Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Early in 2016, New York State officials announced a management plan for Niagara Falls that included an interesting message about one of America’s most iconic landscapes: it needs to be fixed.
Sometime over the next few years, engineers will “dewater” Niagara Falls in order to replace two century-old pedestrian bridges that span the Niagara River between the New York mainland and Goat Island. Think for a moment about how monumental this is: for several months, the torrent of water raging over Niagara Falls will be turned off—and not for the first time. In 1969, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a temporary cofferdam in order to study erosion along the American Falls. It was billed as a “once in a lifetime” event, and thousands of visitors came to marvel at the exposed cliff and the rocks below.
It comes as no surprise that the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation is planning for another tourist surge when the Falls are turned off again. However, even though public interest in a “dewatered” Niagara is something we might take for granted, it is also an opportunity to ask questions about how important American landscapes acquire and maintain their symbolic meaning. Despite the fact that Niagara Falls seems to have a timeless, almost sacred grandeur—it is precisely this quality that makes the notion of shutting off the Falls so captivating—the way we perceive Niagara Falls is actually the product of a rich and contested history. The news that Niagara Falls needs fixing can serve as a reminder to consider this history more closely—not in order to de-mystify an important American symbol, but in the hope that we can appreciate the complexity of its significance more fully.
Perhaps the most obvious way to begin historicizing Niagara Falls is to point out that it is a landscape shaped by constant geophysical change (if any 1969 visitors return to see the falls run dry again in a few years, both trips will be, in a geologic sense, “once in a lifetime” experiences). Niagara Falls is located along the Niagara River where it cuts a channel through a geological feature called the Niagara Escarpment. The escarpment forms part of the basin holding in the waters of the Great Lakes. It runs in a curve from western New York, along Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and down into Wisconsin (if you’ve ever visited Door County, you’ve walked on it). The Niagara Escarpment is composed of relatively soft shale underneath a “caprock” layer of harder dolomite, the horizontal layers of which are a common sight in the road cuts of southwestern Wisconsin. Because of this formation, sharp cliffs form along its edges as the shale erodes from below until the unsupported dolomite breaks off (sometimes in dramatic fashion). The position of Niagara Falls itself illustrates this process. Ten thousand years ago, the river poured over the Niagara Escarpment almost directly into Lake Ontario; today, because of constant erosion and breakage, the Falls have retreated several miles upstream.
Niagara Falls as we know it today is the product of physical processes like these, but also of cultural changes which have had a profound impact on the way Americans have interpreted this landscape. Already well known to the Iroquois, Huron, and Neutral Confederacy, Niagara Falls first appeared in European colonial writing when a French priest named Father Louis Hennepin published a book about his explorations in the Great Lakes region in 1683. Hennepin’s description of the waterfall was an exaggeration—he claimed that “this prodigious, frightful Fall” was hundreds of feet high; it’s actually more like 180 feet—but his book was a bestseller in Europe and it helped establish Niagara’s reputation as a place of almost unimaginable power: mysterious, terrifying, and utterly unlike any landscape known to his European audience.
A century after Hennepin’s visit, a Swedish naturalist named Pehr Kalm provided the first “scientific” description of Niagara Falls. What was striking about Kalm’s account was that, although it was presented as a work of “science” and corrected several of the specifics from Hennepin’s exaggerated description, it did not shy away from the idea that Niagara was a landscape that inspired fear. Kalm wrote of Niagara that “you cannot see it without being quite terrified,” and that it was a place that would make your “hair stand on end.” Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, additional reports followed in a similar vein, shaping the perception of Niagara as wild, remote, inhospitable, and dangerous.
This pattern raises an interesting puzzle: nearly every colonial account depicted Niagara Falls as frightening, and yet by the early 1800s tourists began arriving in significant numbers. Why would anyone want to go to a place they experienced as not only remote, but also terrifying? What caused travelers to embark on what would have been a pretty serious journey—the trip from New York City to Niagara Falls took a week or more well into the nineteenth century—just to spend a little time at a place that was famous for making people feel scared?
Visitors traveled to Niagara Falls because they wanted to experience the romantic sublime. Developed by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and further explored by Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment (1790), the idea of the sublime was deeply influential for early nineteenth-century aesthetics. To experience the romantic sublime was to experience the awe-full, the painful, the disorienting, and the terrifying—it was to feel utterly helpless before the power of the divine.
For poets like William Wordsworth and artists like Thomas Cole, the experience of the sublime was desirable precisely because of the way it induced fear. This sublime came to be associated with particularly dramatic landscapes: cliffs, mountaintops, and—of course—waterfalls. John James Audubon’s description of his 1824 visit to Niagara echoes Father Hennepin’s terror, but the influence of romanticism on Audubon’s reaction is unmistakable:
All trembling I reached the Falls of Niagara, and oh, what a scene! My blood shudders still, although I am not a coward, at the grandeur of the Creator’s power; and I gazed motionless on this new display of the irresistible force of one of His elements. The falls, the rainbow, the rapids, and the surroundings all unite to strike the senses with awe; they defy description.
Two years after Audubon’s visit to Niagara, a European publishing house printed the first edition of Birds of America after New York publishers rejected it; Audubon may have had to cross the Atlantic to land a book deal, but he and his contemporaries could come face to face with God right here in America.
Audubon’s experience reflects an important development in Niagara’s career as an American icon. Already famous because of its association with the romantic sublime, Niagara Falls became a cornerstone of the American “Grand Tour” (especially after the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal made travel easier). The young republic could not culturally compete with European ruins and relics; instead, early Americans looked to “natural” landscapes like Niagara Falls as symbols of national legitimacy. These places embodied a wild abundance unlike anything found in Europe, and they also came to reflect the republican principles that emerged out of the American Revolution. American symbolic landscapes did not valorize famous royals or reinforce the power of the ruling classes, but instead were (in theory) open to all citizens to enjoy.
By 1845 Niagara Falls was hosting in the neighborhood of 45,000 visitors a year, and, as a vibrant tourist industry developed around the site, its symbolic importance began to evolve again: as commercial development increased in the mid-nineteenth century, Niagara Falls also became associated with liberal individualism and the technical achievements of modernity. One of the most entertaining ways to think through this conceptual transition is to explore the rise of daredevilry. In a sense, visitors to Niagara had been engaged in some version of “thrill-seeking” since the first colonial reports of the area appeared in the seventeenth century. The terror that Niagara inspired, though, became something entirely new in the hands of celebrity risk-takers like Charles Blondin. The French acrobat completed his first successful tightrope traverse of the Falls in 1859. The next year, an American medical student who called himself the Great Farini challenged Blondin’s supremacy as a high-wire artist. Their rivalry escalated into spectacular displays of daring—after Blondin walked out onto his tightrope with a portable stove and cooked an egg, for example, Farini took a washtub out onto the wire, lowered a bucket down to the river below, and proceeded to do his laundry while balancing above the gorge—and helped turn Niagara into a landscape of entertainment and commercial competition.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Niagara Falls continued to be a place of for barrel-riders, honeymooners, and photographers, but it was also a landscape that epitomized American modernity (and, perhaps, responses to it). Corporate capitalism and scientific achievement became dominant tropes in American culture by the 1890s, and Niagara was reimagined yet again as a vast, untapped source of electricity. In 1893, Nicola Tesla was convinced that it was possible to use the Falls to generate hydroelectricity and then transport it long distances via alternating current (AC). Thomas Edison disagreed so strongly that he publicly electrocuted animals in an attempt to prove that AC was more dangerous than direct current (DC). Tesla responded by sending AC power through his own body, and this convincing demonstration led to the implementation of his hydropower design at Niagara Falls. By 1896, power from Niagara Falls was being transmitted to the city of Buffalo by alternating current, and it wasn’t long before the ability of alternating current to transmit power over great distances revolutionized America’s technological landscape.
Both the physical landscape and the symbolic importance of Niagara Falls continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century. As we reflect on the history of Niagara’s transformations and reinventions—from an icon of the romantic sublime and a marker of American legitimacy, to an arena for commercial individualism and a reflection of American modernity—we face yet another question. If Niagara Falls has always been a landscape of multiple meanings, how is it that it can still retain a kind of timeless power today?
To put it another way, why is it that the idea of “shutting off” the flow of the American Falls is still so striking? Is it because the romantic sublime still shapes how we think about Niagara Falls, so that “dewatering” is a little like turning off the power of God? Is it because we associate Niagara Falls with American technological achievement, so that the need for renovation exposes the limitations of a previous triumph? Or is it because Niagara Falls has become thoroughly naturalized as a symbol of republican values, so that the plan to fix it is a blow to the national psyche?
The point of raising these questions is not to come up with definitive answers but rather to use them to marvel anew at Niagara’s symbolic significance. As the meaning of Niagara Falls is continually remade, new interpretations emerge from—but do not erase—earlier ways of understanding this place. Perhaps Niagara Falls is such a powerful national icon because of its ability to contain such contradictory historical multitudes and still inspire awe. Perhaps, when the water is turned off, even more interpretive possibilities will appear among the rocks. Either way, the idea that Niagara Falls needs fixing is an invitation to think historically about the ways in which ideas and landscapes interact, and about how to situate ourselves within this complex intellectual geography.
For further reading, see: Pierre Barton, Niagara: A History of the Falls (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1992); Patrick McGreevy, Imagining Niagara: The Meaning and Making of Niagara Falls (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994); and Elizabeth McKinsey, Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
Featured image: Niagara, Frederic Edwin Church, 1857, oil on canvas. Wikimedia Commons, PD-US.
Ben Kasten is a graduate student in the Department of History at UW-Madison. He studies American intellectual and cultural history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contact.