HISTORIC BACKGROUND AT NIAGARA FALLS: THE PORTERS
The nineteenth century Porter brothers,
General Peter B. and Judge Augustus Porter, were not simple custodians of an
undeveloped park at
Perhaps their first disappointment was
the decision to back Aaron Burr for the scandalous
By 1806 Peter B. Porter was elected
Congressman by the Republicans, and re-elected in 1810. In Congress, as
member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Peter Porter was an advocate of an
open war with England both because he "felt bitter over England's conduct
on the high seas" and because he "feared her close relationship
with the Indians" (Chazanof, 1970), but also because "he wanted to
add to his already sizable land holdings and was not averse to expanding into
Canada. He sought, too, a monopoly of the shipping trade for his company
[Porter, Barton Company] on the
Once war was declared on June 18, 1812,
Peter Porter "promptly resigned his office as congressman to join the
actual fighting in western
However, the war "seriously
interfered with the transportation operations of this firm" to the
extent that when their twenty-year lease came up for renewal in 1817, it was
"extended for four years in recognition of the forced suspension of the
business during the war" (
The Porters also lost their bid to have
the course of the Erie Canal run to Lake Ontario at Oswego "and around
Niagara Falls to Lake Erie," instead of the present interior route to
Buffalo. De Witt Clinton was governor of
Peter B. Porter "favored a canal
route that facilitated trade on the Great Lakes, and sought a passage by way
The firm of Porter, Barton and Company came into being with the grant by the state to the partners in the firm of Augustus Porter, Peter B. Porter, Benjamin Barton and Joseph Annin to authorize the company to own the lease of the Niagara portage by an Act of 1803 (Adams, 1927).
Again, Porter wanted the western
terminus of the canal to be the Black Rock harbor, rather than the harbor to
be established at the City of
The Canal was to defeat the Porter's usefulness as conveyors in Lake Ontario and the Niagara portage, since goods could be now shipped directly to Lake Erie from Albany. The opening of the canal had a "paralyzing influence upon the business prospects" of the Porter company.
Throughout the career of Peter B. and Augustus Porter, both individuals had striven to manipulate government policy for their own personal economic gain. Although devotion to one's company interests and to one's government do not necessarily conflict, there is some evidence, as given above, that the Porters, especially Peter B. Porter, consistently used political position to further the interests of the family, as when Peter was a member of the Federal Congress, a General of the United States Army, and a commissioner of the Erie Canal. Chazanof, in his excellent biography of Joseph Ellicott, does not characterize Peter B. Porter's political efforts in this way, yet he presents historical information which, in sum, presents Porter as using his political position as much to his personal gain as for the people he was to represent. Perhaps this attitude was central to the continuous history of failure of the Porter family to succeed in the economic ventures which, although superficially they were in advantageous positions to exploit, yet which eluded their grasp, bringing riches to their rivals. Although they may have been quick to see political and economic opportunity, they either did not integrate the welfare of their company with the welfare of the State of New York or consistently misread developments in the State with regard to western New York. For instance, it was because Joseph Ellicott, Chief-agent for the Holland Land Company, in many ways the Porter's chief political and economic rival in the first decades of the nineteenth century, worked in good faith for the interests of both company and State, that the State favored Ellicott's suggestions regarding the route of the Erie Canal, for instance, over competing claims by the Porter brothers (Chazanof, 1970).
As mentioned above, in the section above on land use on Goat Island, Augustus Porter acquired Goat Island in October 1815, sharing ownership of it with Peter Porter after November 16, 1816, when the deed was finally given to the elder brother by the State of New York. Augustus had originally applied for ownership of Goat Island in 1811, but at the time the State needed a place for a second prison - the first having been built in New York City - and was considering using Goat Island for such a purpose, or as an arsenal, especially since western New York was badly prepared for war with England. By 1819, the State had decided to build a prison in Auburn, New York, and the war with England had come and gone. In 1814, Augustus Porter, a judge, "still wanted Goat Island, and he finally outwitted the State, and obtained it" (Porter, 1900) by a legal maneuver.
Although the Porters and other business associates, such as Benjamin Barton and Joseph Annin, Barton's uncle, had purchased the lands east of Prospect Point and upriver to the east of Gill Creek at an auction, February 26, 1805, being acreage on the "Mile Strip," the islands in the Niagara River were still owned by the Seneca, probably as acreage, together with their Reservations, not having been sold to business interests during the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797. The Indian title to all the islands in the Niagara River, previously reserved for them, had been extinguished by the State of New York "only a few weeks before" October, 1815 for "$1,000 cash and $1,500 a year in perpetuity" (Porter, 1900).
In addition to the purchase of river-front property in association with their conveying and forwarding operations, the Porters were "the largest owners of important tracts of real estate favorably located for power development and manufacturing purposes" (Adams, 1927). When the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, made redundant the Porter's principal sphere of financial operations, they began to turn their attention away from Buffalo and on to Niagara Falls.
"As pioneers in power development the Porter Brothers again devoted their influences and activities to the up building of Niagara as a center of population and commerce. In this new period of their lives the great cataract was to be again the pivot of their public lives. Its hindrance to commerce had been the foundation of their business success; they now saw their opportunity in its vast undeveloped power, which became their hope for the utilization of their large landed estate, as well as for the community in which they dwelt" (Adams, 1927).
On June 24, 1825, within a few years of losing their lease for the portage business along the Niagara River, the Porters issued an "Invitation to Eastern Capitalists and Manufacturers." It is a central document in the "story of Niagara Falls" for it was issued by one of the foremost regional capitalist families of the time and represents the focus and direction of economic development to exploit the falls of Niagara.
As early as 1825, the Porters developed a prospectus that described Goat Island (as Iris Island) to the economic community of the United States as a "situation ... not surpassed, and probably not equaled, in the United States, as a site for the establishment of manufactures," The "adjoining banks appear to have been expressly designed for the convenience of leading water from the river for hydraulic operations. Practically speaking, the extent to which water-power may be here applied is without limit. A thousand mills might be erected with the same ease, and equally accessible, as if on a plain; and each supplied with a never failing water-power" (Porter, in Adams, 1927). The grand canal, or Erie Canal, was only ten miles upriver on a navigable waterway where great transportation lines connect the area with New York City and European markets, and the interior United States along the Great Lakes shipping lanes. Downriver sits Lewiston "the head of the sloop navigation of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence" and Canadian and French-Canadian markets and shipping lines out of Montreal. Only ten years earlier, the aboriginal peoples, the Seneca, had owned title to Goat Island.
The environment about the falls is "rich in soil, romantically beautiful in formation, and proverbial for salubrity. The pure and limpid waters of the Niagara" abound. "The extensive forests which border the Niagara, the lake and the canal, and cover the islands in the river, will furnish a cheap and abundant supply of fuel for manufacturing purposes, for many years to come" until transportation lines became established and coal could be imported from the coal mines to the south and west.
Goat Island itself "contains about seventy acres of excellent land, the upper half of which might be covered with machinery, propelled by water-power; and the lower half, situated in the midst of the falls and rapids, where Nature courts the imagination in her most sublime, beautiful and fascinating forms, might be converted into delightful seats for the residence of private gentlemen, or appropriated to hotels and pleasure grounds for the accommodation of the numerous strangers who annually visit this spot" (Porter, in Adams, 1927).
The striking aspect of this document is that in all the subsequent literature cited down to the present day by social forces opposed to spoliation of the very beauties extolled by the Porters in 1825, no reference has ever been made, to this writer's knowledge, of this early scheme to sell Niagara Falls and reduce it to a manufactory. Much of the literature written about the Falls after its establishment as an international park in 1885 has seemed to pick up a kind of literary iconography due to the intense use of rhetorical phrases and artifice. One kind of icon is the list of developments proposed for the "pristine" Goat Island made by people other than the Porters, started by Peter A. Porter in his history of Goat Island (1900) and repeated by park proponents into the twentieth century. This icon is called "proposed uses" after Porter's subtitle in his essay where he lists uses such as "for a sheep pen," State prison, State arsenal, circus ground (P. T. Barnum), picnic ground and terminal of the Erie railroad (Jim Fiske), etc. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Sr. was said to have wanted "to buy it for use as a pleasure ground in connection with his railroads...." Peter B. and Augustus Porter had offered up the Island for sale to capitalists, such as Mr. Vanderbilt, for just such a purpose, although the economic ambitions of the Porter family do not appear in these lists. Porter even seems to condemn such uses of Goat Island by "men seeming to be unable to realize (when they think they see a dollar for themselves)" that Goat Island deserved to retain its beautiful native environment, even though the family had earlier cheerfully offered up the island to capitalists for hydraulic, manufacturing and hotel development.
In the "Invitation to Eastern Capitalists and Manufacturers" is laid out the advantages of exploiting Niagara Falls, which have not changed down to the present day. This document is the first of several to be written during the nineteenth century appealing to capital for development of Niagara Falls. Only details have changed.
It is ironic that the very qualities of virginity, tranquility, purity, and natural beauty were to have an appeal to men of wealth who were promised the destruction of the forests to fuel industries since known to be notorious for their atmospheric polluting qualities, especially with the introduction of coal as an energy source. The "salubrious" vicinity of the Falls would become environmentally poisoned in association with the "thousand mills," just as the great manufacturing centers of the industrial revolution in Great Britain became so. Niagara's waters, known for their purity and "limpidity," were guaranteed to become deeply polluted by the "thousand mills," several of them pulp and lumber mills exploiting local forests, to be perched on its banks. Industries would cover the vicinity of the falls, "rich in soil," with manufactories, railroads, storage areas for goods and raw materials and raw dirt roads.
Cheek by jowl could be established hotels and pleasure grounds in the midst of a sea of industrial development. Perhaps in this characterization is a naive quality on the part of the participants generally ignorant of the environmental problems associated with industry, or naively hopeful that with careful planning, such degradation could be avoided. The belief that a garden could exist satisfactorily with machinery operating in it is and was the fond hope of all who sought and seek to develop Niagara Falls, promising to leave its environment intact, or to use the environment as a device to disguise the ugly facets of industry.
Already in 1825 the Niagara riverbank supported: "a large and valuable grist-mill, saw-mill, two woolen cloth factories, two clothier's shops, several carding and spinning machines, a forge, paper-mill, etc." (Porter, in Adams, 1927). Augustus Porter, who resided in the area of Niagara Falls opposite Goat Island, perhaps on the site of the homestead of John Stedman, had erected a large flouring mill, sold later to the Wetmore Brothers. The paper mill, built in 1823 by Jesse Symonds near the Goat Island bridge, was one of the largest in the country (A. L. Porter, 1875). In 1826, Porter and Clark built a large paper mill on Bath Island, which was extended later by L. C. Woodruff (A. L. Porter, 1875). The famous Cataract House "was built, in part, by David Chapman in 1824" (Porter, 1875). All this development due to the attraction of capital investment to the hydraulic capability of the Niagara riverbanks ended temporarily when the Erie Canal opened in 1825, and such capital attached itself to towns along this important transportation route.
The effect of the opening of the Canal was "to divert all the business of transportation from the old channel, and attract all enterprise and capital, seeking employment, to the numerous villages growing up on the line of the canal. Another injurious effect of the canal on this locality [i.e. Niagara Falls], though beneficial to the new villages, was the large water power it [i.e. the canal] afforded, at points where little or none had previously existed; at Black Rock, Lockport, Medina and other towns west of Rochester, adding greatly to their growth, and proportionally lessening ours" [at Niagara Falls] (A. L. Porter, 1875).
The Porters in 1825 appear to have been rich in land if not in capital, and they occupied themselves for the remainder of the century selling off parcels along the river bit by bit, and attempting themselves to capitalize and get developed a hydraulic canal on their properties at Niagara Falls leading from the water in the upper river to the lip of the Niagara gorge just below the cataracts. In 1825 Peter B. and Augustus Porter were willing to subdivide their Goat Island and other Niagara properties, and it is likely that Peter B. Porter tried to officially change the name of Goat Island to "Iris Island" in the treaty with Britain ending the War of 1812, the latter name appearing in the prospectus of 1825, in anticipation of making the land intended for sale to appear more attractive, together with the healthy, clean, loveliness of the pre-sale property. The name "Iris" is in reference to the rainbows generated by sunlight in the mist from the falls.
Judge Augustus Porter did not have sufficient capital to develop a hydraulic canal for it involved "an expense greater than his own means would afford. His heirs, believing in his estimate of the importance of the work, finally succeeded in securing the means necessary for this great public improvement, by a free gift of the water power, and of about seventy acres of land, lying in the village, adjoining the lower end of the canal" (A. L. Porter, 1875). This "gift" was part of the conspectus Augustus Porter issued to capitalists and manufacturers in 1847 proposing construction of a hydraulic canal commencing "above the great Falls, and terminating on the high bank about half a mile below" (Porter, in Adams, 1927).
The canal project began when "Caleb S. Woodhull of New York, and Walter Bryant and associates of Boston, in 1852, entered into a contract with the heirs of Augustus Porter" to purchase the properties from the Porters pertinent to establishment of the canal and its operation (Adams, 1927). About 45 acres of land on the gorge rim were involved, extending one mile down the river from below the American Falls. The Niagara Falls Hydraulic Company was established by the investors. Ground was broken in 1853 and a prospectus was issued by the company in that year.
In the prospectus, specific reference is made to the possible degradation of the falls area by manufacturing activities. In addition to its advantages for industrial development, "[Niagara Fall's] attractiveness as a watering place will continue undiminished; for the proposed situation of the factories is such as to preclude the possibility of their detracting in the least from the grandeur of the cataract" and the "celebrity which now attaches to the place, as the possessor of the sublimest of nature's works, will not be lessened when it shall be one of the great workshops of the world, sending forth daily the wonderful creations of human industry and skill." The industrialists were acknowledging by this time the "celebrity" attached to the natural phenomenon of Niagara Falls, the association of a wealthy clientele with this "watering place," the sublimity of this "work of nature." It must be remembered that the hydraulic canal was not yet in operation, no tailraces were discharging over the gorge rim, and much of the upper river had not been developed. One must assume that criticism already existed against the industrial development which was already established beside the big hotels on the riverbank above the falls, and such criticism was known to men of capital.
Here, too, is the pitting of the "wonderful creations of human industry and skill" against the "sublimest of nature's works," which will be met with in future arguments for development of the falls, as though if the two were thrown together the value of both would be increased.
As time went by, this company could not meet its financial obligations. The company was sold to a new group of investors in 1856, who called their company the Niagara Falls Water Power Company. This was the "Day Company" after Horace H. Day who owned controlling interest in the company, and after whom the inlet portion of the canal on the upper river was named ("Port Day"). Commercial use of the canal began in 1858, but the full development of the canal was not complete until 1862. Adams (1927) published a print of the unused first water allowed through the canal and over the high bank at the lower end of the canal in 1857.
It was in the year 1857, too, that Frederick Church first displayed his influential painting "The Great Fall, Niagara." It was seven feet in length, and three and one half feet in height and depicted the Horseshoe Falls. It "enraptured critics on both sides of the Atlantic" (Roper, 1973) and probably did much to reinforce the international respect for the visual integrity of the falls. Indeed, depictions of the falls abounded for it was "the most frequently described and depicted natural wonder in North America. No other site in the New World was represented so many times by so many artists in so many ways. From 1760 to 1900, countless amateur sketchers and professional painters, foreign and native-born alike, swarmed over the location, picturing the waterfalls from every possible vantage point" (Adamson, 1985). Church's "Niagara" was the climax of American landscape painting of the nineteenth century (Adamson, 1985).
Church's picture became a sensation in New York City where "thousands were crowding into the Broadway gallery daily to see [it]" (Adamson, 1985). When the painting went to England "the English press was ... unanimous in its praise" and contributed greatly to the prestige of American culture and its potential (Adamson, 1985).
The Niagara Falls Water Power Company became financially exhausted in its turn, and its directors, in 1860, sold the company to Horace H. Day outright. Throughout the Civil War years (1861-1865), Horace Day promoted full excavation of the canal.
As the War proceeded, perhaps the reason Day was able to continue excavation to the extent that occurred was due to pressures to generate industrial goods for the Union cause, which promoted expansion of industry throughout the Union-allied states. The war began in a business depression, which may have accounted for the failure of the company established in 1856. Imposition of tariffs baring imports of European goods together with huge government expenditures appears to have created a booming northern economy, at least for company owners if not labor. Contractors to the government made "fabulous fortunes," generating a new class of businessmen. "Particularly ostentatious and offensive were the nouveaux riches and the "shoddy" rich who had waxed fat from war contracts. "Shoddy" - a reclaimed inferior wool substituted by dishonest manufacturers who attained great profits - came to denote any contractor who made exorbitant profits by supplying the government with inferior goods. Most businessmen were honest and conscientious, but even legitimate profits were very high" (Encyclopedia Americana, 1927). Labor was in short supply throughout the north during the Civil War, and this may have crippled completion of Day's hydraulic canal.
By 1877, the canal was one mile long, "with a capacity of about 27,000 horse-power" when, after borrowing and spending "more than $800,000," including Mr. Day's "entire fortune," "the company had exhausted its resources and credit before the canal could be sufficiently extended to justify lessees in the construction of manufactories" (Adams, 1927).
Day's company sold its property at auction, May 1, 1877, to Jacob F. Schoellkopf and associates, of Buffalo, for $71,000, with $5,000 to "settle accounts" bringing the figure to $76,000 (Adams, 1927). Building on the efforts of the past, it did not appear to require vast amounts of capital for Schoellkopf to finally turn the canal into a successful operation.
"An old property owner declared when the sale was announced, 'Now we can add a hundred dollars to the price of every lot'" (Adams, 1927). The oldest and most extensive property owners were the Porters. The citizens of the village of Niagara Falls were said to have expressed "much satisfaction" over the purchase by Mr. Schoellkopf and associates, who were considered, at least by Adams, to have "the means to develop the power and the community of Niagara as they conceived it possible and profitable [and] were hailed as a favorable omen of progress and success for Niagara power" (Adams, 1927).
Jacob Schoellkopf had come to Buffalo, New York, in 1843. He was described (Brown & Watson, 1982) as "the young German immigrant who arrived with a few hundred dollars in his pocket and became "King Jacob," founding a family dynasty with almost legendary accomplishments in nearly everything related to capitalism." He opened a small leather shop in Buffalo and, "because he was a hard working man ... soon had tanneries in Buffalo, Chicago, and Milwaukee" (Brown & Watson, 1982). No doubt the principle source of Schoellkopf's wealth was in supplying leather goods to the Union army - one can imagine the need for leather of the cavalry alone.
"Jacob Schoellkopf may have best exemplified the German immigrant whose diligent enterprise put an end to Yankee exclusivity in [Buffalo's] commercial and industrial power structure" (Brown & Watson, 1982). Yankee may have meant "vintage Anglo-Saxon or 'old family'," according to these authors.
With the success of the hydraulic canal came the fruition of the warning hinted at in the prospectus of 1853. Degradation of Niagara's environment, already stimulating protest before 1853, would soon become critical and would worsen as a necessary consequence of industrial development. The success of the canal would present an almost irresistible momentum for accelerated industrialization of the village of Niagara Falls, the Niagara environment and all of western New York State and adjacent Ontario.
Adams, Edward Dean. 1927. Niagara Power: History of the Niagara Falls Power Company 1886-1918. 2 Vols. Niagara Falls Power Company, Niagara Falls, New York.
Adamson, J. E. 1985. Niagara, Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901. Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Brown, R. C. & B. Watson. 1981. Buffalo, Lake City in Niagara Land. Windsor Publications, Inc., Buffalo.
Chazanof, William. 1970. Joseph Ellicott and the Holland Land Company; the opening of western New York. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York.
Porter, Albert H. 1875. Niagara from 1805 to 1875, by an old resident. Privately printed pamphlet in Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
Porter, P. A. 1900. Goat Island, in Sixteenth Annual Report of the Commission for the State Reservation at Niagara for the Year 1899. Albany, pp. 75-129.
Roper, L. W. 1973. A biography of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.