“The Thundering Water”


Right from the beginning Niagara Falls has been the big showpiece. Once the United States had begun, visitors who wanted to see what the country was like went to Niagara first of all, and probably they were quite right. This stupendous cataract is beautiful, romantic, overpowering, and somehow rather frightening; it can charm you and it can also kill you, and if its Rimy mists are enchanting, the violence that makes the mists is something to think twice about. Altogether, this foremost of America’s wonders is perfectly representative of the nation that has made it a tourist trap, a haven for the newly married, a prime source of electric power, and a rendezvous for any number of wacky daredevils. You can do just about anything with Niagara Falls except ignore it.

In a land which likes to think it has the biggest and best of everything, this waterfall is Exhibit A. It looks bigger than it is—Father Louis Hennepin, one of the first white men to look at it, reported that it was more than 600 feet high, which multiplies its real height by a factor of more than three and one half—and as natural wonders go it is rapidly killing itself, because it is eroding at the rate of several feet a year and eventually it will go back so far that it will drain Lake Erie and turn it into a mere river. But its suicide will not become final until long after our own grandchildren’s grandchildren are gone, and meanwhile it roars and thunders and traps sunlight and moonlight in queer rainbows at the brim of its dash toward the sea, and all in all it is worth every one of the superlatives which have been attached to it. Some of these superlatives, in the form of paintings, water colors, drawings, and prints, may currently be seen at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, which all this summer is featuring an exhibit entitled “Three Centuries of Niagara Falls.” From this and other sources AMERICAN HERITAGE presents on the next sixteen pages a series of views of the show window of the American nation.
In the beginning Niagara Falls was just an obstacle. It is the place where the world’s largest body of fresh water, the chain of the Great Lakes, goes down to the sea. Between Lake Erie, where the Niagara River begins, and Lake Ontario, where it ends, there is a drop of 326 feet, about half in the Falls and most of the rest in the six and one-half mile gorge just below; and although you can and must admire this cataclysmic downpouring of water, which goes to the sea at a rate of some ninety-three million gallons a minute, the one thing nobody can do is go upstream in it by boat. The French trappers, explorers, and missionaries who wanted to get to the American interior had to go by boat, mostly by birchbark canoes, and they were stymied. They went far around Niagara, and Lake Erie was the last of the Great Lakes to be discovered and used. Niagara was in the way.

Time passed, and the French lost Canada, and at last there was a United States of America; and early in the nineteenth century there was an Erie Canal to connect Buffalo with the Atlantic Ocean, after which Lake Erie became a vital stage in the Great Lakes waterway, with schooners and paddle-wheel steamboats (walking beams pumping, spray flying from under the guards amidships, and the immigrants’ wagon wheels lashed in the rigging) going on to open the western country. And about that time Niagara Falls was recognized as a natural wonder, and everybody started going there to have a look at it.

Its surroundings have changed materially. In the beginning Niagara was surrounded by wilderness, as wild and free and unspoiled as something in the Garden of Eden, and now it is in the heart of the world’s busiest continent, chained by superhighways, soaring bridges, high-tension power lines, and a nexus of hotels, motels, and curio shops. But the surpassing wonder of the cataract itself is unspoiled. It still speaks with the voice of the forest primeval, it is the green water of the old north country running out to the ocean just as it did when the last ice sheet melted, and “although it lies on the edge of the world’s most highly industrialized area, its spray carries the tang of the long-gone wilderness. There is nothing quite like it anywhere.

One trouble with Niagara, of course, is that practically everybody has seen it but nobody can refrain from trying to describe it as if it were quite new. On writing people it has had a bad effect; it moves them into unbridled prose, and there seems to be something about it that causes writers to flap their wings and try to soar. Father Hennepin, for instance, wrote: “The Waters which fall from this horrible Precipice do foam and boyl after the most hideous Manner imaginable, making an outrageous Noise, more terrible than that of Thunder.” This is true enough, but as good a writer as Charles Dickens felt compelled to rhapsodize as follows:

“What voices spoke from out the thundering water; what faces, faded from the earth, looked out upon me from its gleaming depths; what Heavenly promise glistened in those angels’ tears, the drops of many hues, that showered around, and twined themselves about the gorgeous arches which the changing rainbows made!”

Harriet Beecher Stowe, ordinarily given to deep thoughts about slavery, was moved to write thus:

“I thought of the great white throne; the rainbow around it; the throne in sight like unto an emerald; and oh! that beautiful water rising like moonlight, falling as the soul sinks when it dies, to rise refined, spiritualized and pure. …”

These are rather special thoughts to come out of a few minutes’ study of a waterfall, but that is the way Niagara affects people. Mark Twain, being somewhat more sardonic, moved off in the other direction. He once remarked that although it was wonderful to see all of that water tumbling down , it would be even more wonderful to see it tumbling up.

Lesser people have written worse things about the spectacle, but almost everybody writes something. People carry away their own memories of the place, which tend to be quite various.

It is the privilege of the elderly to believe that everything was better in the old days, and this writer’s fondest memory of Niagara goes back to the pre-automobile age. (Well, there were automobiles then, but there weren’t very many, and they had not yet begun to remodel American life.) Anyway, in those days one rode about the river above the Falls, and the islands, in carriages and took the trolley car down the gorge on tracks that ran just along the frightening water’s edge. Since the things that can impress a small child are sometimes unpredictable, let it be added that the high point of this particular visit to Niagara was a tour through the factory—upstream from the Falls, somewhere, near the river before the river becomes so scary—where people made shredded wheat biscuits. This was especially memorable because at the end of the tour we were all taken into a nice lunchroom and were given, for free, a nice dish of cereal with strawberries and cream.