Niagara Falls

The lost history of an American icon.

Thomascole Niagarafalls
Thomas Cole, Niagara Falls (1830).

When Americans think of Niagara Falls, “kitschy tourist destination” and “going over the Falls in a barrel” are the first things that typically come to mind. Individuals who came of age just after World War II might also associate the Falls with Marilyn Monroe and her 1953 film Niagara, or recall that the area was once the preeminent honeymoon destination. 

But as Ginger Strand makes clear in her exhaustively-researched book “Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies” (Simon & Schuster), those images don’t begin to tell the story of the Falls, whose history has been deliberately obscured to preserve its reputation as a relatively unspoiled natural wonder.

Strand, a self-described hydrogeek (i.e., fan of water tunnels, reservoirs, sewers, canals and the like), paints a more expansive picture of Niagara, shedding light on the region’s longstanding hazardous waste problem, its connection to the development of the atomic bomb, its failed urban renewal projects, and the ongoing manipulation of the Falls itself. 

In the spirit of presenting a more complete—although not necessarily less flattering—portrait, Failure recently talked to Strand to discuss aspects of Niagara Falls that one won’t find in tourist guidebooks, and to get her advice on how a first-timer should approach a visit to the area.

Hydroinfrastructure is a very unusual hobby. It wouldn’t seem to have broad appeal.
Everybody is interested in hydroinfrastructure. They just don’t realize it. Everyone is interested in hot showers and cold drinks and knowing that their water is clean. When one starts thinking about where our water comes from suddenly it becomes of great interest. 

Personally, I like it because it is basically 19th century technology. It hasn’t gone virtual at all, and it’s hard to see how it could. It ties us to the real world in a way that is refreshing.

Is it difficult to find other people who share your love of hydroinfrastructure?
[Laughs]. My boyfriend has a similar feeling about it so that works out well. And like any hobby, there are people who are fanatical and love nothing more. I was in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a few years ago, where there’s a tiny, little power dam. I asked around town and discovered it was controlled by a local electrician, and that I could find him on the [adopts an Irish accent] “Dublin Road.” I found him, walked into his office, and told him I wanted to talk about his power dam. He was so excited. He had been waiting for years for someone to walk in and ask him about his dam. 

How many times have you been to Niagara Falls?
I couldn’t even count, but during the three years I was working on the book I spent about a quarter of my time there. Poor Bob [Strand’s boyfriend] really did get sick of it. His suffering is a motif in the book. After a while he was like, “No, I am not going to Niagara.” 

How is the New York side different from the Canadian side? 
It’s very different. The Americans have privileged industry over tourism throughout the history of the Falls. And it really shows. Niagara Falls, New York, is a rust belt town. But one interesting result is that after the factories started to get torn down and the New York side saw its economy decline, one could see more of the natural environment because the area hadn’t been parkified. 

Meanwhile, on the Canadian side it has become a family fun park. They have developed it touristically to the greatest extent possible and perhaps beyond. Everything is an attraction you have to pay for, and it’s all landscaped to within an inch of its life. This is always surprising to Americans, because the Canadians have out-Americaned the Americans. For a long time you couldn’t even get a Starbucks on the New York side. They just got their first Starbucks and they are very excited. 

When was the Falls in its heyday? 
Just after the Civil War. Then it had another big explosion in the post-World War II tourism boom. That was also when Marilyn Monroe filmed Niagara and honeymoon fever became epidemic at the Falls. Everyone wanted to go there and stay at the place Marilyn stayed and do the things she did. 

And when did Niagara Falls, New York, begin experiencing hard times?
In the 1970s. To some extent it went hand-in-hand with the region’s economic decline. But when affluenza hit the U.S., suddenly everyone started to consume conspicuously and Niagara couldn’t keep up. It never became high-end enough to attract that kind of tourism and people started going to more exotic places. 

But it’s still an amazing tourist destination—twenty-four million people a year. Most go to the Canadian side—about two-thirds—and most are foreign tourists. Foreigners still think of Niagara Falls as an American icon, and Americans tend to think of it the way I thought of it when I started working on the book—as a kitschy place.

Why hasn’t the area recovered?
There have been a long series of ill-conceived attempts at revitalization—a textbook list of every mistake that regional planners could possibly make in an attempt to revitalize a tourist destination, including building giant malls and parking lots and building a highway [Robert Moses Parkway] through the center of town. The latest one is the casino [Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel], which is very controversial. Some people feel it is helping. And it has, in fact, spurred some new development. But others think it’s not the right kind of development—that it doesn’t have much to do with the Falls. 

But the current mayor has a vision for eco-tourism and preservation of the natural landscape that is promising and hopeful. But they have the problem of their legacy—namely, 380 acres of brownfields in downtown Niagara Falls, land that can’t be developed without environmental cleanup. That’s deeply problematic because it’s difficult to get developers excited about brownfields. 

Most recently they did manage to redevelop the United Office Building—a fabulous old art deco skyscraper [20 stories tall, completed in 1929], and the nicest building in downtown Niagara Falls, New York. But that project stalled for years over who would pay for the asbestos remediation. 

So redevelopment is complicated and takes a long time. Meanwhile, the town is struggling—still—with economic decline. It’s like a rolling stone. Once it starts it’s hard to stop. 

Tell me a few interesting things about the Falls that one won’t read about in guidebooks?
One is the Underground Railroad history of the region. It was one of the key spots for fugitive slaves to cross the border, and Harriet Tubman’s favorite spot to take people across. There are all sorts of wonderful stories that should be on interpretive markers and in guidebooks. However, there is a museum in town—the art museum associated with Niagara University [Castellani Art Museum]—that does have an exhibit on Underground Railroad history [the Underground Railroad Regional Interpretive Center]. 

Also, one doesn’t read about the Manhattan Project in any guidebooks, even though much of it unfolded at the Falls, thanks to Niagara’s industrial capacity. There are a lot of people in town who know about it now, but it was highly secretive at the time. Today, one can go to Model City, seven miles downstream from the Falls, and stand at the fence and look at the barn and landfill that was America’s first nuclear dump. It was a super-secret military facility and they built a giant barn to try to disguise it from the air [laughs]. It’s still slightly radioactive.

For a long time, humans have controlled the volume of water that goes over the Falls. Tell me about that.
The U.S. and Canada have been arguing about taking water out since 1909, when they made the first of a series of treaties in which they agreed how much water—or stream share—each side was going to take out. The stream share kept going up and up over the course of the 20th century, and finally in 1950 they agreed that together they were going to take out one-half to three-quarters of the water, and that they were going to divide it 50-50, while still making sure that 100,000 cubic feet [per second] goes over the Falls during the day and 50,000 at night. Then they did remedial work to make it look like they weren’t taking water out. 

The flow is typically 100,000 cubic feet per second during the day in the summer. In the winter it’s dialed down to 50,000, which is roughly one-quarter of the natural flow. Anyone who visits between October 15 and April 1 will see half of what they would see during the day in the summer. You can tell, if you know the place. But with all the remedial work, it’s still postcard perfect. 

Where is the water diverted? 
They take the water out of the river upstream of the Falls and run it through four tunnels—two on the American side and two on the Canadian side. The tunnels run underneath the cities on each side and ultimately feed into giant reservoirs. Then they let the water out through the power plant as they need to make power. 

Can the Falls be shut off?
I asked the supervisor on the American side that question and he couldn’t help but crack a grin and say, "Yeah, you can.” They don’t like to talk about it but the [American] power plant has a capacity of a little more than 100,000 cubic feet per second. Which is to say the supervisor can run that much water through his plant. The Canadians can do the same. And that is pretty much the full flow of the river. 

But they do dial it down to almost nothing when stunters try to go over, or if a boat gets caught in the rapids upstream of the Falls. It happens more than one might think. 

In the book you write: “On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to the way America falsifies its relationship to nature.” What do you mean by that?
Niagara Falls is clearly a splendid gift from nature as a source of power. But what fascinates me is that even as we have completely mastered it and controlled it and are using it for power, we have gone to great lengths to disguise that and still use it as a symbol that nature is bigger than us. 

What is the most remarkable or scandalous thing to go over the Falls? 
The schooner Michigan in 1827—a schooner full of live animals—which was the first in a long line of stunts performed to draw tourists. They took a decommissioned schooner and packed it with a variety animals—a couple of bears, a buffalo, geese, a dog—and cut it loose in the rapids. Thousands of people lined the riverbank to watch. By most accounts it was disappointing because the ship broke up before it got to the brink and was mostly underwater by the time it went over, so the audience didn’t get to see the ship crashing to its destruction and the animals yowling their way to their deaths. One bear escaped; he jumped overboard and swam ashore. And they retrieved a goose downstream. But the rest of the animals were never seen again.

What else has gone over the Falls? 
A couple of individuals have gone over without a barrel and survived. One was a seven-year-old boy, Roger Woodward, who was in a boating accident—this was in the 1950s. He was wearing only a lifejacket and he went over the Horseshoe Falls. Everyone assumed he was dead, but he surfaced and the Maid of the Mist [a tour boat] captain pulled him out of the water. He suffered only cuts and bruises. 

Something similar happened recently. An unemployed auto worker from Michigan threw himself in and went over. He didn’t even have a life jacket yet he came up perfectly fine. Afterwards, he claimed he was trying to commit suicide. 

But the first person to survive a trip over the Falls in a barrel was a 63-year-old woman back in 1901. That’s a perpetual disappointment to history. History would have liked for it to have been a buff, macho guy or at least a sexy, young woman. It’s a sad story because the woman, Annie Edson Taylor, subsequently died penniless on the streets of Niagara Falls and was buried in a pauper’s grave, which you can visit. She believed that the stunt would make her rich. That’s the reason she did it—she was broke. But her manager stole her barrel, hired a young sexpot to play her, went on the road and did the Annie Taylor Show without her. 

Tell me about the landfills in the region. Some believe that they rival the Falls.
The city of Niagara Falls has a large and spectacular landfill. And downstream, Model City has the only operating hazardous waste landfill in the northeast. The first time I drove out to look at it I was behind a tanker truck which had its Hazmat placard showing. I’m geeky enough that I have the hazard classification system manual in my car so I can identify hazardous materials from the numbers. This truck was hauling PCB’s. I said, “Follow that truck to the landfill.” 

Is there much hope for the environmental future of the area? 
There are promising developments. The people on the American side want to differentiate themselves from the Canadian side so they don’t want to build another family fun park. They are talking about creating a Greenway—a linked series of parks and nature areas and bike trails along the riverfront. That could help preserve what is still a spectacular natural landscape. Given that most of the industry has left, there’s hope for cleaning and stabilizing the environment that remains. 

Do you have any advice for a first-timer who is planning a trip? 
I have very strong opinions about what’s good to see. Visitors are often distraught when they see the seedy downtown of Niagara Falls, New York, and they go straight to the Canadian side. But the American state park shouldn’t be missed. The first couple of times I went to the Falls I didn’t go, and when I did I was impressed. You can go out on islands called the Three Sisters that are right in the rapids, getting you close to the sound and the fury. And the Cave of the Winds is very exciting. One can take an elevator down [to the base of the Falls] and walk on boardwalks that take you to within 15 feet of the waterfall. 

On my Web site, I have posted my favorite attractions. There is also a landfill map, so if anyone is interested in looking at the history of toxic dumping in Niagara there are some good tips there.

What kind of impact do you believe your book will have? 
All Americans are going to change how they view nature [laughs]. Most of the people I’ve been hearing from are former Niagara locals who now live elsewhere. They write to say things like: I’m so glad someone finally wrote about the Manhattan Project, the failed urban renewal and all the problems. 

At the same time, locals depend heavily on tourism and there is some hesitation to talk about things that could potentially damage the tourism industry. No one wants to discuss the landfills or radioactive waste because that might impact tourism. 

But a lot of people have told me they were never interested in going to Niagara but now that they know there’s such a fascinating history to the place, they would like to go. So I hope the book has the effect of letting people in the region see that they really should claim the history—warts and all. It might interest a whole new generation of tourists. 

What do you see in terms of the future of the Falls? 
The power authority on the American side just got another 50-year license so I don’t see anything changing in terms of hydrodevelopment. But I do see attitudes changing in regards to the natural environment. The most promising thing is an understanding of the Falls as being part of a larger region that includes the gorge, the [Niagara] river, the lakes at both ends of the river and the whole watershed. Once you have that kind of consciousness you begin to think about how things relate to each other. Then there’s hope that a saner relationship with the natural environment can be created.

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