutique-style winery has a tasting room, art gallery, gift shop and bed and breakfast. It represents the diversification of independent wineries seen as more and more open in the region.
July 23, 1995
The Finger Lakes Scenic Railway Opens
Pieced together from defunct cargo and passenger lines, this network of rails that traverse the Finger Lakes becomes a relaxing tourist passenger line that leads right to the Watkins Glen waterfront.
Due to diminished ticket sales.
The Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel Opens
This giant resort forever changes the village lakefront and begins a new era of tourism for the village.