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

The use of old representations and depictions to make inferences about past natural conditions and character at Niagara Falls is not a new idea. For example, James Hall, the New York State Geologist, used such images in a geological report on Niagara Falls (Hall, 1843) describing the fact of recession at the cataracts of Niagara:

"All the historical evidence that we possess upon the subject [of recession] proves the falls to have receded: and, although there have been no monuments established, yet the representations of early travelers, when compared with the present condition of the falls, proves that a change has taken place, though we can not be certain of its precise amount."

Hall produced a facsimile of a print of the falls seen from the west side of the gorge of the original published in F. Louis Hennepin's work (1697). In this print Hall noticed a "cross-fall" flowing from west to east from what is now the Canadian shore. The print "represents a projecting rock upon the west side of the river which turned a part of the water across the main fall, as seen in the sketch." This waterfall did not exist in the later nineteenth century. Luna Island is also not drawn, or did not exist to be drawn in this print, although Hall seems to excuse this due to the inaccessibility of Goat Island at that time. The text of Hennepin also describes this third falls, flowing from west to east.

Hall also mentioned the visit of Peter Kalm, student of Linnaeus, in 1750, who visited the falls seventy-two years after Hennepin. Kalm "distinctly alludes to the projecting rock, which forced the water out of its direct course, causing it to fall across the great fall. He speaks of this rock having fallen down a few years previous, and in his view of the falls the spot is indicated. In this interval of seventy years we find that the recorded observations of these two travelers prove precisely the same kind of change to have taken place, as we suppose to have occurred previously, and which has subsequently altered the outline and position of the falls."

The physiognomy or structural appearance of plant communities can be seen in broad outlines from these early depictions at Niagara Falls. The density of plant communities can be estimated. Various artists will, as in written accounts, provide more or less information of greater or lesser accuracy in their depictions, depending on the interest, skill and intent of the individual. To some extent a "formula" or iconography was established which became a part of the tradition of illustrating Niagara Falls, which was expected in any drawing, and with which draftsmen could make quick illustrations for books, magazines, popular literature, signage, newspapers, etc. Other artists, desiring some originality or wishing to imprint their own personality in their paintings offer differing views, different sorts of detail. Other artists again, pursuing the perfection of a certain style, such as the landscape artists of the Hudson School of painting, especially as they chose to represent their views with realism, provide ever more detail and standards in accuracy by which less exact illustrations could be compared. One extraordinary example of realistic painting are the sketches and paintings of Frederick Church, around 1857.

Among the various cautions to be made in ascribing factual weight to aspects of any drawing of the vicinity of the cataracts, is the apparent practice of taking sketches or earlier depictions, especially those used as illustrations, and altering them, usually back in Europe in the earliest pictures, to improve, clarify or otherwise enhance the information provided by the earlier sketch. The tendency in this sort of practice is to reduce the visual complexity (and accuracy) of the view, to simplify and embolden the image. Another is to remove "blemishes" such as blasted trees, de-vegetated areas, and the like. Occasionally it appears that the conifer species (Pine and Hemlock) of the first drawing tends to resemble a European species, such as a Spruce, probably because the artists producing the second drawing were not the artist of the first, and were using imagery with which they were familiar.

One artist who did not "spruce up" or repair his Niagara trees was Thomas Davies, who painted Niagara from the Canadian prospect through Oak-conifer tree frames, showing native peoples. In the two paintings reproduced by Adamson (1985), headless tree-trunks are drawn, their crowns torn away. This kind of depiction gives some indication of either the senescence of the native trees, and/or mechanical stress on trees at the crestline. Blasted trees, their trunks ending in jagged stumps are also depicted in a drawing with unusual content among Niagara's illustrations done after a work by James Pattison Cockburn entitled "The Falls of Niagara." In "View of the Horse Shoe Falls from Goat Island, 1857" (Adamson, 1985, No. 109), one of the more elaborate picnics is drawn with several adult couples, children, pets and an individual seated on the ground drawing the view. A front-woods of a conifer is drawn directly facing the Falls behind which occur deciduous trees, at least four of which are without crowns. The smooth, clean trunks of deciduous trees are also shown on the ground, their fore-ends pointed down slope as though they were intentionally cast there before heaving over the crest onto the talus slope below.

This picture shows the peculiar conifer vegetation fronting Goat Island on this (southwest) side and the deciduous trees behind. An extensive shrub layer is shown in the background, not in the coniferous zone, but the deciduous. The artist made an attempt to emphasize the interaction of civilization and wilderness, which may have been characteristic of many regional paintings of the time. One of the most striking icons of the civilizing of the North American wilderness is the presence of stumps as evidence of clearing in nineteenth century landscape portrayals. Although not a stump, one of the tree boles is conspicuously drawn to show its big sawn end. This raw surface is placed by the artist directly beside one corner of the picnic blanket indicting an association between their pleasure and the cutting of the forest.

It is obvious in this drawing that the forest had been cleared away to provide a greensward, or grassed and closely mown area on which picnics could be had. Such a lawn could not have existed here without personnel hired by the island owners to tend it. The crest woods had been stripped to provide a prospect out onto the river. This process of opening up the high bank forest may have created the condition of exposure by which the deciduous trees lost their crowns.

This particular depiction, and another after a drawing by the same artist (Adamson, 1985 No. 108, "The Falls of Niagara. View of Horse-shoe Fall from Below Goat Island, 1857") are valuable because they give some evidence of conditions before the invention and general use of the camera. Prospect areas in the vicinity of the Falls were probably the first forested areas to be cleared. By the time photography came into general use, these areas probably looked totally different than they had originally, if for no other reason than the reality of trampling by thousands of visitors. The two depictions drawn after Cockburn's drawings "originally engraved in 1833" (Adamson, 1985), one of Porter's Bluff overlooking Terrapin Rocks, or what is now known as Terrapin Point, and the other of the base of the gorge probably near what was known as the American Landing, or the American Stairs, now the base of Prospect Point, show how dense the coniferous element was - almost certainly Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), although this extraordinary density may be the result of later "touching up" of an earlier drawing. Later photographs of the wooded slope overlooking the Terrapin Rocks in the early years of this century, show a more open forest of younger trees dominated by deciduous trees with occasional conifers - probably not the primitive condition. A whole series of early, pre-photography paintings and drawing show a dense conifer forest on the islands in the American channel, the island and mainland shorelines, crested areas of hills and gorge, and particularly at the very base of the talus slope at the bottom of the gorge. Loss of this forest today, and by the time photographs were widely used disguise the ecological response of the primitive forest to early lowered water levels in the Niagara River here when the area was above the falls, and the extent of what is probably now a rare herbaceous community established on the exposed riverbed.

Saw mills were some of the earliest human establishments at Niagara on both sides of the river, coinciding with the need of explorers and voyageurs for planks for ships, continuing into the military requirements of later history in the region, and culminating in one of the largest log, paper and pulp milling industries in New York State (Recknagel, 1923; Scott & Scott, 1983). Baring a biological cause for the early loss of this forest community at Niagara, such as inability to adapt to higher pollution regimes, the paper and related industries, now mostly gone with the depletion of the region's forest reserves, might be presumed a reason for the disappearance of this forest component (Recknagel, 1923).

Out of this treasury of representation, and compared with the visual characteristics of the present landscape at Niagara, images can be chosen that appear to accurately reflect the historic occurrence of certain tree species in their correct habitats and relationships. Certain icons, such as conifer trees drawn to resemble species of Spruce (Picea sp.) which never occurred naturally on Goat Island, as far as published reports by botanists ever related, can be dismissed as perhaps later renditions of sketches of native conifers made at the site, and perhaps painted out back in the region from which the artist had traveled, and with whose native species of conifer the artist was familiar. The valuable information to be had in this case was that there were conifers at Niagara.

Guessing the species of deciduous trees depicted in two centuries of drawings, is more hazardous than that of conifers, except where the bark is painted white and peeling, when Paper, or Canoe Birch (Betula papyrifera) is likely the species depicted, such as occur in the crest forests of the Niagara gorge, and which are frequent today on the crest of the gorge, especially on the American side.

We are fortunate in that the crest forest is frequently drawn, since all of the famous prospects take place within a framework of trees. The crest is a relatively harsh place, in the face of the prevailing winds on the American side, and with shallow soils on the Canadian when not on the exposed crests of slopes. Conifers and birches are frequently painted, and Oaks are as frequent, and Staghorn Sumach occasional - primarily in early paintings where the observer is on the Canadian side looking across the gorge at Goat Island, as in paintings by Edward Hicks around 1830. Even Arbor Vitae (Thuja occidentalis) is sometimes drawn sprouting, with its characteristic bent-back growth form, out of fissures in the unlikely habitat of the dolomite caprock, easily seen in the gorge today.

A full account of the illustrated tradition at Niagara would make an extremely useful study in itself, but only the most general indications can be discussed here.

Kalm's facsimile print, used by Hall above, also showed an interesting distinction between a perimeter habitat on Goat Island, and a central habitat. The perimeter is of conifers, as is the bank of the river on the Canadian or southern shore, and conifers are present at the summit of a small hill on the mainland American or northern side. Conifers are also depicted on the western face of Goat Island, facing into what we know to be the prevailing winds and spray zone of the Horseshoe Falls - also at Prospect Point and the spray zone of the American Falls. Conifers are drawn on rocks in the cavity of the plunge pool, or the head of the gorge.

The primitive iconography of deciduous and evergreen trees is simple and without question - useful characteristics to employ in interpreting tree and habitat types from all sorts of illustrations depicting the falls: deciduous trees are drawn in oval or circular outline, evergreens in triangular, spiky outlines; deciduous trees are always lighter in color than the evergreens, and in autumn and winter scenes the contrast with the dark colorations of the conifers is unambiguous.

The coniferous possibilities are only four: White Pine (Pinus strobus), Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Arbor Vitae, or White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), and Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) with a small likelihood of Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea), as this tree is and has been rare in the region (Zenkert, 1934) with a station reported for Niagara Glen, several miles downstream at the base of the Niagara River gorge (Hamilton, 1943).

I have taken it that the vegetation in most depictions of the falls environment is not distorted beyond credibility through attempts at idealization or romaticization of nature so much as it is simplified to signs indicating tree species and community types. Most of the depictions consulted in the present study were made by people attempting to report back to an incredulous but skeptical and well-educated public a stupendous natural phenomena during times when the intended readers were experiencing a cultural explosion in the elucidation of natural history. They had an interest in being factual knowing full well, as the eighteenth and nineteenth century seemed to produce many travelogues, that their presentations would be tested sooner or later - as would their pictures. Their ability to accurately relate their experiences in one particular would relate to their credibility as a whole.

Also, the floristic representations are corroborated through time by different authors and painters, so diverse in time and origin as to be unlikely that they deliberately participated in a tradition based on authority rather than their own experience.

Vegetational characteristics seem to correspond to the distribution of species as they occur today, and as they are likely to occur - for example, today Arbor Vitae enjoys cold, wet boggy soil as may have occurred in the saturated soil margins on Goat Island, as drawn, and it occurs today in rocky bluffs in the dolomite caprock of the Niagara gorge, the talus below and the talus slopes in the plunge pool basin area at the head of the gorge - none of which contradicts early drawings on conifers in these areas.

It is probable that at least the shoreline visible around Goat Island was covered with Arbor Vitae because Francois Andre Michaux said "Goat Island ... is seen from the banks of the river to be bordered with Arbor Vitae" (1819). Wied-Neuwied (1843) indicated that "The shores of [Goat Island] are shaded by old pines and very large white cedars ...." As for the lower forest in the pit of the plunge pool area at the head of the gorge, Olmsted (1880) quoted Robinson (1875) in that the talus below is wooded "often so far below that you sometimes look from the upper brink down on the top of tall pines that seem diminished in size."

White Pines overtop the deciduous canopy of the primaeval forest, and several old paintings show this contrast (for discussion see section on the central woods of Goat Island).

In Petrides' (1958) identification manual of trees and shrubs, in which silhouettes of various tree species are given, certain useful characteristics may be used to differentiate various conifer species. Generally, an attempt may be made to distinguish Red Cedar from Arbor Vitae, in that in the former, the branches may be higher off the ground, exposing the stem, than in the latter, where the branches descend almost to the ground, covering the stem or trunk. White Pine has graceful limbs extending horizontally with the extremities gently ascending. The long, bare trunk differentiated from a crown, and long plumelike needle-leaves growing in bunches of five and imparting a dense look to the limbs of the White Pine contrasts with the trunk covered with old or young limbs of the Hemlock, not displaying a distinct crown in its rather triangular silhouette. Hemlock presents a looser, tattered silhouette, with short needless, its branches not in the bold, heavy strokes of the Pine, but feathery, light tracery. In White Pine, the trunk may be seen in the crown as the needles are borne away from it out to the sunlight, but in Hemlock, the upper trunk is usually hidden in the foliage.

Habitat will also serve to separate Red Cedar from Arbor Vitae in photographs:

Red Cedar: intolerant of shade, open, sunny habitats, dry soils, isolated individuals, needles usually to the tree tops, sucessional: with weedy growth.

Arbor Vitae: tolerates shade, shaded habitats, wet soils [also along the calcareous rim rock where Red's might also grow], individuals clumped or contiguous, tree tops in old specimens frequently denuded, may be a climax species on river edges, with native growth.

One interesting study might be to examine a century of promotional and souvenir photographs of the Falls on postcards and other commercial printings to detect the relative distance of the observer in these pictures from the actual surface of the vegetation. It may be that with more and more destruction of the shrub communities, eradication of the herb and shrub layers in Goat Island's central woods and thinning of the trees, coupled with the establishment of greater lawn areas with interspersed shade trees, that the potential observer recedes further and further away from the landscape surface. Note that today nearly all promotional photographs are taken from airplanes and helicopters, or up in the tall towers on the Canadian shore, or from the Canadian prospect, or the vegetated landscape is blocked by a screen of falling water.

Aerial and other distance views distort the impression of the extent of vegetation on Goat Island. From above, the canopy in summer looks dense, close and forested, concealing the barren lawn-scapes beneath them. The intimate close-up views of the earlier part of the century used in the annual reports of the Commissioners to the New York State Legislature, for example, and early postcards, show a different habitat than now, and intimate views of vegetated areas are generally unavailable today.

Pictures, painted or photographed, constitute a rich resource for indirect evidence of the condition of the early environment at Niagara. Although the possibility of factual inaccuracy is granted, they provide a context in which to test hypotheses, suggest them, corroborate other testimony and generally give direction to reconstruction schemes of the early ecosystem and its appearance.

Facsimile of the drawing of the Falls printed in Hennepin's narration, English edition, 1698 (Gardner, 1880). The cross fall is drawn on the right. This is the first illustration of the coniferous borders on the mainland and the island shore.

Squalor, naturally, is best emphasized in winter views (Disfigured Banks, Repulsive Scenery Around Visitor Approaching Goat Island Bridge for First View of Rapids," ca. 1879, Plate VIII from James T. Gardner, 1880, in Adamson, 1985).


Adamson, J. E. 1985. Niagara, Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901. Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Hall, J. 1843. Geology of New York. Part IV comprising the survey of the fourth geological district. Caroll & Cook, Albany, New York. Partially reprinted in the Eighth Annual Report of the Commissioners of the State Reservation at Niagara for 1890-1891, 1892. Albany.

Hamilton, G. H. 1943. Plants of the Niagara Parks System of Ontario. Ryerson Press, Toronto.

Hennepin, F. L. 1697. A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, extending above fourthousand miles, between New France and New Mexico: with a description of the Great Lakes, Cataracts, Rivers, Plants and Animals: also the Manners, Customs and Languages of the several Native Indians: and the advantages of commerce with these different nations, &c." Utrecht. [London, 1698].

Michaux, Francois Andre. 1819. Published edition 1841. North American Sylva; or, a Description of the Forst Trees of the Unitec States, Canada, and Nova Scotia, J. Dobson, Philadelphia.

Olmsted, F. L. 1880. in Gardner, J. T., Director. 1880. New York State Survey. Special report on the preservation of the scenery of Niagara Falls, and fourth annual report on the triangulation of the state for the year 1879. Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen and Sons,, pp. 27-31.

Petrides, G.A. 1958. A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs. Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston.

Recknagel, A. B. 1923. The forests of New York state. With an introduction by Liberty Hyde Bailey. Macmillan, New York.

Robinson, W. 1875. Alpine Flowers. John Murray, London, in Gardner, J. T., Director. 1880. New York State Survey. Special report on the preservation of the scenery of Niagara Falls, and fourth annual report on the triangulation of the state for the year 1879. Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen and Sons, pp. 27-31.

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.

Wied-Neuwied, M. A. P., Prinz von. 1843. Travels in the interior of North America, with numerous engravings on wood and a large map; translated by H. Evans Lloyd. Ackman & Co., London, pp. 493-496.

Zenkert, C. A. 1934. Flora of the Niagara Frontier Region. Bulletin of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. Vol. XVI. Buffalo.