[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the eighth installment in the series.]
At the beginning of the 19th century, only the boldest travelers from East coast cities could make their way to the western extremity of New York state, where the powerful Niagara River emptied into Lake Erie at the thunderous falls. As early as 1785, enterprising people tried to tame the experience, installing a ladder safe enough for “ladies” to descend on the Canadian side of the Falls, building bridges to Goat Island, and steering steamboats into the waters below the Falls to allow passengers to be drenched by the water’s spray. By 1825, tourists could take the slow but safe trip up the Erie Canal on a five-day journey from New York City. And by 1845, a railroad shortened that trip to little more than a day. In 1860, as many as 100,000 people were visiting Niagara Falls every year. It was, by many measures, the most popular tourism site in the new nation.
Large hotels rose alongside the Falls, permitting people to view the natural wonder from the comfort of their rooms. Artists perched themselves to sketch, draw, and paint Niagara Falls from every perspective, for the demand for portrayals of the falls seemed as limitless as the flow of its water. Guidebooks detailed every step of a visit so that tourists — a new and growing category of people able to afford an excursion — could make the most of their trip. A tower emerged to give a commanding vision of the site.
The Falls, attractive as they were, had their limitations. While many people called the experience “sublime” — a combination of beauty and awe, tinged with a distant threat of danger, that constituted the height of feeling — other people found themselves bored after a short while. After they had viewed the torrent from above and below, in the morning and at night, there did not seem much else to do. Still, local promoters persisted. Over the decades between 1825 and 1860, some entrepreneurs set dynamite to blow giant rocks into the flood. Others piled animals, domestic and from a circus, on to a damaged boat and set it off to plummet over the Falls. To the disappointment of the thousands who came to witness the cruel spectacle, the boat began to break up before the precipice, allowing animals to swim to shore.
The most spectacular entertainment put humans at risk. Sam Patch, a young mill-worker from New Jersey, had made a name for himself by jumping into waterfalls near mill sites. In 1829, soon after the Erie Canal’s completion, promoters brought Patch to Niagara Falls to risk the greatest feat of all. Patch, tying a sash around his waist, leapt from a platform 80 feet into the turbulence at the bottom of the Falls. He emerged and swam to shore, singing. Intoxicated by his new fame and bountiful drink, Patch promised to leap 120 feet for his next exploit. He did so, survived, and his national fame grew. Now accompanied by a bear, Patch sought to amplify his notoriety with new challenges. In Rochester, Patch died while leaping into the falls on the Genesee River. His body was found miles downriver four months later.
Niagara Falls inspired aspiration of all kinds. A French tightrope walker, known as Monsieur Charles Blondin, walked high above the water before immense crowds. To keep the crowds coming, he made the challenge more difficult — walking the wire with his feet in buckets, or carrying his agent on his back.
The Falls became the site of the first railroad suspension bridge in the world, a remarkable accomplishment by the engineer who would later create the Brooklyn Bridge, made even more dramatic by the setting. Some visitors declared themselves more impressed by the bridge, evidence of man’s ingenuity, than by the sight of rushing water, no matter in what vast amounts.
By the second half of the 19th century, Niagara Falls was at the peak of its popularity. It was promoted as a place anyone could visit, offering accommodations and entertainment to people of modest means. Such attractions made it ideal as a destination for newlyweds. In 1882, the decades-long association of Niagara Falls with honeymoons led Oscar Wilde to slyly observe that for the American brides taken to the Falls, “the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life.” Still, it became even more popular as a honeymoon destination in the 1920s and 1930s, as automobiles arrived on the scene.
Over the last century, the area around Niagara Falls has changed repeatedly. The power of the water was harnessed for hydroelectric power and industrial development, and then reclaimed for its natural beauty. Tourism ebbed and flowed, styles of attractions shifting to meet evolving tastes. I had been there once before, though I had little memory of what I had seen. Working for a carnival in the northeast during a college summer, a friend and I took an unapproved day off from operating the SkyWheel at the nearby New York State Fair to glance at the Falls. We made it back in time to run the ride under the lights and didn’t get fired, but the splendor of the Falls had receded in my memory.
Our visit to Niagara Falls began with disappointment even as we left home. By universal consent, the Falls are best viewed from the Canadian side. To get there from the States, visitors must cross the Rainbow Bridge, passport required. Abby, gathering our materials as we packed Bertha, discovered that my passport had expired during the pandemic. Research online suggested that an enhanced driver’s license might be adequate for passage into Canada, so we held to that fragile hope on the drive north. As we tried to pass over the Rainbow Bridge, however, we discovered that our licenses, though adorned with a Virginia-approved star symbol, were not enhanced enough to gain us entrance into even a tiny part of Canada. Abby could have gone on without me, but in a characteristic act of marital sacrifice she stayed with me on the American side. She hid her disappointment well.
We found our visit to the Falls to be carefully orchestrated by the state of New York. Parking Bertha was easy, for ample RV parking was set aside on Goat Island, where a trolley took us anywhere we wanted to visit around the Falls (other than Canada). Overlooks were prominently marked and scrupulously maintained. We joined an international throng in the universal activity of the early 21st century: posing for digital photos, trying to avoid the inclusion of strangers in the frame, and creating the illusion of an intimate moment of reflection before nature’s wonder.
I managed to capture an image of a rainbow, not the most difficult photographic feat. As Abraham Lincoln noted, rainbows are what anyone would expect in these conditions:
If the water moving around in a great river, reaches a point where there is a perpendicular jog, of a hundred feet in descent, in the bottom of the river, — it is plain the water will have a violent and continuous plunge at that point. It is also plain that water, thus plunging, will foam, and roar, and send up a mist, continuously, in which last, during sunshine, there will be perpetual rain-bows.
Even if the rainbows were “perpetual,” this one was mine, captured in the moment I leaned against the railing, getting soaked from the spray. As Lincoln noted, it was Niagara Falls’ “power to excite reflection, and emotion,” that was “great charm.”
In all honesty, Abby and I have been touched more by places that did not bear such weight of expectation. Nature on a more intimate scale, including on our own country road in Virginia, often inspires us more. New York (and Canada, I’ve heard) works hard to give millions of people a satisfying experience at the Falls through effective state-sponsored crowd management. The trolleys run on time and the lines for the Maid of the Mist boats and other attractions move efficiently. The overlooks are safe and attractive. Nightly fireworks enhance the Falls. Families from around the world find accessible experiences for people of all ages and cultures. The impulse to both tame and enhance the falls, evident since its “discovery” by European people in the 18th century, takes new forms. A visitor center under construction promises to use electronic technologies to elevate scientific and historical understanding to overcome whatever disappointment people may feel in the presence of the actual falls.
The next morning, before we departed, Abby and I took advantage of our campground’s facilities to participate in one of the oldest traditions of the Niagara Falls region: a fun activity. The miniature golf course, while not displaying any Falls-based themes, provided its own natural challenges of gravity, rock, and water. I don’t recall the exact result of this shot, but I imagine that it was far from sublime.