Niagara: It Has It All
Niagara Falls. [Photo credit: Ian Duke, via Wikimedia Commons.]
A memory. I am twelve years old and win my local newspaper’s writing contest, along with the $100 prize. I planned my piece carefully and, with the day’s most boosterish tourist slogans in mind, chose my headline: "Niagara: It has it all."
It’s a clear winner, particularly in the context of early 1980s Niagara, a place which really did have it all, but in all the wrong ways. Heart-shaped luv tubs, wax museums, a failing tourist industry, disastrous urban renewal, Love Canal, high unemployment and prostitutes, who, as everyone knew (even my mother), waited on Bridge Street on the Canadian side to catch the cross-border traffic — realities so grim that even the genteel strips of emerald parkland at the Falls couldn’t fully make up for them.
But then, Niagara has always been a site of extreme contrasts, where the sublime and magnificent cozies up to the tawdry and brutal. Since its European "discovery" in the 17th century, Niagara Falls has been not only one of the most famous natural wonders in the world, but also one of the most exploited, the preeminent staging ground for the ur-battle of American culture: the battle of human against nature, of the power of nature versus man’s ability to harness it.
And at Niagara, at least, you could reasonably conclude that man wins; but the victory is pyrrhic. After passing miles of vacant motels, empty factories and desolate downtowns, today’s tourist comes away wondering if anyone now cares about Niagara at all.
But Ginger Strand, the author of Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, cares. And somewhat to my amazement, as a local who left Niagara behind years ago, she made me care again, too.
Inventing Niagara [Simon and Schuster, 2008] is a work of creative non-fiction, and Strand herself is the opposite of the objective observer (a type that still tends to dominate academic writing). Here we are everywhere aware of Strand's personality, of her obsessiveness and her good-natured but long-suffering college boyfriend, Bob. Of her views on nature, she confesses: "I never know what kind of tree or bird I'm looking at, woods and their denizens make me nervous, and I don't like being cold, damp, tired or too far from a person with a cocktail shaker." [Strand, 7] We tag along as Strand and friends tour the waterfalls and surrounding areas, visit the archives, and introduce us to the invariably colorful characters in the Niagara story, from engineers to activists to Red Hat ladies to the building contractor who bought what turned out to be a bona fide Egyptian mummy from the Niagara Falls Museum. Strand's fun to hang around with, and the tone throughout is jolly; so it would be easy to underestimate her rigor. That would be a mistake. Despite its irreverence, Inventing Niagara is a deep-down serious and original work of scholarship.
To be original about Niagara is no small thing. Since the 1980s, there has been a wave of scholarly writing about Niagara. Art historians, literary critics, cultural studies and cultural geographers all agree that it lies at the heart of the "imaginary geography" of America, crucial to attempts at national self-definition and nationalistic myth-making. Some scholars, notably Elizabeth McKinsey, focus on the cataracts themselves as the most potent symbol of the American sublime; others, such as William Irwin and David Nye, discuss Niagara's bridges, factories and hydroelectric plants as symbols of American technological prowess.  Strand's own position falls between the two thematic threads: she traces how the recent experience of Niagara Falls' sublimity and beauty has come to us courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others, and she treats the opposition of the natural and manmade as a culturally significant illusion, a sleight of hand that detracts from Niagara's "real history." [Strand, 110]
Niagara: the American Falls in winter, looking toward Goat Island, 2006. [Photo credit: Daniel Mayer, via Wikimedia Commons.]
It's not the first time that writers have pointed out the false opposition between nature and culture and it will not be the last. But few are prepared to dig so deep to prove it. Strand has, as she candidly admits, "a bit of a problem dropping things," [Strand, 11] which manifests itself in an ability to pick away at the well-worn myths of Niagara and pull out something fresh, as she does by tracking down the origins of the "Maid of the Mist" legend or by taking a long hard look at the symbolism of the Blondin's tightrope crossings in 1859 and 1860. While the sensational details of Blondin’s theatrics are always cited in Niagara books, they have never been explained. Why did the aerialist cross the River wearing an iron collar, chains, handcuffs and shackles? In pursuit of an answer, Strand uncovers Niagara's undeniably thrilling history as a crossing point for fugitive slaves fleeing America for Canada, often led by the black Moses, Harriet Tubman, across John Roebling’s Railway Suspension Bridge. Strand's reading incidentally provides a new set of associations for the bridge, which emerges as a resonant symbol of not just engineering prowess but also of black rights and freedom.
Upon reading this history, I felt (not for the first time) something like a shock, as floating scraps of knowledge suddenly clicked into shape. I grew up hearing rumors about the Underground Railway and have often passed Harriet Tubman’s modest white clapboard church, in St. Catharines, Ontario, once stopping to photograph its heritage plaque to the derisive honks of passers-by. Even so, I had not fully appreciated how slavery had shaped the politics of the area and how this history is still residually present in details like Blondin's shackles. Unlike other legacies described by Strand (more on this later), the history of slavery is not hidden. It is there under our noses. So why do we fail to make the links? This is a question that nags at Strand. Why, she asks, are people so credulous, so satisfied with myths, superficialities and falsities where Niagara is concerned? Perhaps it is simply because we feel so sure that we know Niagara already. We don't believe it can surprise us.
Our collective blindness about Niagara is surely caused by its very familiarity, its status as the first big celebrity of North American culture. Indeed, for the better part of two centuries, Niagara has been the most reproduced and widely circulated sight on the continent through paintings, panoramas, prints, ceramics, stereographs, photographs, film and every kind of kitschy souvenir item you can imagine from chapstick to T-shirts. (I remember my hilarity at finding a "Niagara" toilet in Greece.) The Falls's imageability even has its own architectural monuments — the local Minolta and Kodak Towers, so named in the 1970s and the '80s, when reportedly more photographic film was sold in Niagara than anywhere else in North America. Yet Strand's study suggests that the more Niagara was imaged, the more it was exposed, the more it became a "view," then the less we've been able to see it for what it is. And the less we've thought it matters.
Strand's goal is to try to puncture some of those blind spots and to chart Niagara’s "real history." And, with Strand as my guide, I am also inspired to try to see Niagara anew.
I admit it. I envy Strand's immense passion for Niagara. I want to feel her sense of amazement and enthusiasm, or at least something other than the surprisingly world-weary cynicism I'd felt about the place when growing up there, or the polite interest I've shown it since as an academic. I set off wanting to fall in love with Niagara.
I go for broke. I cross the border into the United States and head for Niagara Falls State Park. I go to the Three Sisters, a trio of islands set in the Niagara Rapids and, according to Strand, "the best thing" there. [Strand, 158] At the Third Sister, I am somewhat astonished to find myself right at Niagara’s edge — literally. There is no fence, no railing, no barrier of any kind. Just me, balancing uneasily on a slippery rock, and, less than a foot away, the pounding, roiling Niagara River nearing its greatest intensity before it crashes over the Horseshoe Falls. It is exhilarating — and scary. Having always viewed the Falls from the well-managed security of the Canadian side, I've never been so close to the waters, certainly never able to touch them, though now I'm too chicken to do so. They roar, thud, swirl, pull, rush and suck as if they're alive and, frankly, coming to get me. The Emergency Hot Line phones dotted around the Islands no longer seem like a melodramatic touch. I know exactly why they are there.
Niagara Suspension Bridge, with the Maid in the Mist in the river below. Hand-colored lithograph by Charles Parson, 1856. [Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.]
But the feeling doesn't last long. I lift my eyes and in the distance upstream see the International Control Works, which reminds me of what I am — or am not — looking at. The 18 sluice gates of this 2,000-foot-long partial dam ensure that water can be precisely controlled as it flows over the brink. This is necessary because, as Strand reminds us, what we usually see of the Falls during tourist season (beginning April 1st) is actually about 50 percent of Niagara's total water flow and, out of season, 25 percent, thanks to the Niagara Diversion Treaty of 1950, which allowed the rest of the water to be diverted by the massive power plants on both sides of the river. But tourists mostly don't notice, thanks to the Control Works (which can, for instance, direct water to any areas that are looking bare) as well as to other engineered improvements made in the 1950s and '60s by the Army Corps of Engineers and Ontario Hydro to keep the Falls' crest "curtain-like" and to ensure that it supplies "a very satisfactory scenic spectacle." [quoted in Strand, 191]
As if this weren't enough to make one doubt the naturalness of Niagara's wondrous effects, in 1969, the Army Corps of Engineers actually turned off the American Falls — they describe it more modestly as "dewatering" — so that the rockface could be shored up. Strand reproduces a photo from the period showing huge machines and people in hardhats moving casually around the riverbed. It is incredible, and also unusual: typically such interventions are kept well hidden, up or down river or underwater, to create, in Strand's words, "an environment that elides any conflict between landscape enjoyment and resource expenditure." [Strand, 159] This was not always the case, though: the sight of mill tailraces brutally puncturing the walls of the Niagara Gorge, for instance, was still common at the turn of the last century.  Strand identifies the creation of the Niagara Reservation, in 1885, as a turning point in our expectations. Here, in the first state park in the United States, Frederick Law Olmsted designed Niagara back into wilderness, in part by removing visible traces of factories, power plants and mass tourism. It was Olmsted who, with the (hardly disinterested) support of his powerful patrons, drove a wedge between nature and industry, between visual consumption and commercial exploitation, the uneasy consequences of which we live with today.
Niagara Power Project, New York State.
Once you start looking, the effects — the dissonances — are obvious enough. I see it later in the day, when I visit the Niagara Whirlpool, located a few miles down the River at a 90-degree bend. The Whirlpool was a big attraction in the 19th century, but today nobody pays it much mind. I view it from the deserted and partly washed-out Whirlpool Scenic Overlook Trail. Despite myself, I'm disappointed. The Whirlpool has little of the seething drama that you'd expect from a place whose waters are — as my guidebook tells me in a typically unhelpful statistical aside — "rated six on a scale of one to six!" I’m soon confronted by another unnatural natural wonder, this time a doozy. An on-site notice board states that the whirlpool is "so named" because of its counter-clockwise circulation — but then notes that this circulation is reversed by "additional" water diversions in the off season. Does this mean that before April, it cannot be named a whirlpool? Pondering this conundrum, my eye wanders down the Gorge walls, settling on a rock ledge exposed by the engineered drop in river levels, as telling as a stain in an old bathtub.
I don't want to sound nostalgic here. I am really curious about what the Falls and the Whirlpool would have looked like before the diversions kicked in (though these diversions were already happening as early as the 19th century); but I know they won't be stopped anytime soon. If anything, the very obviousness of the diversions seems to me reassuring — which is a sure sign that I've crossed over into Ginger Strand's world, where what you can't see usually ends up being worse than what you can. A case in point: the involvement of Niagara's chemical industry in the Manhattan Project has left behind seven sites contaminated with radiation within ten miles of the Falls. That's seven, in case you thought you'd read wrong, more than any other region involved in the manufacture of atomic weapons. And don't forget the other 649 hazardous waste "areas of concern" that lie within Erie and Niagara Counties. [Strand, 224]
In the book's most devastating thread, Strand weaves an account of Niagara's toxic history, the legacy of chemical manufacturers drawn there by the cheap electricity produced by all those water diversions, electricity that was essential to catalyzing chemical reactions. The industry's habit of treating the surrounding landscape as a giant waste dump was an open secret until the 1970s, when it exploded onto the international scene with the revelations about Love Canal and the 20,000 tons of toxic waste buried in a local neighborhood. But the details get me all the same. Like the fact that workers in the 1940s were given $50 if they’d take away a drum of waste for disposal — no questions asked. The local mix of chemical expertise and unquestioning compliance ensured that Niagara industries would later play a vital part in processing uranium — an element whose lethal trace, radiation, is undetectable to the eye. A worker at the Linde Air Products plant describes for Strand how workers in the Manhattan Project years used to unload the ore by hand in burlap bags and then sit on the bags and eat lunch. From here the author — in what I now recognize as a signature Strand moment, i.e., banal yet laden with meaning — flashes forward to the scene of a high school principal in Niagara today, inspecting his football field with a Geiger counter.
I can't help it. Despite the telltale details, I am finding it hard, as I stand contemplating the Gorge, to adjust the picture — to see the Niagara River as ever having been, basically, a radioactive chemical dump. I keep running up against the fact that it's still so pretty, in a woodsy, sparkling-green kind of way. This is surely Strand's aim: to make us aware of how much we rely on the evidence of our eyes, even when (especially when?) we should know better. And to give her full due, she understands the multifaceted nature of the story and the reasons why people resist hearing the truth, like the longtime worker at Goodyear who, despite his job-related cancer, sticks to the line that the company's been good to him. "Moving forward," Strand says, "means opening our eyes to a world that is always complex." [Strand, 255] But this is a tiring effort; and slightly worn out by my own efforts to square it all, I turn away from the Gorge, and step on something: a blue knob embedded in the ground, inscribed with the words "International Boundary Commission." I gape, genuinely thrown. Have I actually stepped on the international border? I can't believe that it might actually be right there, smack in the middle of the tarmac, even as the tarmac itself is slipping away, down the Gorge. It is almost too much to take in, this casual reminder of yet another division that has done so much to shape the realities of today's Niagara.
In fact, if I have any complaint to make about the mainly wonderful Inventing Niagara (and it is probably inevitable coming from a Canadian), it's that Strand mainly tells us the American side of the Niagara story. This isn't done sneakily — she warns us she's going to do so — but given how the two cities of Niagara, American and Canadian, are yoked together, this means that some important things fall between the cracks. One doesn't get, for instance, a full sense of the tensions created by an international border that spans not only lakes and rivers but also one of the continent's most famous tourist vistas. One tension is that visitors experience today's Niagara in a state of constant visual dissonance. When in Canada, looking at the Falls, you see America. In America, looking at Falls, you see Canada. The character and nature of the place you are in actually matters less than the character and nature of the place you are looking onto.
If some Americans have rued this state of affairs [Strand, 141], Canadians have run with it. It has long been a source of national pride, and a sore spot with Americans, that Canadians own the "best" waterfall, the one shaped like a horseshoe. And recently they have been especially energetic about exploiting the advantage. Development has been channeled into one zone of the city, a boulevard called Fallsview that runs along a ridge overlooking the Niagara River. As a result, guests of hotels along Fallsview, including the Province of Ontario's own billion-dollar destination casino, enjoy spectacular views of the Horseshoe Falls, set against the aesthetically appealing backdrop of America's State Park. In the State Park, however, tourists view the Horseshoe Falls against the far less pleasing backdrop of glass towers, rising improbably out of the mist (and we’ll return to the mist in a moment).
The sheer asymmetry of views is astounding. My jaw dropped (yet again) when I first caught sight of the Fallsview developments from a bridge deep within the American State Park. How did the Canadian government get away with this? How were buildings of this uncompromising ruthlessness ever given the go-ahead in such a fragile ecosystem? And, sure enough, one 2004 study has concluded that these cliff-like hotels are responsible for changing mist patterns, causing significantly more rain-like days in the region (up from 29 in 1996 to 68 days in 2003).  The possibility briefly flashes through my mind that, with these buildings, we're actually witnessing some form of evil Canadian payback. If years of acid rain have taught us anything, it's that the actions of one side can disproportionately affect the other. Strand's list of chlorinated chemicals produced on the American side and then unceremoniously dumped in the Niagara River is truly horrific — PCBs, anyone? — and of course these affected Canada too. [Strand, 174–75, 179] I recall a family friend marveling at the gentrification of Niagara-on-the-Lake, just down the road from the Falls, and where the finer class of tourist goes these days. "Imagine," she laughs, with breathtaking sang-froid, "we used to call it Niagara-on-the-Dump!"
The cross-border social impact of these mega-developments isn't so hot either. For one thing, Canada's two casinos have kicked off an international competition for gambling dollars. Desperate from watching all those U.S. quarters cha-chinging their way into Canadian pockets, New York State brought in the Seneca Indians to run a shiny glass casino of its own, which opened in 2005, after the Niagara Casino (1996) and the Fallsview (2004). (Strand is very good on the background and conflicts caused by this deal.) The result is that American and Canadian casinos are now locked in an apparently permanent standoff, eye-balling each other across the river, like pumped-up prizefighters. It is almost comical until you remember that they are sited in two of the more economically depressed regions of their respective countries. And as much as each casino might try to entice custom from the other side with big ads or free drinks, the post-9/11 reality is that fewer Americans and Canadians are crossing the Rainbow or Peace Bridges these days — trips that used to be done unthinkingly, but that now feel daunting, thanks to bristling border guards who grimly rummage through your trunk before, with palpable reluctance, they let you pass. 
That the fate of Niagara Falls, Ontario, is decidedly precarious, is something that Strand glosses over, as she plays off the American side's flattened squalor against the gleaming towers across the border. And, sure, the accretions on Fallsview Boulevard seem to have kept the Canadian side from the worst of the American's fate. But at what cost? Was the sell-off of the prime views of Niagara to global hotel chains necessary? Were two mega-casinos really the only way to keep tourists coming to Niagara? It is hard to make out what relationship, if any, they have to the Falls. When I visit the Fallsview Casino Resort, I approach it by way of Fallsview Boulevard, a blank, canyon-like road, lined by the Casino itself, high-rise hotels, conference centers, and the inevitable multitiered parking structures. It all feels out-of-scale and placeless, as if some large city's Central Business District got lost and wandered to Niagara by mistake. After leaving my car in the casino garage, I’m funneled to its entrance, which is adorned with a "signature" water feature, the 45-foot-tall Hydro-Teslatron; built in honor of Nikola Tesla, the discoverer of alternating current, this sparkplug-like monster simulates the production of electricity in a seven-minute extravaganza of lights, lasers and (recycled) water cascades. To see the real Falls, I am next sucked down a long parade of shops and reach a galleria framing the cataracts in the far distance. Not that anyone else is there. It is a view without viewers. I try my best, but am distracted by the sign for the most revered of all Canadian institutions, the donut shop Tim Horton’s, winking at me from the food court below.
Niagara, Ontario, the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort.
I hit the Casino, fully expecting to find the windowless interior that typifies the casino and that is essential to creating the non-diurnal world of the gambler. But the Falls-side is filled with natural light. The casino restaurant, the all-you-can-eat Grand Buffet, overlooks the Falls, as do two outdoor smoking terraces. Natural light doesn't reach deep into a floor plate the size of the casino's, though, and there is no trace of it by the time I cross the huge floor — "the size of three football fields!" — past the jangling chorus of 3,000 slot machines to the busy poker room in the back. There, players are silent, staring at their hands. Nobody looks up. The Falls are given a passing nod in the game, Dash of Falls, but otherwise seem to be little more than something to glance at while you wolf down your buffet meal or have a smoke, before heading back to the serious action. I witness this casualness about the Falls often on the Canadian side, not least in the sheer number of attractions that promise a "better," technologically enhanced experience of it courtesy of IMAX or 3-D. Even the earnest but silly Teslatron, with all its lights and colors, assumes that the real history of Niagara needs interpreting and gussying up, not unlike the nightly illuminations of rainbow colors onto the Falls themselves. The experience is so of-the-moment, so tacky, a friend complains, that it makes you start to doubt the genuineness of the Falls themselves. "It's as if you set a giant real sapphire in a plastic setting," she says. "A lot of people would assume it’s a fake."
To which, of course, the Army Corps of Engineers in mind, Strand might well reply that you should doubt the genuineness of Niagara. And you should be prepared to look deeper, past appearances, to what lies beneath or behind the surface. If, in this spirit, you do drive beyond Fallsview Boulevard and the franchised carnivalesque of Clifton Hill and Brock Plaza, for instance, you'll quickly find yourself in territory practically as bleak as that across the river, with the same boarded-up shops and "for rent" signs. It doesn't seem as if the profits from Niagara's new businesses have done much for its downtown core or for the old centre of the hotel business, Lundy’s Lane, where many of the old locally-owned family motels now hang on with daily room rates of $29 (CDN). Even though the Canadian side never had baddies in the league of Robert Moses or Mayor E. Dent Lackey (and the completeness of their combined destruction of the American Falls’s historic downtown core is mind-boggling), one trip down Lundy’s Lane will convince you that the Canadian side hasn’t exactly been spared the effects of postindustrial economic decline or shifting tourist trends, and it might make you wonder, like at least some locals do, whether the casinos really were the panacea they were sold.
It depresses me to realize that, even had she looked more closely at Canada, it’s unlikely that Strand would find anything there that would radically challenge her central theses. It would almost certainly not contradict her argument about how the engineered illusion of nature at Niagara is strategically used to make exploitation acceptable. Canadians are no less dependent upon Niagara’s hydro-electric power than Americans, and thus not exempt from Strand’s dictum: "Encouraging people to consume means making sure they don’t see any ill effects resulting from their consumption." [Strand, 190] On this subject, Strand is utterly convincing, particularly when she nails the link between the attitudes that built the United States’ first state park and that would produce, almost a century later, one of the nation’s worst environmental emergencies. Sitting in front of a playground at the edge of the grotesquely-shaped landfill site that was Love Canal, she makes her full case simply: "Somehow it’s the in-between Niagara, the harnessed waterfall pretending to be untouched, that leads to the landscape we’re parked at now. Because if we don’t admit that the things we do to make our lifestyle possible even have a cost, how can we ever know when that price has become too high?" [Strand, 197]
I’ve seen enough for now. I reserve the artificial mountain of the CECOS landfill, a 385-acre hazardous waste dump, for a future visit, when I'll do Strand's Niagara Toxic Tour. Meanwhile, I take stock: Have the last three days of driving around done the trick? Have I fallen (back) in love with Niagara? While it hasn’t been the proverbial scales-falling-from-my-eyes journey, it’s come awfully close, and for weeks after I find myself burbling on about Niagara to everyone I meet, like someone in the first throes of a romance. But if it’s a romance, then it’s a bittersweet one. There's too much here to feel angry about, too much to deplore, too much to cause anxiety. (After reading Strand, for instance, how can locals feel easy about things like the Niagara Falls Storage Site, a landfill that contains, under a concrete cap, tons of radioactive sludge so unstable that nobody knows how to dispose of it?) Maybe it’s best to think of it as a sort of amour fou. And this is as it should be. Niagara should make us feel crazily passionate about it. It matters. As the greatest of the continent’s natural wonders and the site some of its greatest cover-ups, Niagara really does have it all: beauty, power, lies, along with abundant, surreal, and often frightening proofs of how these have shaped our behavior and environment today.
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