We Reabsorb & Enliven (3)

By: Matthew Battles
March 11, 2010

Flow shut off at the American Falls, 1969

Ever since Louis Hennepin, a Flemish priest, first caught sight of the falls in 1678, Niagara has symbolized the power of untamed nature in the American imagination. But while the Falls remain emblematic of the awesome power of nature, theirs has long been an invented wilderness. After Hennepin, white men began calling the Falls “untamed” in order to claim the right to tame it. To the Iroquois, it was the Western Door, its cataract guarding a necessary portage connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario and a gateway to the Great Lakes region and the middle of the continent. European explorers saw its strategic value in controlling access to both Indian souls and beaver pelts; later, greedy eyes would fix upon the prospect of channeling the river’s power for industry and tourism. Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara explores the Falls as the ultimate kind of American place, where sentimental love of nature crashes into the heady rush of commerce. It’s a spectacular combination of seemingly divergent powers, a built-up wildness, a developed wilderness — nature and nurture, the country and the city, the raw and the cooked, the Maid of the Mists and Marilyn Monroe.

Inventing Niagara, Ginger Strand’s new history of America’s obsession with the Falls, is a book alive to sublime and transporting majesty — and clear about its fickle and tragic sides as well. Its changes and injuries have been a source of heartbreak to the Seneca and the Tuscarora, to the working-class residents of Love Canal, to freedom-seeking slaves and lucre-seeking hucksters. In her irony as much as her ire, Strand is in the vanguard of new generation of writers about nature and the environment who are discontented with reverie and marvel, wary of nostalgia and prelapserian pastorals, aware of that all-too-human striving to overcome nature that is itself a force of nature. Past generations of environmentalists looked for inspiration in the majesty of Yosemite or the solitude of Walden Pond; today’s environmentalists would do well to take instruction from Niagara’s mixture of beauty, power, and lies.

Strand is at her best when summing up the ever-shifting meanings of the Falls. She makes a convincing case, for instance, that the meaning of the Falls changed with the Civil War. For antebellum America, Niagara was a frontier, a cataract to be crossed; to escaped slaves fleeing via the Underground Railroad, the railway bridge below the Falls was the final obstacle on the way to freedom in Canada. After the Civil War, however, the rapid industrialization of the U.S. made the Falls a symbol of nature’s power, ready to be mastered.

This symbolic transformation comes out most clearly — and entertainingly — in the colorful history of Niagara Falls’ “stunters,” daredevils who risked the abyss for notoriety and cash. In the late 1850s, with the rise of Abraham Lincoln and struggles between free and slave states rushing towards armed conflict, the Falls were the site of daring feats of high-wire artists — most famously the great Blondin, a French aerialist who shocked crowds on both sides of the chasm when he carried his manager across in 1859. Later that summer he would cross blindfolded, tied up in a sack, and in the dead of night. Magazines like Harper’s and Vanity Fair, meanwhile, depicted Abraham Lincoln crossing the falls on a wire with a freed slave on his back. After the war, high-wire acts gave way to barrel-riders, beginning with the spectacle of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel and survive. Strand recounts how many commentators expressed disappointment that the first successful trip over the Falls was accomplished by a poorly educated, plebian matron rather than a dashing Victorian explorer. Even so, Taylor’s accomplishment heralded the coming technological age. As the Buffalo Express put it, “it is, apparently, an hour in which all the impossible things are getting done.”

The barrel stunts became popular when the Falls were being harnessed for electricity; at the same time, the pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was lobbying to clear away the cheap hotels and tourist traps and turn Goat Island and the rest of the area around the Falls into a picturesque park. Strand explains how the progressive-minded boosters of nature and preservation did the industrialists a favor “by helping to create a division of purpose — over here is nature, over there, behind the hedge, is industry…. Olmsted and his companions had inaugurated a new era at Niagara: the era of fake nature, an artificial wilderness designed to hide all evidence of design.” To early-20th-century observers, clean, bright electrical power was a welcome antidote to the coal-fired dinginess of Victorian industry, and the prospect of a tamed and tempered Niagara heralded a hopeful turn in humanity’s relationship with nature. “It seems altogether well,” the futurist H. G. Wells opined, “that all the froth and fury of Niagara at last, all of it, dying into hungry canals of intakes, should rise again in light and power.”

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the twin powers of nature and artifice would become ever more intimately entwined at Niagara. While one-fifth of the world’s fresh water crowds its way through the strait between Lakes Ontario and Erie, today less than half of the Niagara River’s water actually goes over the Falls; the rest is diverted to a series of turbines that furnish electricity for North American homes and industry. The remainder is channeled by weirs and berms to ensure a veneer of water that, while diminished in volume, produces much the same visual effect as before. The engineers who control flow through the Falls turn it up for the tourist season, dialing back the flow at night to divert water to the turbines while tourists sleep.

However disappointing, those revelations are far from the limit of the dark side to Strand’s tale; the infamous Love Canal lies upstream of the Falls. Before the whistle was blown on the Hooker Chemical Company and the cleanup began, the poisons dumped in Love Canal made their way to the river and flowed downstream to join the awesome green-white maelstrom that delights the tourists, coating the ponchos and stinging the eyes of passengers on the Maid of the Mists.

And yet nature still furnishes authentic spectacle at the Falls, however accidental and transitory. On one of her many trips to Niagara, Strand is treated to a tour guided by Larry Siegmann, who oversees construction of the precarious decking that emerges from the Cave of the Winds to provide views from the bottom of the Falls. One year, he tells her, he emerged from the elevator to find a deer — an eight-point buck, bruised and trembling — staring back at him; miraculously, it had survived a trip over the Falls and sought safety in the cave. Preservationists, captains of industry, and eager politicians still seek salvation in the falling waters of the Niagara River; as tens of thousands of visitors each year attest, its beauty and power, however controlled and diminished, retain their power to beguile. “The irony,” Strand concludes, “is that, even though Niagara is the most-recognized landscape in the world, we don’t really see it.”


A version of this essay appeared at the Barnes & Noble Review on May 05, 2008 in review of Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, by Ginger Strand. It appears here as the third in a series revisiting Matthew Battles’ reviews for Barnes & Noble.