Watkins Glen began as a canal terminus in the 1830s. Incorporating in 1842, the village had several names, settling on Watkins (honoring village founder Samuel Watkins). Watkins Glen, a 400-foot-deep natural gorge south of the village, was opened to tourists in 1863.
By 1878, the Glen and a prominent health spa had made Watkins a resort destination. Access was principally by steamboat and rail. Numerous conventions were held there, including significant freethought gatherings in 1878 and 1882.
In 1926, the village renamed itself Watkins Glen. Starting in 1948, it became known as a center for motor racing.