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City Council goes chasing waterfalls' names

View from atop Lower Falls in Rochester.
Jacob Walsh
View from atop Lower Falls in Rochester.

The 96-foot cascade just north of downtown Rochester that everyone knows as High Falls has become a focal point for the city’s redevelopment plans.

Local officials are working with the state to plan a park there. Meanwhile, the city has improved sections of the Genesee Riverway Trail that run alongside it and has started redeveloping the Pont de Rennes pedestrian walkway. All of it is meant to celebrate one of the city’s most cherished geographic features.

There’s just one problem: High Falls doesn’t exist. Neither do Middle or Lower Falls. At least, that is the case as far as the federal government is concerned. They do not appear on federal maps and are not included in the United States Geological Survey’s database.

But the Rochester City Council, alongside Genesee RiverWatch, is aiming to change that. This month, the Council will vote on a resolution urging the federal government to formally recognize the falls’ existence and names. The resolution is signed by Mayor Malik Evans, Council President Miguel Meléndez, and Councilmember Mitch Gruber.

Steve Orr is a Genesee RiverWatch board member and former Democrat & Chronicle reporter. He first wrote about the anomalous absence of the falls in federal documentation in 2018.

“All the waterfalls around here that you know of are in the database,” Orr said. “Honeoye Falls is there. Of course, Niagara Falls are there. The three other waterfalls with similar names in Letchworth are on the map. But somehow, these three didn’t get names, they never were ascribed.”

Orr first stumbled upon the absence of names while trolling through the United States Geological Survey database. The organization was formed in 1879, primarily to map out the country. But as Orr noted in the 2018 story, the earliest maps marked only Upper Falls as “Falls,” despite them already being a popular attraction. The other two falls were never identified.

Middle Falls is likely the least known of the three Genesee River waterfalls in the city. It is a 20-foot cascade between High and Lower Falls that was dammed by Rochester Gas & Electric for a hydropower facility. That remains in operation.

The resolution also settles a debate about the correct name of the largest of the three waterfalls. It had been known as Upper Falls until a city economic revitalization initiative in the 1990s that focused on the neighborhood around it and came with a rebranding of it to High Falls. The title has since stuck, even though the name conflicts with the nearby Upper Falls neighborhood and Boulevard.

The city and RiverWatch are going with High Falls.

The move to have the falls properly identified on maps will not change much. There is no funding tied to it or infrastructure projects enabled by it. But their absence from official federal maps remains an oddity.

Just why the USGS has never recognized any of Rochester’s Genesee River waterfalls is a mystery. On a modern USGS map of Rochester, small, dashed lines in the Genesee River note that something is there north of Andrews Street, but it is not labeled with a name.

It’s not a matter of size or notability. High Falls is about five times the height of Honeoye Falls. It also served as a major economic driver in Rochester’s early history, powering the city’s 19th Century flour mill industry, which earned it the early moniker Flour City.

The city has tried to capitalize on the falls throughout its entire history, albeit today the emphasis is on tourism rather than grinding grain.

Orr first approached Gruber to get Council on board with petitioning the federal government. Council was previously unaware that the city’s waterfalls were not recognized on federal maps. Gruber then brought the matter to Evans.

While anyone can send a letter requesting a geographic feature be recognized, Gruber said he saw it as important that the city itself engage with the process and “codify” the request to recognize the falls.

He described the absence of the falls on federal maps as a “curiosity.”

“This is not going to change people’s lives, but I do think it’s important in the way we value our city,” Gruber said. “This is a really easy thing to take for granted, and it seems like it should be obvious.”

Gruber likened the move to have the falls recognized as akin to the city’s ongoing effort to rename local landmarks once named after slaveholders. For example, the city plans to rename Charles Carroll Park, named after the founding father and plantation owner, to honor Austin Steward, an abolitionist, former slave, and author of Twenty-Two Years a Slave. 

Gruber had originally proposed Steward as a candidate for the name-change in 2021. He sees these efforts to define city places as a means of establishing identity.

“What I hope happens here is that other municipalities see this and take the effort to check to see if their own features are recognized,” Gruber said.

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.