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History Happened Here

Niagara Falls

June 2024
6min read

For two hundred years it’s been attracting tourists—and tourist traps

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.

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.

Other waterfalls may be higher or have greater flow, but that’s not the point. Niagara Falls has majesty—enough to rise above its sometimes uninspiring surroundings, to draw visitors steadily for two centuries, to survive losing half its water and being overexposed since the days of chromolithographs. You may forget which generals fought at Lundy’s Lane, you may even forget the Criminals Hall of Fame (or wish you could, at any rate), but you’ll never forget your first glimpse of the falls. With all the changes Niagara Falls has seen, that simple truth has always stayed the same.

—Frederic D. Schwarz

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