Niagara Falls

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Niagara Falls is invariably, and quite properly, described as one of nature’s wonders. Yet perhaps the greatest wonder is that it can still attract visitors in the 1990s. After all, there are no multimedia links and nothing to click on. A trip to Niagara Falls was considered hot stuff in Martin Van Buren’s day, but so were quilting bees and barn raisings. Surely Edison didn’t invent virtual reality and the Internet so that people could keep traveling thousands of miles to watch water go over a cliff.

Yet they do keep coming—fourteen million a year—and mighty few leave disappointed. You can look at the falls for any length of time, from half a minute to several hours, without losing your initial sense of awe. Old-timers will tell you that today’s falls are nowhere near as impressive as they used to be, back before hydroelectric plants started siphoning off half the flow. Not that anyone around today actually saw the original falls; the first major power plant began operating in 1896. It’s just something that old-timers like to say. There’s talk of shutting down the power plants one day per year, to let people see what things were like in the nineteenth century. This would be a ploy to attract tourists, of course, but unlike most of Niagara Falls’ tourist schemes, it would actually have something to do with the falls.

Go a block or two from the highway that runs along the Canadian side of the Niagara River, and you could be in any slightly seedy (though very clean) amusement park. There’s the Movieland Wax Museum, Dinosaur Park, the Guinness World of Records Museum, Dazzleland, and Circus World. You can play miniature golf, ride go-carts, or get your picture taken as a daredevil. Souvenir shops proliferate, all selling fudge, for some reason.

Brought kids along? They’ll love the Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum, with replicas of Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and a blood-smeared Jason, plus a new and thought-provoking exhibit on Jeffrey Dahmer. Just down the block is Ripley’s Moving Theater—tame by comparison, but worthy of mention because its ticket clerk has the worst job in North America: The House of Frankenstein is right next door, and she has to sit in her little booth and listen to its tape-recorded spiel, complete with shrieks and maniacal laughter, sixty times an hour.

In a class of its own is the blandly named Niagara Falls Museum. It has existed in some form, on one side of the falls or another, since 1827, and it looks it. Over the years the Niagara Falls Museum has absorbed a number of widely assorted collections to the point where eclectic hardly does it justice. At its best, the museum has an important assemblage of Egyptian mummies, as well as some of the barrels and other devices in which stunters have gone over the falls. At its worst, visitors confront glass case after glass case filled with dusty stuffed animals in hues that run the gamut from gray to beige to khaki. Elsewhere can be found a complete collection of regimental badges of the British army, insect carcasses arranged in artistic patterns, “paintings” of Niagara Falls and Jesus Christ made on a typewriter, and a collection of deformed calves and other “freaks of nature”—all with fading, handwritten labels.

Tackiness is a cherished tradition at Niagara Falls. In 1833 an observer complained: “The forest has everywhere yielded to the axe. … Museums, mills, staircases, tools, and grog-shops, all the petty trickery [of English resorts], greet the eye of the traveller.” An 1847 visitor reported: “Now the neighborhood of the great wonder is overrun with every species of abominable fungus—the growth of rank bad taste, with equal luxuriance on the English and American sides—Chinese pagoda, menagerie, camera obscura, museum, watchtower, wooden monument, tea-gardens and old curiosity shops.” In 1871 it was Henry James’s turn to deplore the town’s “horribly vulgar shops and booths and catchpenny artifices.” And so on up to the present, with remarkably little variation.

One thing that has changed over the years is the existence of peace (if not tranquillity) along a frontier where bloody struggles among Indians, French, British, and Americans raged for most of two centuries. These days about the worst hostility you’ll encounter is the occasional overaggressive customs search. Those who cross the border by train can expect at least an hour’s delay while human and canine revenue agents make absolutely sure that no one is smuggling a few Cuban cigars or other threats to national security. Meanwhile, people in vans that could hold half a dozen rocket launchers are waved through after fifteen seconds of interrogation by a bored functionary.

Crossing the Niagara wasn’t always so easy. In the War of 1812 its shores saw action that ranged from ludicrous to downright horrifying. When war was declared, some Americans thought the British colonists to the north would enthusiastically flock to the banner of freedom. Conquering Canada would be, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “a mere matter of marching.” It never occurred to Jefferson that the Canadians might not want to join our club—especially the settlers of the Niagara region, many of whom were Loyalist exiles from the Revolution.