Heart-shaped bathtubs and romantic overlooks define the contemporary vision of the greatest waterfall of North America. Linked with romantic honeymooning, Niagara Falls has become a tourist mecca that happens to contain an awesome natural wonder. The wonder of the falls has attracted visitors to this site for hundreds of years; however, the onlookers' interest has been enhanced by a host of attractions. With their natural grandeur, the falls have impressed business developers looking for sources of power and exhibitionists looking for a wondrous thrill.
Many Americans refer to Niagara Falls as the first scenic wonder of North America. In fact, it attracted native people to the area for many years. Settlers converted the site into a primitive tourist destination, complete with dangerous catwalks leading out into the falls' mists. As the early republic strained to find ways of defining itself and impressing Europeans, many Americans of the early 1800s turned to natural wonders or oddities. Chief among such icons, Niagara Falls rapidly became one of the nation's first attractions.
As the European-Americans gazed at the crashing falls, some saw unrealized profit, and water-powered milling quickly took shape above the falls. The awesome force of the water offered entrepreneurs a bit of a free-for-all, as each pursued power generation. This avenue of progress continued to be developed in haphazard fashion throughout the nineteenth century. The tourist industry also turned more intrusive during the mid 1800s, leading to the haphazard construction of hotels and motels as well as roads and bridges to access them. Such developments so close to the nation's preeminent natural wonder spurred a new type of reaction among Americans, and it became one of the first focuses of American preservationists. While outraged tourists bypassed the industrialized Niagara for more pristine or peaceful resorts, socially conservative, highly cultured reformers came to Niagara's aid beginning in the 1870s. Led by Frederick Law Olmsted, the leader of American landscape architecture and planning, the preservationists sought to secure lands adjacent to the falls on both the American and Canadian sides. By 1887 the Niagara Preservation Movement had secured these lands, and New York established a state reservation at the site in 1885. Soon, the preservationists realized that they also needed to prohibit development upriver from the Falls; the state initially resisted. The "Free Niagara" movement continued through the early 1900s.
In tandem with its appeal as a majestic natural wonder, Niagara has consistently appealed to American culture's fascination with the bizarre. The feature films Niagara and Superman were partly filmed near the falls, and H. G. Wells was so impressed with the electrical dynamos in place after 1900 that he made the falls an important part of some of his science fiction. This became a fairly familiar characteristic of sci-fi stories, including Flash Gordon, which used the falls as the unique place on Earth from which to achieve interplanetary travel. Finally, a number of individuals have "shot," or ridden over, the falls since 1901, some successful, some not. The devices have ranged from barrels and balls to, more recently, a jet ski.
Irwin, William. The New Niagara. University Park, Penn State University Press, 1996.
McGreevy, Patrick V. Imagining Niagara. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
McKinsey, Elizabeth. Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
NIAGARA FALLS is a stunning 167-foot drop between Lakes Erie and Ontario, on the United States-Canada border. A major tourist attraction, it also generates huge amounts of hydroelectric energy. Composed of the American Falls and the Canadian, or Horseshoe, Falls, Niagara Falls obstructed early European navigation, and because Fort Niagara was extremely strategically significant, its portage road was precious to both Britain and France.
During the 1880s, a group of U.S. investment bankers formed the Niagara Falls Power Company and enlisted many eminent scientists and engineers for a hydroelectric project. By 1902 Niagara Falls power stations were producting about one-fifth of the total U.S. electrical energy. In the 1920s technological advances enabled the company to transmit power economically for hundreds of miles, in a large distribution network that established the pattern for twentieth-century electric power. Its abundant, inexpensive power also stimulated massive growth in such energy-intensive industries as the aluminum and carborundum industries. In 1961, after a U.S.-Canadian treaty increased the amount of water allowed for power generation, the Niagara Falls Power Company built a new, 1.95-million kilowatt plant. It was the largest single hydroelectric project in the Western Hemisphere up to that time.
Berton, Pierre. Niagara: A History of the Falls. New York: Kodansha International, 1997.
———. A Picture Book of Niagara Falls. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993.
Irwin, William. The New Niagara: Tourism, Technology, and the Landscape of Niagara Falls, 1776–1917. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.
James E.Brittain/d. b.
See alsoCanadian-American Waterways ; Electric Power and Light Industry ; Energy Industry ; Explorations and Expeditions: British ; Explorations and Expeditions: French ; Hydroelectric Power ; Tourism .