P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica, Missouri Botanical Garden
July 22, 2003



by P. M. Eckel
Missouri Botanical Garden
PO. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166-0299

An ephemeral population of visitors, a group distinct from the first settlers, soldiers and traders, was of a constant and regular occurrence at the falls, such that James Flint commented on their presence as early as 1822 (Scott and Scott, 1983). These visitors frequently appealed to government to provide for their ease of passage, such as La Rochefoucault in 1795, visiting Niagara on the Canadian (British) side who "experienced so much difficulty in making a way through thickets, rocks and swamps to points of vantage from which to view the cataract that he was moved to write: "it is much to be regretted that the government of a people which surpass all other nations in fondness for traveling and curiosity should not have provided convenient places for observing this phenomenon at all possible points of view." He considered that for thirty dollars "the greatest curiosity in the known world would be rendered accessible" (in Way, 1946).

While the earliest industries engaged in by the Europeans dealt with the capacity for milling on the river's edge, in particular, by the French, with mills on both sides of the river (Way, 1946), and trade, there were later taverns and other lodgings and related businesses established based on the presence of spectators, especially after the turn of the nineteenth century and the war of 1812-14 (Way, 1946). Chippawa, in Ontario and just above the falls, possessed two taverns and ten houses. "In 1801, the Reverend David Bacon of Connecticut discovered what was apparently the first public-house at the site of the cataract. He recorded: 'There was at the Falls a good tavern where we took breakfast, but there was no other house, and I think there was none on the American side" (Way, 1946, citing Green, no date). One inn, Forsythe's Hotel, in 1819 (perhaps on the Canadian side) "had lately erected a covered stairway by which visitors could descend into the gorge below the cataract" (Way, 1946, citing Green, no date), a precedent to the Biddle Stairs. The entertainment of visitors as a commercial enterprise increased in the 1820's (Way, 1946). In 1823 the Ontario House and The Pavilion had been built on the Canadian side, neither of which had existed in 1818 and one visitor noted, in 1822, that "the Falls of Niagara are much visited by strangers ... there is a large tavern on each side of the river, and in the album kept at one of these, I observed that upwards of a hundred folio pages had been written with names within five months" (James Flint, quoted in Way, 1946). The Clifton House, Ontario, was erected in 1853.

Tourism appears to have been more fundamental to the settlement of the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario, than the twin city on the American side. A city was to have been created on the Canadian side before 1836. The project "was primarily a financial one dependent on the tourist traffic, it had as a secondary objective, the idea of protecting the Falls from commercial enterprises derogatory to the natural scenery" (Way, 1946). When, however, the American railway systems uniting the settlement on the American side with Buffalo and Lockport were built, "tourist traffic between Buffalo and the Falls was diverted from the Canadian to the American side of the river" and the tourist industry on the Ontario side experienced a setback, such that the project was temporarily forestalled.

"The population of the village of Niagara Falls [New York] in 1853 was probably less than 2,000" (Adams, 1927). Some of these people would have worked in the mills established along the upper river bank opposite Goat Island, some in municipal government, such as it was, and some in the hotels built in the area. Although the village sported such a small population, "it had a yearly influx of visitors in numbers up to 60,000 .... Much of this tourism was stimulated by the growth of the railroads .... By 1853 there were six railroads being built or completed in the Falls area" (Scott & Scott, 1983). While the Porters, who essentially owned the aboriginal land on which the village of Niagara Falls developed, kept their eyes on the gigantic prospectus of regional development, local businessmen made their money in the service sector associated with the hotel and tavern businesses. As far as my references indicate, the Porter family never involved itself in the local tourist trade except for their interest in Goat Island. The descendants of Augustus and Peter B. Porter never appeared to have offered up this bit of real estate to development after the 1825 prospectus discussed above, rather concentrating on the disposal of their considerable real estate across the river on the mainland. The possession of Goat Island seemed to give the family prestige, and they embellished it in such a way as to maintain or augment this value. It is perhaps their dilettante interest in history that stimulated the island's maintenance in its primitive state.

With the establishment of the first hydraulic company to develop the canal, in 1852, the Porters disposed of "about 80 acres on the level plain or plateau below the falls, for manufacturing sites, extending about 1 mile on and along the high bank of the river, ... 1100 feet of water front for wharf purposes, above the falls, opposite Grass Island, and ... a strip of land 100 feet wide for the canal, the whole situated within the limits of the village of Niagara Falls" (Adams, 1927). "'All these lands,' it was claimed, 'including their water-privileges and other advantages, together with the exclusive right to construct the proposed canal, were purchased by the company ... and are now absolutely owned by them'" (Adams, 1927). Whether these property rights were sold by the company when it failed, or reverted to the previous owners could not be established here, but the rights most likely stayed with the company and ended be-longing to the Schoellkopf concern, which permanently owned the general outline of these lands up until the State acquired them in the twentieth century.

Grand and internationally famous hotels were erected in the village: those built after the War of 1812 and around the time of the opening of the Erie Canal, as discussed above, and others as the century advanced. The Cataract House was built, in part, by David Chapman in 1824, and has been enlarged from time to time to its present great extent by P. Whitney and Sons. The International Hotel, built by B. F. Childs, and enlarged by J. T. Bush ... ranks with the Cataract House among the largest and best conducted hotels anywhere to be found. The Spencer House and Niagara House here, and the Monteagle Hotel at Suspension Bridge, are all of more recent date, and are all of them hotels of high character and large capacity" (A. Porter, 1875).

In the mid-1940's, for example, the Cataract House "was extended to the river's edge where bath areas were built in the rapids" (Scott & Scott, 1983). "This addition included a ballroom and balconies extending over the edge of the upper rapids .... The unique combination of one of America's most spectacular natural settings and a fine hotel representing the height of mid-19th century luxury often moved visitors standing on the balconies of the Cataract to compose reflective responses to the majesty of the cataract or of life itself" (Scott & Scott, 1983).

"The mood of a visit to Niagara in the 1840's was genteel. Gardens and a fish pond edged the River bank by the Cataract House." In the 1850's the International Hotel was built "across the street from the Cataract next to where the Eagle Tavern had long been established .... The Vedder, also known as the Glove, the Camel, the Frontier House, or the Fall's View Hotel was constructed at Ontario Street and Whirlpool. In 1852 the American Hotel was built .... On Falls Street the Empire House [was] built in 1852 .... These hotels were generally seasonal, but they catered to both short-term visitors and summer guests" (Scott & Scott, 1983).

During the 1850's a suspension bridge was built to Canada and DeVeaux College was established; the town of Suspension Bridge was incorporated into what became the City of Niagara Falls in 1854. The Monteagle Hotel opened in 1855, "and in the following year the very popular International Hotel opposite Prospect Park was expanded. ... Opposite the International, the Niagara Park Place was opened which included reading rooms, billiards, liquor, and a soda fountain" (Scott & Scott, 1983).

It appears that it was during the decade of the Civil War that the peaceful mood within the visitor population and the system erected for its comfort changed for the worse. As discussed in the previous section, the nature of the business community changed perhaps from something that might be described as "old money" to a class of businessmen recently made rich from sale of goods under contract to the Union government - an "ostentatious and offensive" lot. "The prosperity, anguish, and dislocations of war stimulated extravagant living, frantic amusements, vice, and crime .... Entertainment flourished. Theaters featuring comedy were jammed; and parties, balls, and receptions cheered both the indifferent and the afflicted of war. Vice flourished in cities and near army camps, and Lincoln observed that in the wake of war 'Every foul bird comes abroad, and every dirty reptile rises up. These add crime to confusion ... Murders for old grudges, and murders for pelf, proceed under any cloak that will best cover for the occasion" (Hoogenboom, in American Encyclopedia, 1927).

Alfred Porter, one of representatives of "old money" on the Niagara Frontier, characterized the sad state to which society had come in his town: Niagara Falls:

            "Few persons in this progressive age will admit that the olden time was better than the new, yet it cannot be denied that the fearful increase of crime, and the sad corruption of morals, now so obvious, both in public and private life, are legitimate fruits of wealth and luxury, and of the overweening greed for money, so characteristic of the present times" (Porter, 1875).

"The War did not stop the flow of tourists to the Falls and Niagara business men continued to build to please crowds" (Scott & Scott, 1983). Competition with tourist businesses on the Canadian side was aggravated with the construction of the Upper Suspension Bridge in 1869 (Scott & Scott, 1983). More bridges, walkways, buildings were added to structures in Prospect Park and in the Goat Island complex. Reports, such as that by Mark Twain in 1869, spoke of "competing hackmen, aggressive salesmen, and Indian craftsmen soliciting tourists in shops, in front of hotels, and even throughout the sloped banks of the Park" (Scott & Scott, 1983).

By the 1870's, economic interests began to overwhelm the city environment near the falls. Residential areas at the river's edge and adjacent to the entrance to the bridge to Goat Island were bought up and commercialized -primarily through the enterprise of a Mr. Tugby, who "dominated the River front to the left of the Goat Island Bridge" (Scott and Scott, 1983). The area of Bridge Street, which connected Main Street to the bridge to Goat Island had been residential before it was commercialized.

The Porter family continued to divest itself of riverfront property to developers, particularly Prospect Point in 1872. Like Goat Island, the Porters had maintained Prospect Point with little development. As part of the agreement of sale of Prospect Point, the Porters demolished the Terrapin Tower, "about the same time that Bridge Street was commercialized" (Scott & Scott, 1983). The "grand old Terrapin Tower was needlessly torn down in 1873 in order that it might not prove an adverse attraction to the interests of a company which had bought and were about to fence in the last spot of land on the American shore, from which a near view of the Falls could be obtained; a point which so long as it remained in the possession of the owners of Goat Island had been free to the world" (Porter, 1900). This last note is an example of the contradictory stance of the Porters. The Prospect Park Company would be one of the last of the private concerns to protest the State's condemnation of their property in the establishment of the State Reservation (Welch, 1903). Fences were built "around much of Prospect Point making the Falls only visible to paying customers" (Scott and Scott, 1983). With Terrapin Tower gone, one of the major prospect opportunities was lost to the people and the attraction to Goat Island was lessened in favor of the business enterprise on Prospect Park - with full cooperation by the Porter owners. The company operating the Park established on this tract "a store, a dwelling, garden rockwork, terraced slopes, flower beds, ornamental trees, fountains, several pavilions, an art gallery, a variety theatre, and machinery for illuminating the Falls" (Scott & Scott, 1983). A fountain was built by the Prospect Park Company in 1877 "of stone, earth and moss in the center of a large fish pond designed in the manner of a modern Disney creation .... Everything was improved for the tourists .... Even an Art Gallery housing paintings, magnifying lenses and stereoscopes was built near the Pavilion ...." Yet the overall impression left in the minds of the visitors seems to be expressed by Henri Rochefort's statement that: 'The banks on the side of the rapids are crowded with pedlars and even fair-stalls. Everything is on sale" (Scott & Scott, 1983). Perhaps as a testament to the impact of the Civil War on the minds of the citizens of Niagara Falls, a monument to Civil War soldiers was erected there in 1876 (Scott & Scott, 1983).

Scott and Scott (1983) report many instances in which it was attested that Goat Island and the American side was one of the most popular attractions in the area, such in the 1830's when "the Canadian side was preferred for its view, but Goat Island continued to attract the most visitors." Again, Goat Island was the most popular attraction in the 1860's, with over 100,000 people predicted in the Niagara Falls Gazette to visit in 1868. "By the 1870's the area [of the falls] had become, to the huge profit and advantage of local business, the greatest tourist attraction in the Americas" (Way, 1946).

The falls received world-wide advertisement in commercial views of Niagara distributed world-wide, which "decorated theater curtains, scenic wallpapers, dinnerware, sheet music, commercial advertising labels, lamp shades, and stock certificates. Niagara Falls also proved to be the single most popular landscape subject among the millions of mass-produced stereographic photographs that flooded the parlors of the Old and New Worlds after 1860. It was truly a theme for Everyman, appealing equally to all classes and levels of taste on both sides of the Atlantic" (Adamson, 1985).

Gradually there came a point where the businesses established to derive economic benefits from serving visitors found themselves in a position to use these visitors in such a way as to maximize the most profits for themselves. They permitted their customers little independence and held the vistas for ransom. High fences were built at Prospect Point and other areas on the shoreline, and visitors were blocked from experiencing Niagara without first paying a fee. Only a few individuals effectively blocked the multitudes from enjoying the great natural vista. A precedent for fencing came in the 1820's on the Canadian prospect when, in a bid to monopolize the tourist business, William Forsythe, owner of The Pavilion hotel mentioned above and perhaps the earlier Forsythe Hotel (if these were not the same enterprise), "in order to prevent free access to points from which a close view of the cataract could be obtained ... erected fences on the Chain Reserve, a reservation of government land sixty-six feet in width which extended along the top of the Niagara's bank and was originally intended for military purposes" (Way, 1946).

In the 1880's, the village, or City, of Niagara Falls, New York, existed still essentially within a rural regional context. A makeshift, unorganized population of individuals was engaged in an unregulated "tourist industry." The village had a government that was inadequate in legislating and enforcing control over these unsophisticated entrepreneurs, or it showed an unwillingness to do so.

Coincidental with the commercialization of Niagara Falls on both sides of the Niagara River was a distressing spiritual degradation of the Falls environment brought about by the tourist industry. Almost as a form of mockery of the "sublimity" of feeling and inspiration traditionally presented by the unique character of Niagara's environment, the tourist industry presented Niagara's unique character as a freak of nature, not as its highest expression. The fences, through which one could peep at the Falls for a coin, degraded the curious, as though paying for a forbidden glance at a human or animal deformity in a carnival.

As a parody of the awesome grandeur and ominous peril of the high energy liquid landscape, people came to "dare" the natural dangers. As early as 1829, Sam Patch erected 95-foot platforms over the water of the plunge pool beside the American Falls and jumped into the deep waters there to an appreciative audience. In 1829-30 Francis Abbott, characterized as the Hermit of Niagara, presented his conspicuous unhappiness to those who would observe him by suspending himself over the cascading waters of the Horseshoe Falls off the Terrapin Rocks bridge: "From the ends of these timbers he would hang by his hands, his body suspended in mid-air over the abyss, exhibiting absolute fearlessness and strength of will" (Porter, 1900). Stunts were performed by the tightrope walkers Blondin and Willa Hunt in the 1850's and 1860's and people thronged to see these people sent to their destruction as well as to their successful accomplishments. As noted earlier, the blasting of weakened cliff-ledges was announced and people crowded to watch.

"Of all the incidents connected with Niagara, none is more thrilling than the efforts made to rescue Avery from a log in the rapids a short distance above the American Fall, on July 19, 1853. The night before, Avery and a companion had been swept over the river in a boat. Avery landed on a log, but his companion was carried over the Fall. All day long mighty efforts were made to save Avery. Boats, rafts and barrels were let down to him from the Goat Island bridge, and towards evening, just when a rescue appeared certain, the very boat that was designed to carry him to safety struck him full in the breast and knocked him into the river, he was hurled over the Falls to the horror of the assembled thousands" (The Niagara Book, 1901). Hence the name Avery's Rock for one of the rocks in the channel of the American falls. A similar incident happened in 1838 to a Mr. Chapin, who was successfully rescued, after whom Chapin's Island was named (The Niagara Book, 1901).

"Everywhere peddlers hawked their wares, and sideshows erected at every vantage point were filled with freaks assembled from all over the world, so that the vicinity of the cataract had taken on the aspect of a colossal carnival. William Dean Howells, in describing the scene in 1860, mentions the tent enshrining a five-legged calf which was offered as a secondary marvel when visitors were satiated with the Falls. 'I do not say,' Howells whimsically observed, 'that the picture of the calf on the outside of the tent was not a good as some pictures of Niagara I have seen. It was, at least, as much like.' Thus on every hand, there was barbarous incongruity between human debasement and the wonder of the cataract" (Way, 1946).

Way (1946) summed up the crisis developing in the cities of Niagara Falls: "Since it is almost a truism that uncontrolled enterprise in any sphere is apt to mistake liberty for license, it is not surprising that the Falls had now [in the 1870's] been for at least a generation the scene of unprincipled exploitation of the tourists by rapacious cabmen and others practiced in the art of polite robbery .... Travelers were regarded as lawful prey, fees being exacted for every service and no service at all. By 1870 the annoyance and humiliation to which tourists were subjected on both sides of the cataract was fast approaching a climax. Already many persons had concluded that a change was imperative and were expressing their conviction that the Governments of Canada and the United States should assume responsibility through the establishment of national parks."

The Civil War in the United States generated a substantial loss of human life, with more men dying from bacterial causes associated with disease and primitive medical care than in the battles themselves. This situation duplicated the situation for Britain earlier in the Crimea, where "less than five thousand soldiers had succumbed to enemy action, more than sixteen thousand to disease" (Roper, 1973), a condition to which the British Sanitary Commission responded with a vengeance. During the war "humanitarianism flourished and intellectual life was not neglected. The United States Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission of the Young Men's Christian Association not only helped care for the wounded but also improved the morale of able-bodied soldiers" (Hoogenboom, in Encyclopedia Americana, 1927). Frederick Law Olmsted was elected executive secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission in 1861, a Federal commission established by Lincoln in the face of an inept and hostile Medical Department of the United States Army.

Locally in Buffalo, in association with the war and its ending, socially conscious activities included the Ladies General Aid Society who made shirts, drawers, socks and bandages for the Union army, administered the Soldier's Rest Home and "several Christian benevolent groups catered to the spiritual needs of wounded local soldiers. While the female members ... engaged in these and kindred activities, the men ... donated some of their ... wealth for the foundation of the Buffalo Historical Society, the Fine Arts Academy, and the [Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences]" (Goldman, 1983). The Buffalo chapter of the Young Men's Christian Association shared its facilities with the young Society of Natural Sciences.

But above all, the Civil War resulted in the triumph of a centralized federal government over state's rights - the rights of the nation over those of the states. It gave, then, impetus to the development of the bureaucracies that would govern the natural resources of the nation, for instance the United Stated Forest Service under Gifford Pinchott, friend of Olmsted, appointed forester to the Vanderbilt Biltmore Estate which Olmsted designed and whose "large-scale example of practical forest management," the first in the United States, was conceptualized by the great designer, and implemented by Pinchott. Ultimately would come the National Park Service. A strong, new superior government would become the source of higher authority for problems not handled very satisfactorily by state and municipal governments regarding issues that transcended national and state boundaries.

"During and after the Civil War, the United Stated developed a sharpened consciousness of their unity as a nation. ... Undertakings of national scope came into being, and certain ideas spread, as though by contagion, nationally. National banks were superseding state banks; national securities were a favorite investment. ... A national Academy of Sciences was founded, a National Commissioner of Agriculture was appointed, and a National Department of Education established. For the promotion of industrial and agricultural education on a national scale, Congress appropriated a vast domain from the public lands ... The national park idea was anticipated in the reservation of the Yosemite Valley, and the idea of rural parks for cities was taking hold across the country from New York to San Francisco" (Roper, 1973).

On January 9, 1879, Governor Robinson of New York State submitted a message to the New York State Legislature requesting the appointment of a commission, in conjunction with a similarly appointed commission by the Province of Ontario, to develop a plan to "remedy ... abuses" to which visitors were presently subjected at Niagara Falls.

This delightful artist's representation gives some indication of the kind of visitor's experience to be had, at least on the Canadian portion of the area of the falls in the 1860's. No attribution of publication for this cartoon is given by the source (Kiwanis Club, 1984). Drawing by Duncan Macpherson.


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.

Goldman, Mark. 1983. High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York. University of the State of New York Press, Albany.

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.

Scott, S. D. & P. K. Scott. 1983. The Niagara Reservation Archaeological and Historical Resource Survey, 1983. New York Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Historic Sites Bureau, March.

Way, R. L. 1946. Ontario’s Niagara Parks, A History. The Niagara Parks Commission, Niagara Falls, Ontario.