Such is Fame: The Real Enduring Legacy of Niagara Falls

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In crafting a list of hidden gems of Greater Western New York, it’s apparent one must define what one means by the word “hidden.” Of course, if one of these not-so-hidden gems turns out to have inspired something truly outstanding, well, that would be worth writing about. Before I get to that, though, let me share with you my methodology for compiling this list, but allow me to do this by showing you, not telling you (assuming that’s even possible in the format of the written word).

For example, we have plenty of gems that have received broad national attention. Indeed, several people, events and activities from, in and around the Greater Western New York region have found themselves honored with places in our history books.

What school-aged child doesn’t know the name of Frederick Douglass or the underground railroads inspired by the anti-slavery movement? Likewise, who hasn’t heard of Susan B. Anthony or the first Womens’ Rights Conference in Seneca Falls?

Much has been written of these two events and, in fact, they are intertwined in history with actors of each movement actively supporting the other. People often ask me to write about these particulars, but, to be honest, I don’t think I could offer anything more or better than you can find from other sources. These are certainly gems, but they fail my (admittedly subjective) “hidden” test.

So, what is this “hidden” test? As I implied, anything found in a secondary school textbook probably wouldn’t qualify as hidden. Most certainly, something called “The Eighth Wonder of the World” would fail to qualify as hidden. Here, of course, I’m referring to our own Niagara Falls, which U.S. News and World Report once ranked the third most outstanding natural attraction in the United States (behind The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone).1

There’s no question Niagara Falls represents our nation’s first tourist attraction, although it perhaps became well-known first as an obstacle to navigation. Certainly, if we recall the significance of Western New York in the War of 1812, there’s no doubt many military participants saw the Falls. With the completion of the Erie Canal and then the early railroad lines, Niagara Falls offered an enticing destination for travelers in the young American nation.

But, if you’re going to become the first tourist attraction in the nation, then there’s a good chance you’re also going to become the first tourist trap in the nation. We all laugh about the obviousness of this today, but do you realize how early in American history this phenomenon first appeared?

In the extreme August heat of 18312, Alex de Tocqueville visited our region on his famous American tour. Remember, DeWitt Clinton completed his ditch (a.k.a., the Erie Canal) in 1825, so by the time de Tocqueville toured Niagara Falls, it had already become a target of choice among adventurers and vacationers. Indeed by 1830, the cataract had attracted its share of “so-called sharpers and hucksters of every kind.”3 When he made his way through Niagara Falls during those hot summer days of 1831, de Tocqueville foresaw the ruin to come. He warned his friend to “hasten to see this place in its grandeur. If you delay, your Niagara will have been spoiled for you. Already the forest is being cleared.”4 He further predicted Americans would, within ten years, “establish a saw or flour mill at the base” of the Falls.5

As a matter of fact, that defacement was about to occur. As Joseph L. Sax, House & Hurd Endowment Professor, emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley and former Counselor to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, wrote in an article for Natural History in 1976, “swarms of petty swindlers took up posts at every point near the falls; tourists were importuned, cajoled, lied to, harassed, and abused by hack drivers, landowners, and every sort of self-appointed guide. By the 1860s not a single point remained in the United States from which the falls could be viewed without paying a landowner an entry fee.”6

With the coming of the California Gold Rush in 1848, Yosemite Valley, long considered too inaccessible by non-natives, suddenly became accessible. By the middle of the next decade, outsiders discovered the wonders of the valley, including Yosemite Falls – “fifteen times taller than Niagara Falls.”7 But height wasn’t the only yardstick offered by Niagara, for, much like today, the Falls of Greater Western New York represented a measure of awe. As Frederick Law Olmstead said of the giant Sequoia trees located within the adjacent Mariposa Grove, “there are hundreds of such beauty and stateliness that, to one who moves among them in the reverent mood to which they so strongly incite the mind, it will not seem strange that intelligent travellers have declared that they would rather have passed by Niagara itself than have missed visiting this grove.”8

But, unfortunately, it was that other measure of Niagara that most frightened those mid-nineteenth century environmentalists. Josiah Dwight Whitney, director of the California Geological Survey, suggested that, without proper precautions, Yosemite Valley would become, “like Niagara Falls, a gigantic institution for fleecing the public. The screws will be put on just as fast as the public can be educated into bearing the pressure.”9 On June 30, 1864, President Lincoln signed into law the Yosemite Grant, which gave the then federally owned Yosemite Valley to the state of California, what amounted to the first time federal action created a park, albeit one run by a state, not the federal government.

With the subsequent discovery of Yellowstone, the movement to declare the nation’s first national park gained momentum. Unlike Yosemite, which could be immortalized by the State of California, Yellowstone had no state (yet), for it lay in Wyoming Territory. After surveying Yellowstone in the summer of 1871, Dr. Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, professor of geology at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of Territories, issued a formal report to the House Committee on the Public Lands.10 In that report, Hayden decried those who wanted to claim Yellowstone as their private property. He went so far as to say they wanted  “to fence in these rare wonders so as to charge visitors a fee, as is now done at Niagara Falls, for the sight of that which ought to be as free as the air and water.”11 Hayden said if Congress failed to act immediately, “decorations more beautiful than human art ever conceived” would be tarnished “beyond recovery in a single season.”12

Hayden’s reference to the unfettered despoiling of Niagara Falls worked and, on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Park Act, creating America’s first national park.

So, for probably reasons the good citizens of Niagara Falls do not want to hear, the early plight of Niagara Falls inspired what eventually became the national parks movement. The government preserved natural wonders throughout the nation just to prevent them from suffering the “shame of Niagara.”

Well, that’s one way to view it. I view it a little differently. It all starts with de Tocqueville, who, perhaps unknowingly, really describes the heart of the American spirit when he laments as to the state of Niagara Falls. Like many Europeans, he snobbishly looked down his nose at a new nation more interesting in taming the wild than preserving it. We need look no further than Niagara Falls as proof of this American self-confidence. In a sense, we believe nature offers no obstacle a little bit of good old-fashioned America ingenuity can’t overcome.

In the early years, jumpers, tight-rope walkers and bridges provided evidence of man’s conquest of nature. On October 7, 1829, Sam Patch – the “Yankee Leaper” – became the first person to successfully survive a jump over Niagara Falls.13 He did it again ten days later and survived. On November 6, 1829, he survived a jump from the Genesee River High Falls gorge in Rochester. He did it again a week later on Friday the 13th. He didn’t survive that one and he was buried in Charlotte Cemetery near where his frozen body was found the following spring (on St. Patrick’s Day) with the epitaph: “Sam Patch – Such is Fame.”14

A century later, we would harness the power of the Niagara itself to provide the first source of cheap electricity in the nation. The brilliant wonders of electrical power were highlighted at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and that fueled an economic boom across the region. In fact, cheap power was one of the reasons a Scranton-based steel company called “Lackawanna Steel” relocated (in 1902) from Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania to the shores of Lake Erie in (what was then) the town of West Seneca. A few years later (in 1909), residents of this section of West Seneca voted to secede and form the City of Lackawanna. A few years after that (in 1922), the Bethlehem Steel Company bought the Lackawanna Steel Company. A little more than a decade later, my grandfathers met for the first time in jail after being arrested for marching in a union parade with other Bethlehem Steel workers. About twenty years later, my parents married and, a year later, I was born.

So, you see, I have a personal interest in the industrialization of Niagara Falls. Without it, there would have been no me.

But I can’t leave Niagara Falls without this testament to man’s dominance of nature. From June through November 1969, the U.S. Army Core of Engineers “turned off” the American Falls. Between this and, at the same time, America’s Apollo 11 marking man’s first lunar landing, this newly nine-year old’s eyes believed we – as a nation and as a species – could do anything if we put our mind to it. That, in the end, is the true legacy of Niagara Falls.

But there is one thing that bothered me about turning off the Falls. Shortly after the water stopped flowing, engineers discovered a certain layer of rock that, as it got dryer, was becoming brittle. This endangered undermining the rock layers above it. To solve the problem, they piped water down to keep this layer wet. What got me, though, was the name of the rock. It was called “Rochester Shale.” That befuddled me. Why would they call it “Rochester” shale when it should have been called “Niagara Falls” shale (or even “Buffalo” shale)?

I wouldn’t discover the answer to this nagging question until some four decades later when I wrote the next chapter.

If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.

1America’s ‘Magnificent Seven,’” U.S. News and World Report 78 (April 21, 1975), pp 56-57
2Pierson, George W., Tocqueville and Beaumont in America, Oxford University Press, NY, 1938, excerpt from Beaumont letter written August 21, 1831, http://www.tocqueville.org/ny4.htm#0819
3Runte, Alfred, National Parks: The American Experience (Third Edition), University of Nebraska Press, 1997, p.5-6
4Ibid., p.6
5Ibid., p.6
6Sax, Joseph L., “America’s National Parks: Their Principles, Purposes, and Prospects,” Natural History, October 1976, http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/editors_pick/1976_10_pick.html
7Olmsted, Frederick Law, Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865 http://www.yosemite.ca.us/library/olmsted/report.html
8Ibid.
9Runte, p.59
10Ibid., p.45
11Ibid., p.45
12Ibid., p.45
13“Sam Patch, the ‘Jersey Jumper,’” Weird N.J., http://weirdnj.com/weird-news/sam-patch/
14Rosenberg-Napersteck, Ruth, “The Real Simon Pure Sam Patch,” Rochester History, Vol. LII, No. 3, Summer 1991, http://www.libraryweb.org/~rochhist/v53_1991/v53i3.pdf

Comments

  1. June Sechowski says:

    Dear Chris,

    I enjoyed reading this portion of your book. So many Internet articles I find myself skimming over, a consequence of a reduced attention span, but yours kept my interest throughout. Well done!

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