Skip to content

“Autumn in New England” Chap. 16 – Gentlemen, Start Your Engines…


Cooperstown, NY to Watkins Glen, NY (Hwy 28 to Oneonta, I-88 to Bainbridge, Hwy 206 to Whitney Point, Hwy 79 to Watkins Glen)

The Finger Lakes region of west-central New York is ripple after ripple of low forest covered ridges dropping precipitously to long, narrow sapphire blue lakes. The remains of glaciation, many of these lakes are fed by small streams that drop in stunning waterfalls to the lakes below. Cayuga is the largest of the finger lakes and the village of Ithaca, home to Cornell University, sits at its’ southern tip. The drop down to the valley is so steep and the valley so narrow that the Lunch Box didn’t have a prayer of navigating the streets of Ithaca so I had to pass this one by with one exception. Across the street from the local high school near the lake shore Ithaca Falls was accessible and I was even able to park across the street. The gamble was worth it as I was rewarded with a stunning look at Ithaca Falls.

Just a half mile to the north of Ithaca Falls it was time for lunch on the shores of Cayuga Lake.

That was it for the Ithaca area, I quickly climbed up out of the Cayuga Lake valley and crossed the next twenty miles before descending into the Seneca Lake valley. The colors of early fall spread across the ridges, interspersed with family farms, most of which seem to be dairy farms.

Suddenly I turn a corner and begin to drop down to the village of Watkins Glen at the southern tip of Seneca Lake.


Watkins Glen
The area south of Seneca Lake was home to the Seneca Indians.  The southern end of the lake tremintates with marsh land so a large native village was located a couple of miles south of the lake on dryer ground. “Queen” Catherine Montour was the leader of the Seneca and the town of Montour Falls is named after her. In 1830 a canal was started that connected Seneca Lake to the Chemung River and Elmira, NY, to the south and a small village grew around the northern terminus of the canal on the lake. The village went through a number of names until the inhabitant settled on the name Watkins in honor of Dr. Samuel Watkins in 1842. A further evolution of the name occurred in 1926 when the name was officially changed to Watkins Glen. The village slumbered on until 1948 when a local, Cameron Argetsinger, organized the first post-World War II road race in the United States and sparked the resurrection of road racing in the United States. The original course ran through the countryside and village until 1956 when Watkins Glen International Raceway was constructed in the hills above the village. Around 2,000 people call the village home, though that number swells during the summer and on weekends as people flock to the countryside to visit the vineyards, waterfalls and lakes. The small village itself strings along Hwy 14 at the base of the western bluffs above the narrow valley.

An inordinate number of historic churches cluster a block off of the main street, most built in the last half of the 1800’s.

Watkins Glen sits in the middle of a lot of natural beauty. I’m staying in the city campground on the shores of Seneca Lake, where sailboats float across the shimmering water on a sunny day.

One of the major tourist draws to Watkins Glen is Watkins Glen State Park, located in Watkins Glen and containing a narrow gorge where Glen Creek slices down from the hills west of town to the valley floor in a spectacular gorge. The park is across Hwy 14 from the country courthouse, offices and parking lot, where I park the Lunch Box and walk across the street to explore the gorge. The entrance is being remodeled so one has to hike through the construction to get into the gorge.

The gorge is very narrow and in the early 1900’s tunnels were carved out of the shale to allow access up the gorge.

Note the stairs (the first of many), this is mostly a vertical climb up the gorge on wet, slippery steps and rocks. Just before the tunnel entrance the view of a graceful arch bridge on the other side of the tunnel comes into view.

Standing on the arch, the views up and down the gorge are impressive.

The stunning gorge just goes on and on (as do the stairs, which eventually defeat my right knee and force me to turn around…)

The pool at the base of the lower waterfall in the picture above is almost perfectly formed in the shape of a heart, undoubtedly the site of many proclamations of love!

Here’s my turn-around point, just couldn’t take on the next flight of stairs!

At the base of the gorge again I run the gauntlet of the construction with the Lunch Box beckoning in the background.

Just south of Watkins Glen beyond the marsh that fills the valley floor is the village of Montour Falls, named after the Seneca leader Catherine Montour, and historically a more important village. In the immediate vicinity of Montour Falls are seven gorges and over 20 waterfalls, one of which is right at the end of the main street.

Montour Falls
The Seneca had lived in the area for hundreds of years and a substantial village grew on the valley floor. In 1779 a Revolutionary Army under General John Sullivan swept through and drove the Seneca north into Canada. European settlers moved into the area and the first post office was established in 1802. In 1833 the Chemung Canal opened, joining Seneca Lake to the Chemung River in Elmira to the south and in the same year the railroad arrived. The village of Havana was officially incorporated in 1836, later renamed Montour Falls in 1895. The “Glorious T” intersection of Genesee Street and Main Street is the center of Montour Falls. On the northwest corner of the intersection is a row of three buildings all fronted with unique red brick columns. The bricks were baked in a curved mold in order to from the round columns.

The first building was the county clerk’s office, the second the county courthouse, and the third originally a bank, now the public library.

At the head of the “T” is the Jackson House, a private residence built in 1847 at the base of Shequaga Falls.
Now, that’s a backyard water feature! South of the Jackson House is the Cook Mansion, built in 1870.

Heading east down the vertical line of the “T” the Montour House commands the street. Built in 1854 the Montour House was the finest hotel in the area for many years.

Outside of Montour Falls, Joey and I stop at Havana Park to have lunch at the base of another waterfall amidst the autumn leaves.

Montour Falls is only a couple of miles south of Watkins Glen in the valley and just a couple of miles southwest of Watkins Glen up in the hills above the valley is another one of the surprises, Watkins Glen International Raceway.

Watkins Glen International Raceway
The first Watkins Glen Grand Prix took place in 1948 over a 6.6 miles course on local roads in and around Watkins Glen. Spectators would line the streets of the village, cheering on the speeding racers. After an accident during a race in 1952 which resulted in the death of a young boy, the impetus to move the race resulted in the building of a permanent course in the hills southwest of the village in 1956 and the legendary “The Glen” was born. A picture in the Watkins Glen International store in the village shows what the area looks like from the air on race day. I can’t imagine the traffic mess as all these people navigate the narrow two lane highways that access this region.
Often called the Mecca of North American road racing, the course has hosted many events over the years. In addition to races, the venue has been used for mass concerts, most notably the 1973 Summer Jam which attracted over 600,000 people to the hills of Watkins Glen. Climbing out of the village a view of the race track crowns a hill in the distance.
I am going to participate in a program called “Drive the Glen” where anyone can drive around the racetrack! Participants gather at Gate 2 and wait for a pace car to lead us around the track. This is a pretty controlled experience, you have to follow the pace car the entire time for three turns around the track, not stopping except once at the finish line where participants can get out of their vehicles and take pictures. Top speed was probably around 70 mph. We enter the grounds at Gate 2 on the northern edge of the complex.

“Drive the Glen” only occurs twice a day, noon and 5pm and you are told to be there 45 minutes early to line up outside the actual track. Entering the main gate I drive up to the track and park. A map of the course shows the layout. We are entering at the north gate next to the Argetsinger bleachers (middle left in the picture below.) The dark line is the main race course, we are going to be able to traverse the outer track, which includes the “Boot” on the upper right.

Access to the bleachers is open so we can go up and take pictures while waiting. Spectacular views await in all directions from the top row of benches.

Southwest (the striped grandstand in the distance is next to the finish line)

West (the early line of vehicles waiting to “Drive the Glen”), eventually a total of ten vehicles join the line.

Northeast (towards Watkins Glen, down in the narrow valley between the ridge line in the forefront and the ridge in the background).

Southeast (the turn and rise of the course in front of the grandstand). The buildings inside the track house luxury suites for spectators.

Ok, the stage is set, let’s race! I’m just going to document my run around the course in pictures with minimal commentary from beginning to end. Enjoy!

We hit the track, I volunteer to take the rear of the queue because I know that some of the others are going to want to go faster and I’ve heard a bit of muttering about having to follow a motorhome…

I really underestimated the number and tightness of the turns, particularly around the “Boot”, the Lunch Box leaned back and forth as we maneuvered around the turns.

Coming up out of the turns the infield and main grandstand come into view.

Heading into the final straightway towards the finish line.

We stop at the finish line and get out to take pictures.

The main grandstands are on the west side of the track, the infield housing guest suites, pit stop and staging areas, etc, are on the east side.

We fire up and head down to the final turn towards our exit gate. The view shows Seneca Lake in the distance.

It was a blast and the Lunch Box did us proud! I head back down into Watkins Glen a satisfied NASCAR veteran…


Next up: The Beauty of Glass