Niagara Falls

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The year 1885 was a pivotal year in the life of Niagara Falls, NY, a 16-square-mile city about 25 miles north of Buffalo and on the border between Canada and the U.S. If it weren't for what happened that year, we might not have been able to view the Falls from the U.S. side, at least not without having to pay dearly for the privilege.

Already, by that time, the area around the Falls was being built up with factories, mills, warehouses, taverns, hotels, and other commercial structures. As well, these business people and property owners were blocking access by putting up high fences and other barriers and charging people to see the Falls. And that might have led to the slow death of the town rather than the healthy 55,000-population resort destination it is today.

So, what exactly did happen in 1885? Bowing to pressure from the "Free Niagara" lobby, led by the famous landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York Citys Central Park, the New York State legislature passed a law creating the 200-acre Niagara Reservation State Park, the first-ever attempt to use public money to preserve natural beauty. The result is what we have today, a zone around the Falls and rapids that is off-limits to commercial development and free to the public, a zone filled with landscaped gardens, parks and woodlands, hiking and biking trails and places for a quiet family picnic.

Cascade and they will come
Thanks to these efforts, todays Niagara Falls, incorporated in 1892, is a bustling place with a thriving tourism industry that, with its sister city on the Canadian side, annually attracts between 14 and 18 million people and brings in something like $1 billion a year in revenue for the region. The proximity of the Falls to the metropolitan areas of New York and Toronto put it within easy reach of more than 100 million people.

At the same time, the cheap electrical power generated by harnessing the Niagara River and Falls attracted numerous industries to the area during the early part of the 20th century. Some of these industries, such as Occidental Chemical, EI Dupont, Nabisco, US Vanadium, and Goodyear, remain, providing work for those in the population who aren't connected to the hospitality and tourism trade. Many industries, however, either shut down in the last 30 years or moved to the suburbs or surrounding small towns. After a prolonged economic downturn, the city has been revitalizing its downtown area, thus making it more attractive and viable for both residents and businesses.

But there is no doubt in anyones mind what the prime pump for the economy is: without the Falls, this city would be simply one more border crossing fallen on hard times due to the collapse of heavy industry and shipping. The Falls form a cascade in more ways than one, including a trickle-down effect for the economy.

High rise to low-slung
It is the Falls that supports the 3,000 hotel/motel/bed & breakfast rooms in the region. They allow luxury high rises such as Comfort Inn The Pointe and Holiday Inn at the Falls, low-slung motels such as the 3 Star, and classic Victorian B&Bs such asRainbow House Bed & Breakfast to fill with guests anxious for a glimpse of the famous cataracts.

It is the Falls that bring 50,000 honeymooners a year (drawn, some say, by the negative ions released by the falling water and believed to be strong aphrodisiacs). And it is thanks to the Falls that attractions such as Cave of the Winds, Maid of the Mist boat ride, and Schoellkopf Geological Museum exist. Not to mention the dozens of tour companies coming from all over North America to deposit tourists to the spot where the "Thunder of Waters" takes place.

Around Niagara Falls proper lie a series of historic towns and villages including: Lewiston, home of the Outdoor Fine Arts Festival and Lewiston Museum; Lockport, with its Erie Canal heritage and Underground Boat Ride; and Youngstown, with Old Fort Niagara where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario.

Geologic shift makes good
Niagara Falls has its own international airport, featuring the fourth longest main runway in New York State, as well as the nearby Niagara Aerospace Museum, with displays of rare planes and helicopters. It has a vast, 580-acre public park with an 18-hole golf course, and a massive downtown shopping mall-cum-music plaza right next to the Convention Center with 152,000 square feet of meeting, exhibit and banquet space.

All made possible thanks to a quirky geologic shift 12,000 years ago that sent the Niagara River plunging down the edge of the escarpment.

The city of Niagara Falls, NY, is eternally grateful and shows that gratitude by making sure each and every one of the millions of visitors gets a free and unobstructed look at that Seventh Natural Wonder of the World.

History of Niagara Falls

While the Falls themselves are relatively young at 12,000 years old, it was a measly 500 years ago that they split into todays Canadian Horseshoe and American Falls (with the Bridal Veil Falls forming a third, very narrow set). In the middle sits Goat Island, named to commemorate a herd of goats that froze to death on the island during the winter of 1780.

Although a rich hunting, fishing and food-gathering ground for native peoples for thousands of years, the first recorded non-native sighting of the Falls took place in 1678, when a Recollet father by the name of Louis Hennepin stood on the edge and marvelled at what he must have felt was one of Gods natural wonders. He went on to write a book about his travels 'Description de la Louisiane' which was widely read in Europe. His name is now on parks, streets and other memorials throughout the Niagara Region, including Hennepin Park in Buffalo. A seven-foot-high mural by American painter Thomas Hart Benton, depicting Father Hennepin and a group of Native Americans at Niagara Falls, hangs near the main entrance of the Niagara Power Project Visitors' Center.

Conflict in paradise
At the turn of the 19th century, the natural beauty of the region didn't spare it from the political machinations between a feisty young republic itching to flex its might and a behemoth British Empire determined to show the upstart it still had plenty of firepower left before the sun set - and no doubt smarting from the licking it had taken less then 40 years before.

Thus, the stage was set for the War of 1812, the first and thankfully last war between the U.S. and Canada, which now boast the longest undefended border in the world. One story has it that, when President James Madison declared war, British and American officers were having their traditional dinner and drinks at Fort George on the Canadian side near the village of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Gentlemen that they were, they agreed to finish those drinks and accompanying conversations before starting up hostilities the following day.

The war raged for two bloody years with American troops invading the Canadian side and shelling positions across from Fort Niagara, as well as securing Fort Erie and Queenston, at least temporarily. However, amid accusations of cowardice, bungled orders and even a duel between two U.S. generals who disagreed on tactics, the Americans were eventually driven back across the border. Ironically, a treaty left the boundaries pretty much as they were before the hostilities began.

Nuptials and negative ions
Even before the war, Niagara was already famous as the place where, in 1801, Theodosia Burr, daughter of future U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, and Joseph Alston chose to 'conclude their nuptials,' followed three years later by Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleons youngest brother) and his Baltimore-born bride, Elizabeth Patterson. From this trickle of adventurous romance was born the tradition that would later become a flood - honeymooning by the cascading waters. Hey, there are those who believe the waters give off negative ions which act as an aphrodisiac. Just as good an explanation as any.

Whatever the case, expansion came rapidly with the building of the Erie Canal, which enabled barges to ship goods back and forth from the Atlantic Ocean and New York City to the Great Lakes. You can view some of the canals history and other memorabilia at the Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises and Canalside Emporium. The area also served as part of the Underground Railroad for hiding escaped slaves and eventually taking them into Canada and freedom.

But it was tourism that put Niagara Falls on the map. People came first by buggy, boat and train, and then by car and bus. In the 50 years between 1820 and 1870, the tourism trade increased 10-fold as the site became more and more accessible. By the 1870s, it had become a full-fledged part of the local economy, with the Falls as the natural focus of attention.

And, until 1912, when several people died, tourists in the winter were actually allowed to walk out onto the river below the Falls to get a close-up view of the 'thundering cataract.' This was thanks to a natural 'ice bridge,' which formed from the combination of spray and cold. A newspaper report from 1888 has some 20,000 on the ice, tobogganing, skating, buying hot drinks, sketching, and generally having fun. It all came to an abrupt end when the ice bridge collapsed on February 4, 1912, and three unfortunates lost their lives.

Quintessential sex goddess
Niagara Falls is also known as a magnet for daredevils, until a recent ban put a halt to such activities. While the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, due to their immense width and spectacular plunge, have been the preferred destination for most of these thrill seekers, the American Falls have had their share, starting with one Sam Patch. In 1829, Patch jumped 110 feet from a platform on Goat Island to the base of the Falls below'twice!

Among the kings and queens and political dignitaries who have visited Niagara Falls down through the years, perhaps the most famous has been the quintessential sex goddess herself, Marilyn Monroe, and her then husband, Joe DiMaggio. Marilyn, in town in 1952 to film the suspense thriller Niagara with co-star Joseph Cotten, spent her time holed up in Schimshacks restaurant and inn when not on the set. The film, which had Monroe and Cotten on their honeymoon, unleashed a wave of romantic couples and spurred the development of getaway motels, which line many of the main streets to this day.

But today, Niagara Falls is more than a honeymoon getaway. Theres something here for the entire family, no matter what time of year. And, standing by the edge of those Falls listening to the thunder of the water, you'll swear you can hear the rush of history swirling by: 12,000 years of it with, one hopes, thousands more to come.

The Weather

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 30 31 41 54 66 75 80 77 70 58 47 35
Avg. Low 17 17 25 36 47 56 61 60 54 42 34 22
Mean 24 25 34 45 57 66 71 68 62 51 41 28
Avg. Precip. 2.7 in 2.3 in 2.7 in 2.9 in 3.1 in 3.6 in 3.1 in 4.2 in 3.5 in 3.1 in 3.8 in 3.7 in


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