About a year ago, in late July 2013, I learned that the Local History Division of the Rochester Public Library was going to assume operations for the High Falls Center at 74 Brown’s Race. Not only that, but I was being offered the opportunity to serve as the primary site manager for a museum and visitor’s center nestled in the heart of one of Rochester’s most historic districts. It was all very exciting! A few weeks later, City Historian Christine Ridarsky and I were given our first tour of the facilities, which had been empty since June. Then we were given keys. Then we began to work on getting the place ready to reopen and serve the public. As the Local History Division approaches the one-year anniversary of taking on High Falls, the moment seems ripe to reflect on our first year spent in the iconic museum.
City Historian Christine Ridarsky patiently awaits her set of keys for High Falls, August 2013.
My first day opening the High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum, September 5th, 2013.
Today the High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum sits in the middle of a neighborhood known for both its historical attractions (the falls themselves, the Triphammer, the Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge, the Genesee Brewery, etc.) and a bustling commercial scene. The vibrant community— a mix of retail, residential, and office space set amid a 19th-century industrial backdrop— is practically synonymous with the city of Rochester. Many out-of-town visitors start their trips to Rochester by coming to High Falls.
But did you know that the High Falls neighborhood once existed apart from Rochester? In fact, it was once the epicenter of a rival settlement known as Frankfort, a 200-acre tract of land acquired in 1812 by brothers Matthew and Francis Brown. For an investment of $1,300, the Browns bought the territory surrounding the Genesee River’s upper falls, land that neighbored the northern border of a fateful 100 acre tract purchase of another hopeful speculator, Nathaniel Rochester. Much like Colonel Rochester’s vision for Rochesterville, the Browns hoped to make their fortune by selling plots in Frankfort once the landscape became more developed. To further that ambition, in 1815-16 the Browns created the area’s first power canal, Brown’s Race, as a selling point to prospective entrepreneurs. Although the Brown brothers merged their holdings with Nathaniel Rochester’s in 1817, their commitment to harnessing the power of the Genesee River had already transformed the High Falls district, emblazoning it with a distinct identity. The water power produced by the raceway, capable of generating 3,670 horsepower, made High Falls the natural industrial core of the young Genesee Valley settlement. The cluster of flour mills drawing power from the race— spurred by the opening of the Erie Canal— propelled Rochester’s rise as an American boomtown and the nation’s “Flour City.”
One of the many flour mills lined up along Brown’s Race in the early 19th century.
That was then. Although High Falls remains home to many well-preserved remnants from its industrial past, in the two centuries since the original Brown’s purchase the neighborhood has evolved many times over. Indeed, it has gone through numerous permutations: from heavy manufacturing center to entertainment zone to its present iteration as a mixed-use historical community.
The High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum first opened in the early 1990s. Housed in a beautifully-refurbished Victorian waterworks plant, the charming museum captured the indelible character of the Browns Race community through exhibits that emphasized the power of water in shaping Rochester’s rise to prominence. Unfortunately, the center closed in the summer of 2013. That’s when the Local History Division stepped in.
We had our work cut out for us! The museum needed a thorough cleaning, exhibit repairs, and a lot of TLC. Several members of the Local History team, myself included, literally rolled up our sleeves and spent the month of August 2013 undertaking the massive project. We scrubbed floors, changed light fixtures, vacuumed, dusted, polished, painted, and even climbed inside many of the exhibits to clean them and install new parts. Most of the exhibits, which are now nearly 25 years old, run on dated, finicky analogue technology; they all needed a little coaxing to spring back to life. Fortunately, they are very well built. I am pleased to report that every feature of the High Falls Center is operational!
A historian’s work is never done!
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of preparation, the Local History Division reopened High Falls to the public on September 5th 2013. Our first visitor, who logged his name in our brand new guest book, was a Mr. Fleming from Mt. Olive, Illinois.
Thousands of people followed Mr. Fleming’s path to High Falls. One of the most worthwhile aspects about working at the museum has been interacting with the incredible cultural and geographic diversity of peoples that are drawn here. Since Mr. Fleming, 4,957 others have visited the High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum. They have come from over forty different countries, from 47 of the 50 states (we still need representatives from both Dakotas and Montana!), from across New York State, and throughout all the towns and neighborhoods of the greater Rochester area. High Falls truly is a local, regional, national, and international phenomenon. On any given day we might act as ambassadors to a family visiting from abroad, make restaurant and museum recommendations for guests visiting from out of state, and a lead a field trip of Rochester school children through the museum and neighborhood— often all before lunch!
Lifelong Rochesterians also tend to express great delight when they find themselves entering our doors. For many, the trip to High Falls marks a nostalgic return to a museum they visited as children or perhaps when their families were younger. It helps that our permanent exhibits are attractive enough to be enjoyed repeatedly —the Taxi Cab ride is a perennial favorite! Often, however (usually no less than once per day), a local visitor will offer me a sheepish expression and the following reluctant confession: this is their first trip—ever!—to the High Falls district despite having lived in Rochester for years. I am quick to reassure such visitors that this is a common profession. Somehow, High Falls has managed to become one of the city’s greatest hidden gems. Probably because Rochester has so many enriching experiences to offer.
A group of RIT students enjoy a famous High Falls taxi ride.
The High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum really is a wonderful resource for the community, and a great place to learn about local history. In addition to the museum’s exhibits, the Local History Division has staged three seasonal exhibits in its gallery spaces, and we recently finished a lunchtime historical lecture series. I have personally led countless indoor and outdoor walking tours of the neighborhood for groups ranging from elementary school children to senior citizens. All of this at no charge to the public.
In short, this has been a very good year at High Falls.
And now, I’d like to close by highlighting the year in review through pictures. Here we have High Falls through the seasons:
High Falls during the 2013 Holidays
High Falls in bloom, Spring 2014
Next up: summer! Plan a visit and take advantage of extended summer hours. During July and August, the High Falls Center and Interpretive Museum will be open every day of the week except Tuesdays. On Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, it is open from 11:00 AM until 4:00 PM. It is open from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM on Saturday and from noon until 4:00 PM on Sunday. The Center is always free to the public.
High Falls Interpretive Center and Museum
74 Browns Race
Rochester, NY 14614
Be on the look out for our new street sign!
Courtesy of Visit Rochester
~Jeff Ludwig, Historical Researcher
McKelvey, “Flour Milling at Rochester” in Rochester History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (July 1971).
Rosenberg-Naparsteck, “Frankfort: Birthplace of Rochester’s Industry” in Rochester History, Vol. 50, No. 3 (July 1988).