A key environmental issue of the Chautauqua-Allegheny biophysical region is the conservation of woodlands, wetlands and other natural environments, the sum of which sustain its scenic beauty, water quality and environmental health. As tourism continues to play an increasing role in the economic life of the Chautauqua-Allegheny region, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute plays a key role addressing the need of our community to understand the direct relationship between the health of our region’s ecosystems and the health of our economy.
As part of our work in this area, in 2001 RTPI published a Natural History Atlas to the Chautauqua-Allegheny Region, culminating several years of environmental education work through a matching grant from the Annenberg Rural Challenge. Originally intended as a tool for educators to identify field trip destinations that exemplify the ecology of the region, the Atlas also became a highly popular environmental education resource for the general public by educating them to know and appreciate the great natural legacy we share. It introduced the region’s unique and fascinating natural history with chapters on local geology, weather, waterways, and wildlife, and led the reader on an illustrated tour of some 70 sites that exemplify our natural world. Detailed descriptions, photographs, and maps explained the significance of these places and told exactly how to get there. The Atlas generated unprecedented visitation to nature preserves; many readers declared their goal to visit every one of the places described. Many of these preserves, owned by small modestly funded nature organizations and land trusts, were largely unknown prior to the Atlas. Persons who visited these gems – old growth forest tracts, wetlands, scenic overlooks, gorges – came to value and desire to protect them. Tourists who used the Atlas came to know this as a region of unique natural treasures and of citizens who understand and value the environment.
The printed version of the Atlas has long been sold out, but we offer the site descriptions from the book here for your use and enjoyment.
RTPI's education staff would be glad to discuss the process we used to create this outstanding tool for place-based education and community stewardship, with anyone interested in engaging in a similar project in their own communities. Please contact RTPI's Director of Education at
or 800-758-6841, ext. 228.
Brokenstraw Creek Watershed
The whole Brokenstraw Creek watershed has been shaped by the most recent glaciation 15,000 years ago, either by direct contact with the ice or outwash from its meltwater. The result is a pitted, scoured landscape with plenty to interest the naturalist at lower elevations: meandering streams, hillside runs, and wetlands, among the most biologically productive wetlands in our region. These wetlands include bog and fen habitats with their unique and fascinating life-forms. The reader will note that those invaluable swamps, marshes, bogs and fens are often found along the edge where the glacier unloaded its burden of debris. Here it is known as the Kent terminal moraine, the same pile in which Allenberg Bog formed 35 miles to the northeast.
The uplands, 600 feet above the Brokenstraw valley floor, are also of great interest. Rock cities are scattered across the ridge-tops. The reader will note that these sandstone conglomerate formations generally occur where the glacier did not reach. Yet, Panama Rocks, one of the most famous rock cities, juts out of a hillside at the northernmost end of the watershed. It once lay buried several miles within the ice edge. Pikes Rocks similarly withstood the grinding pressure of the ice a good mile within its farthest advance.
People must have found this watershed attractive very early in the history of human occupation of this region. Archaeological work ongoing at Buckaloons, at the conuence of the Brokenstraw and the Allegheny, indicates that people have lived here for thousands of years.
Cassadaga Creek Watershed
Cassadaga Creek occupies the next valley to the east of the Chautauqua Lake basin. In fact, the valley floor over which the creek now meanders was once the bottom of a lake, perhaps not unlike Chautauqua Lake itself. Beneath the lake-deposited clay and silt sediments the valley is filled with gravel and other sediments carried there by the Wisconsinan Glacier about 15,000 years ago. At the northern end of the valley are two small lakes of glacial origin, Bear Lake and Cassadaga Lakes. They are a few miles apart, like the top of a letter “Y.” The lakes are kettles, their basins formed from ice that became stranded and partly buried as the glacier receded.
Cassadaga Valley still holds a lake of sorts, beneath the surface, in the pores between particles of sand and gravel. Surface streams and groundwater from surrounding hills contribute to a confined or artesian aquifer of very significant volume. Near the southern end of the valley a well field supplies millions of gallons of drinking water a day to the City of Jamestown and surrounding communities. The valley’s dairy farms are interspersed with wild bottomland forests and wetlands. State forests provide public access to much of the highlands on either side of the valley.
Chadakoin River Watershed
Jamestown, originally named “The Rapids,” was settled due to its position along the rapids of the Chadakoin River which supplied water power for early industries such as saw mills, grist mills, and woolen mills.
Like many communities built around a source of water power, the City of Jamestown eventually “turned its back” on its river when it was no longer necessary for providing energy for turning machinery. Its waters became polluted, its banks littered with trash. Today, much of the Chadakoin River remains hidden between and even beneath buildings along Jamestown’s old industrial corridor. Sections are being revitalized as citizens recognize the river’s benefits.
The Chadakoin River originates at the Chautauqua Lake Outlet. It flows into Jamestown at McCrea Point which, in former days, served as the Boat Landing for several steamers that plied the lake. Just below the municipal power plant the Warner Dam provides some control over flow rate and lake level. The river winds through the city and through the neighboring Village of Falconer, joining the meandering flow of Cassadaga Creek in an area known as Levant. A short distance downstream lies Jamestown’s wastewater treatment plant where millions of gallons of raw sewage are processed each day into water clean enough to return to the environment. Another short distance downstream Cassadaga Creek joins Conewango Creek, which, in turn, joins the Allegheny River in Warren, Pennsylvania.
Chautauqua Lake Watershed
The Chautauqua Lake watershed is central to the ecological and economic well-being of our region. The lake has been designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the National Audubon Society of New York State due to its position as a major stopover for waterfowl migration. Maximum numbers of selected species that have been documented in the past 20 years include 615 Common Loons, 125 Pied-billed Grebes, 3000 Tundra Swans, 1200 Hooded Mergansers, 110 Lesser Yellowlegs, 250 Bonaparte’s Gulls, and 23 Black Terns. It has also long been famous as a fine sport fishing lake and for a variety of other water sports such as sailboating.
Less than six miles of the lake’s 42 mile shoreline remains undeveloped. This small remnant provides fish and wildlife habitat and places of scenic beauty for people to enjoy. The conservation and preservation of these last few remaining undeveloped shoreline areas is a priority of local conservation organizations such as the Jamestown Audubon Society and the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy.
An in-depth study of Chautauqua Lake has been published recently by the Chautauqua County Department of Planning and Development. Chautauqua Lake—Entering the 21st Century: State of the Lake Report is an up-to-date report on the condition of the lake and recommendations about actions to take that will ensure the long-term health and integrity of the lake’s ecosystem.
Conewango Creek Watershed
Conewango Valley is at the heart of the Chautauqua-Allegheny Region, and, in some ways, epitomizes it. Technically the Conewango watershed encompasses the Chautauqua Lake and Cassadaga Creek watersheds as well, which together cover nearly 900 square miles, most of it forest, wetlands, lakes and streams. Chautauqua Lake and Cassadaga Creek watersheds are treated separately here.
From its source near the edge of the Portage Escarpment to the Randolph-Steamburg area, Conewango Creek traverses the valley through which the Allegheny River once flowed but in the opposite direction, on its way to the valley now holding Lake Erie. Today the ancient valley lies buried under some 500 feet of rubble deposited by glaciers, which, in turn, lies beneath another 100 feet or so of lake-bottom silt. Snaking its way across the top of all this is present-day Conewango Creek, a stream that seems way too small for the great valley it occupies: “underfit,” say geologists.
Between Jamestown and Warren, however, a remarkable change occurs in the valley’s character. Valley walls tighten, funnel-like. Room for wetlands and croplands along the creek banks disappears. The depth of loose material covering bedrock shrinks from hundreds of feet to a few tens of feet. Students of local geology recognize this place, in the neighborhood of North Warren, as the Wisconsin glacier’s terminus, or end-point. The massive wall of ice reached just this far, and no farther.
French Creek Watershed
French Creek is believed to have occupied a northwest-flowing watershed (toward present-day Lake Erie) prior to the onset of glaciation. Repeated ice advances, most recently the Wisconsinan, resulted in a reverse in the flow of the stream to its present course as part of the Ohio River system.
French Creek provides habitat for about 75 species of fish, twice the number found in most area drainage basins. This number includes 15 species of small, often colorful fish called darters. Darters’ presence in the creek, in their present numbers and diversity, indicates high water quality.
Freshwater mussels are one of the most endangered groups of organisms in North America. The creek supports at least 25 species, more than are found throughout the entire continent of Europe.
In all, the 1,200 square mile French Creek watershed provides habitat for 98 rare or endangered species of plants and animals. One of the most interesting finds in recent years is a globally rare plant, Northern Prostrate Clubmoss (Lycopodiella margaritae), discovered in a secluded bog owned by Presque Isle Audubon Society and the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania. It is known to occur in its natural habitat nowhere else on earth. Because of the extreme rarity of this plant and the uniqueness of the site, its location is not provided in this book.
Lake Erie Plain
The Lake Erie Plain is a lowland belt that, in Chautauqua County, runs in a southwest to northeast direction along the shore of Lake Erie. This Plain rises from an elevation of 572 feet at the present day wave-cut shale bluffs of the Lake Erie shoreline to about 850 feet at the base of the “Hill” a few miles inland. Also known as the Portage Escarpment, this is the steep rise that marks the northern boundary of the Allegheny Plateau. Several streams have cut narrow ravines across the Plain and flow into Lake Erie. Their courses are roughly parallel to each other. This parallel drainage pattern is in contrast to the dendritic, or branching pattern of streams that flow out of the Plateau’s highlands to feed the Allegheny River.
On Route 20, an ancient beach line runs along the roadbed parallel to the present shoreline 1.5 miles away. There are as many as five old beaches, but usually two of them are distinguishable. These rise in successive steps from the present lake level to the base of the Allegheny Plateau and mark the shores of Lake Erie’s Ice Age predecessors, Lakes Warren and Whittlesey.
The Lake Erie Plain is famous agriculturally for its bountiful crops of fruits and vegetables. It is the greatest grape producing region in the country outside of
Middle Allegheny River Watershed
From one of the overlooks perched high on the plateau, the middle Allegheny River in summer appears as a blue ribbon hemmed on either side with green. Its tight course at the foot of steep valley walls contrasts sharply with the creeks that crazily meander over the buried valleys to the north.
People have valued the river for travel and subsistence for thousands of years. Indians built villages at Buckaloons at the mouth of the Brokenstraw and at Kanaougan at the mouth of the Conewango in present-day Warren, Pennsylvania. The French and English, both with an eye to controlling the North American fur trade, viewed this valley as pivotal to the acquisition of economic and political power. The British victory in the French and Indian War set the stage for conflict with American settlers. The only Revolutionary War skirmish in the region took place at Thompson’s Island, a few miles south of Buckaloons.
Since its banks were settled by land-grant pioneers in the late 1700’s, the valley of the Allegheny has been regarded as a source of livelihood and income. For more than 200 years the surrounding valleys have supplied timber, from white pine for ship’s masts to black cherry for fine furniture. The river and its tributaries suffered and recovered from the boom and bust of the oil industry’s early days.
Today this great watershed remains the focal point of controversy concerning the balance between human economic interests and the integrity of a vast, complex, and changing ecosystem.
The Portage Escarpment is one of the defining features of our region, a clear divide that marks the boundary between the Allegheny Plateau and the Great Lakes Basin. It is perhaps best seen along NY Route 394 between Mayville and Westfield which follows approximately the path of the Portage Trail.
For hundreds of years Indians shouldered their canoes and mounted a wellworn trail between the shores of Lake Erie and Chautauqua Lake. This all-important land route was steep but short and opened up a vast territory, connecting the Great Lakes country with the Allegheny-Ohio-Mississippi River system.
This same route was traveled in 1749 by Captain Celoron de Blainville, who was sent by the governor-general of New France (Canada) to claim French possession of the Ohio Valley.
The escarpment has many outstanding places for enjoying the view. It is dissected by several streams with deep gorges that have been cut through glacial deposits and bedrock since the glaciers receded from the region. The cool ravines provide habitat for a community of living things that still have not been well cataloged.
Trails/Waterways of Chautauqua-Allegheny Region
Many of the places described in this book would be practically out of reach if not for their trails. In fact, one of the pleasures of visiting natural areas is the inviting feel of well maintained trails that take you to places of interest. Within individual nature preserves are loops and hundreds of miles of trails and waterways that connect them. In this section, you catch a glimpse of what the region offers for people who would like to walk, peddle, or paddle as they explore nature.
Remember, safety first! Carry water with you and dress appropriately for the
weather. Take a map and compass, and avoid traveling alone. If you do, let others
know where you are going and when you expect to return. When you pack
things into the sites, pack them out. Leave no trace. Be considerate of all living
things everywhere you go.
Upper Allegheny River Watershed
The stretch of the Allegheny River above the Kinzua Dam is a place of contrasts. The Allegheny Reservoir creates a stark contrast between the flowing river waters above and below and offers a glimpse of how the valley might have appeared when the glacier’s advance created a lake where the present one lies. The little cities of Salamanca, Bradford, and Olean contrast with wild forested ridges that surround them. The river here accepts waters flowing out of glacially shaped farmlands to the north and dense forestlands to the south. Patches of tremendously old and venerable Northern Red Oaks and Eastern Hemlocks remain as reminders of this forest’s appearance in the past.
It is also a land of political contrasts. The Seneca Nation of Indians owns the Allegany Reservation which borders tens of thousands of acres of New York state forest as well as Allegany State Park, the jewel in the crown of western New York wildlands. To the south, in Pennsylvania, stretches Allegheny National Forest, seat of the region’s wilderness character. It is in this watershed where one is most likely to catch a glimpse of a Bobcat, Black Bear or Fisher. Bald Eagle may be seen here year-round. Someday in the waters of the Upper Allegheny one might have the thrill of catching and releasing a prehistoric-looking Paddlefish.
To borrow the U.S. Forest Service’s phrase, it is a land of many uses. To the naturalist,
it is a rich land for the study and enjoyment of the natural world.