Fact, fiction and fantastic: Words to describe Niagara Falls

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The first of many tightrope walkers to cross the Falls was Jean Francois Gravelot, a French aerialist, who called himself "The Great Blondin."

What do the following have in common; ancient Native Americans, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Stephens, Annie Taylor, and Pierre Berton? All shared fascination with the many wonders associated with Niagara Falls just as folks today are concerned with hydro-electricity and honeymoons, schlock and scenery, greed and grandeur.

The clichéd fable about six blind men feeling various parts of an elephant is a vivid reminder that reality differs from what people tend to view as absolute truth, especially when fooled by the deceptive nature of only partial truths they encounter. Is Niagara a spiritual center, tourists’ Mecca, a cash cow or is this worldwide attraction a blot on modern efforts and sabotages the gifts nature bestowed thousands of years ago?

In May this year, New York’s Simon & Schuster published freelance author Ginger Strand’s new book, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies. It combines history, reporting and commentary in a study in which the Buffalo News headlined a review by Mark Sommer saying, “Inventing Niagara explores the despoiling of a Wonder of the World.”

Panoramic view of Niagara Falls
Panoramic American view of the Horseshoe Falls.

Niagara Falls is known as the second largest cascade in the world, next only to southern Africa’s Victoria Falls. Actually, three separate falls are included: the American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe. The latter, in Ontario, Canada, is the best known and is said to date back to the last ice age 12,000 years ago. The name Niagara is believed to be a derivation from the Iroquois word, Onguiaahra, meaning the strait. This tribe, the Seneca, Huron and others, who bonded or fought each other, considered the area sacred. As early as the 18th century governments broke Indian treaties. The area played important parts in colonial days and the 1812 War, when various Indian tribes sided with the British, Americans or future Canucks. The war affected both nations’ future forever.

The late Canadian author and journalist, Pierre Berton, in his 1997 book, Niagara: A History of the Falls, foreshadowed many of the conflicts and contradictions written about today. He, too, traced events from when Father Louis Hennepin, in 1683 was reported the first recorded white man to see the falls, a sight and site that “terrified him.” Berton’s forte was to trace the history of the falls and those drawn to it by telling the stories of unusual influential characters. Readers meet the Brooklyn Bridge builder, John Roebling, the engineer who spanned the Niagara Gorge; industrialists such as shredded wheat inventor, Henry Perky and other corporation heads who saw profit from the power of the waters; and Robert Moses, the controversial New York urban planner largely responsible for hydroelectric power and the diversion of the Niagara River waters.

The sad story of the Love Canal is a part of that proverbial elephant the average tourist never touches yet so much has been written about environmental disasters involving toxic substances. The May 12, 2008, issue of Newsweek is typical of articles and reviews when it quotes from Strand’s book as she reports the tragic results of the horrible contamination caused by 82 different chemicals.

Berton and Strand both tell how the 1933 movie 42nd Street and its song "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" encouraged the already growing trend for honeymooners that began in the 1800s. After WWII, especially after Marilyn Monroe appeared in the 1953 Technicolor noir film Niagara, that grossed more than six million dollars, couples galore flocked to the falls. Urban legends told of the water’s sexual ions that charged the air and gullible folks believed in an aphrodisiac atmospheric effect that supposedly permeated the place.

Rather than the industrial manipulation of the waters, the public showed more interest in the daredevils who faced dreadful dangers. The Internet abounds in such tales. Teacher Annie Taylor in 1901 became the first person to go over the falls in a barrel. She was poor and craved notoriety at age 63 (though she lied and claimed to be 43.) Ironically, she died in poverty, unable to profit from her amazing feat. English barber, Charles Stephens, third to make this trip in July 1920, wasn’t so lucky. Only his tattooed right arm was found but that didn’t stop others from attempting this stunt. Google “The Barrel Brigade” or “Niagara Falls Daredevils” to learn the stories of other brave or foolhardy souls – depending on one’s viewpoint.

Then there was funambulism to thrill the throngs – an activity better known as tight-rope walking. The Frenchman called The Great Blondin electrified audiences. Beginning in 1859 he performed all sorts of stunts and carried all kinds of objects across the raging water, supported only on a thin wire. Many others crossed the Niagara Falls, including The Great Farini and The Great Davenports. Maria Spelterini, a high wire walker, was the first woman to accomplish this feat and she did so several times in 1876.

It’s easy today for anyone visiting the Canadian Falls to “touch” two additional extremes the mythical elephant represents. Stand at the foot of Clifton Hill, the primary tourist area. Face Horseshoe Falls and see the magnificent scenic splendor that even man’s manipulations cannot tarnish. It is a breathtaking and awe-inspiring view.

But then turn and look in the opposite direction and see what has been called, “a tawdry Canadian answer to Atlantic City.” The street is home to the huge Casino Niagara and other man made attractions such as the Houdini Hall Of Fame, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Hollywood Wax Museum, House Of Frankenstein and Guinness World Records Museum as well as restaurants and shops full of kitschy attractions.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see Niagara Falls in the future, to learn the effects of anticipated global warming, to marvel if further entertainment can top today’s tricks to capture people’s attention? And will those souvenir magnets become the treasured collectibles of another generation? Will those wondrous waters still be there in a future millennium? Ah, there is much to ponder!

More Images:

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Bobby Leach and his barrel after his trip over Niagara Falls, 1911
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Niagara's Cave of the Winds on a picture postcard.
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63-year-old school teacher Annie Edson Taylor was the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel as a publicity stunt; she survived, bleeding, but virtually unharmed.
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Woodcut of the Niagara Falls.
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A closer view of the Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls in the early morning.
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Postcards show many views of Niagara Falls' splendor. The Maid of the Mist and cards showing the falls lit up at night are among the most popular.
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Postcards show many views of Niagara Falls' splendor. The Maid of the Mist and cards showing the falls lit up at night are among the most popular.
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Man and woman on Canadian side of Niagara Falls, circa 1858
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The Niagara Falls are a popular subject on souvenir plates.

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