Niagara Falls

The lost history of an American icon.

Niagara Falls

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 new 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.

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