Niagara Falls

PrintPrintEmailEmail

An amateurish invasion in October 1812 ended with 900 American troops, mostly inexperienced militia, surrendering to the British. The only good that came out of the fiasco was the killing of Gen. Isaac Brock, who had recently captured Detroit for the British. In May 1813 an amphibious assault masterminded by Oliver Hazard Perry gave the United States control of both sides of the river. But the Americans hesitated to press their advantage further, especially after 540 American infantrymen on a raid surrendered to 50 British in June.

As 1813 drew to a close, the New York militiamen’s enlistments began to expire and the Americans had to withdraw. While marching home, one detachment paused to burn the Canadian village of Newark. The attack, which was entirely unprovoked and gained no military advantage, destroyed 130 buildings and left 400 people homeless in the cold and snow. The British began taking their revenge a week later. By year’s end they had captured Fort Niagara at the river’s north end, killing 67 Americans before they would accept a surrender, and methodically burned and looted every settlement on the American side.

In the War of 1812 Thomas Jefferson thought that conquering Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.”

In the summer of 1814 it was America’s turn to retake the offensive. On July 3 a brigade led by Winfield Scott took Fort Erie, where the river meets the lake of that name. The next day they routed the enemy near Chippewa Creek, just upstream from the falls. The British rushed reinforcements to the area, and on July 25 they met Scott’s troops near a road called Lundy’s Lane, which still exists.

The two sides were about equal in strength, around 4,000 apiece, and casualties in the battle were fairly even: 171 Americans killed and 84 British, with upward of 500 wounded on each side. The Americans technically won, since they ended the day in possession of the field. But the next morning they retired to Chippewa to lick their wounds, and the following day they withdrew all the way to Fort Erie, where they would remain until the war fizzled out at the end of the year.

The Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum is housed in a modest two-story building not far from where the fighting took place. The site has attracted tourists since the 1820s, when American and Canadian veterans began to give tours, each side claiming victory. In addition to maps and artifacts from Lundy’s Lane and other battles, the museum has much Niagara memorabilia, including more than a hundred plates, saucers, pitchers, salt shakers, and other knickknacks decorated with nearly identical views of the falls.

Somewhat more imposing than the museum is a structure at Queenston Heights that dominates the Canadian shore for miles in either direction—a 185-foot-tall memorial to General Brock. When I saw that, my patriot blood started to boil. A monument to a general who defeated the U.S. Army? This might as well be Vietnam, except the food’s not as good. The savior of his people, indeed. If Brock came back today, he’d know he blew it.

America! First on the moon! Interstate highways from sea to shining sea! More lawyers than anyplace else on earth! Dirt-bike racing at 3:00 A.M. on cable TV! The right to keep and bear arms! The world’s finest medical system if you’re insured! Seinfeld! Pizza delivered in thirty minutes or less, or the kid gets fired! And most important, Stanley Cup champions six of the last seven years! Who’s sorry now, Brock?

Though to tell the truth, if the general did come back today, he’d probably think he’d done the right thing. Niagara Falls, Ontario, may resemble a second-rate amusement park at times, but Niagara Falls, New York, resembles a second-rate amusement park that’s been closed for twenty years. The steel and chemical plants that provided thousands of jobs have disappeared; the famous shredded-wheat factory is long gone too. A prudish state government won’t allow casinos, or even a little harmless Ultimate Fighting. As a result, the fancy new convention center stands vacant most of the time, and even a Hard Rock Cafe can do little to lift the gloom.

Part of this has to do with simple geography. Because of a bend in the river, the Canadian shore has a great view of the falls, while the American shore has a great view of Canada. But what’s true of the two cities applies to the entire waterfront. In 1885 Canada made its side of the Niagara River into a national park. America left most of its side open to development, and the results are apparent today. A drive up the American shore, while not unrelievedly bleak, is anything but inspiring. The Canadian side, by contrast, has scenic overlooks every mile or so, and you’ll want to stop at them all.

As L. P. Hartley reminds us, the past is a foreign country. So is Canada. Today it’s hard to imagine anyone getting sore enough at them to start a war. It’s even harder to imagine an Iroquois village on the site of what is now Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum. But as much as the world has been transformed, Niagara Falls retains its timeless grandeur.