History of Niagara Falls

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While the Falls themselves are relatively young at 12,000 years old, it was a measly 500 years ago that they split into todays Canadian Horseshoe and American Falls (with the Bridal Veil Falls forming a third, very narrow set). In the middle sits Goat Island, named to commemorate a herd of goats that froze to death on the island during the winter of 1780.

Although a rich hunting, fishing and food-gathering ground for native peoples for thousands of years, the first recorded non-native sighting of the Falls took place in 1678, when a Recollet father by the name of Louis Hennepin stood on the edge and marvelled at what he must have felt was one of Gods natural wonders. He went on to write a book about his travels 'Description de la Louisiane' which was widely read in Europe. His name is now on parks, streets and other memorials throughout the Niagara Region, including Hennepin Park in Buffalo. A seven-foot-high mural by American painter Thomas Hart Benton, depicting Father Hennepin and a group of Native Americans at Niagara Falls, hangs near the main entrance of the Niagara Power Project Visitors' Center.

Conflict in paradise
At the turn of the 19th century, the natural beauty of the region didn't spare it from the political machinations between a feisty young republic itching to flex its might and a behemoth British Empire determined to show the upstart it still had plenty of firepower left before the sun set - and no doubt smarting from the licking it had taken less then 40 years before.

Thus, the stage was set for the War of 1812, the first and thankfully last war between the U.S. and Canada, which now boast the longest undefended border in the world. One story has it that, when President James Madison declared war, British and American officers were having their traditional dinner and drinks at Fort George on the Canadian side near the village of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Gentlemen that they were, they agreed to finish those drinks and accompanying conversations before starting up hostilities the following day.

The war raged for two bloody years with American troops invading the Canadian side and shelling positions across from Fort Niagara, as well as securing Fort Erie and Queenston, at least temporarily. However, amid accusations of cowardice, bungled orders and even a duel between two U.S. generals who disagreed on tactics, the Americans were eventually driven back across the border. Ironically, a treaty left the boundaries pretty much as they were before the hostilities began.

Nuptials and negative ions
Even before the war, Niagara was already famous as the place where, in 1801, Theodosia Burr, daughter of future U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, and Joseph Alston chose to 'conclude their nuptials,' followed three years later by Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleons youngest brother) and his Baltimore-born bride, Elizabeth Patterson. From this trickle of adventurous romance was born the tradition that would later become a flood - honeymooning by the cascading waters. Hey, there are those who believe the waters give off negative ions which act as an aphrodisiac. Just as good an explanation as any.

Whatever the case, expansion came rapidly with the building of the Erie Canal, which enabled barges to ship goods back and forth from the Atlantic Ocean and New York City to the Great Lakes. You can view some of the canals history and other memorabilia at the Lockport Locks and Erie Canal Cruises and Canalside Emporium. The area also served as part of the Underground Railroad for hiding escaped slaves and eventually taking them into Canada and freedom.

But it was tourism that put Niagara Falls on the map. People came first by buggy, boat and train, and then by car and bus. In the 50 years between 1820 and 1870, the tourism trade increased 10-fold as the site became more and more accessible. By the 1870s, it had become a full-fledged part of the local economy, with the Falls as the natural focus of attention.

And, until 1912, when several people died, tourists in the winter were actually allowed to walk out onto the river below the Falls to get a close-up view of the 'thundering cataract.' This was thanks to a natural 'ice bridge,' which formed from the combination of spray and cold. A newspaper report from 1888 has some 20,000 on the ice, tobogganing, skating, buying hot drinks, sketching, and generally having fun. It all came to an abrupt end when the ice bridge collapsed on February 4, 1912, and three unfortunates lost their lives.

Quintessential sex goddess
Niagara Falls is also known as a magnet for daredevils, until a recent ban put a halt to such activities. While the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, due to their immense width and spectacular plunge, have been the preferred destination for most of these thrill seekers, the American Falls have had their share, starting with one Sam Patch. In 1829, Patch jumped 110 feet from a platform on Goat Island to the base of the Falls below'twice!

Among the kings and queens and political dignitaries who have visited Niagara Falls down through the years, perhaps the most famous has been the quintessential sex goddess herself, Marilyn Monroe, and her then husband, Joe DiMaggio. Marilyn, in town in 1952 to film the suspense thriller Niagara with co-star Joseph Cotten, spent her time holed up in Schimshacks restaurant and inn when not on the set. The film, which had Monroe and Cotten on their honeymoon, unleashed a wave of romantic couples and spurred the development of getaway motels, which line many of the main streets to this day.

But today, Niagara Falls is more than a honeymoon getaway. There's something here for the entire family, no matter what time of year. And, standing by the edge of those Falls listening to the thunder of the water, you'll swear you can hear the rush of history swirling by: 12,000 years of it with, one hopes, thousands more to come.