“Did you know they drained Niagara once?”
The question popped up during one of my earliest trips to the famous falls — a bit of history, some trivia, as I walked the winding paths near its edge with my future husband. Spencer grew up 85 miles south of the cataract. There aren’t too many folks in Western New York who can’t tell you something about Niagara.
It wasn’t my very first visit. That came in 2004, when I was traveling around the Buffalo area with my parents and sister before the start of another school year. I’ve always been a waterfall fan — a waterfall nut, you might say. And my first glimpse of the Horseshoe Falls, from the landscaped paths on the Canadian side, certainly inspired awe. Taking the ubiquitous Maid of the Mist voyage to the base of Horseshoe Falls, I remember looking up and seeing nothing but violently falling water. We were close to disaster … but safe from it, too. Exhilarating.
I thought of this early trip so often while reading Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Shaped — for good or for ill — by the land and people around it … creating myths, perpetuating others. A site of commerce, conflict and connection for centuries.
Americans call Niagara Falls a natural wonder, but the Falls aren’t very natural anymore. In fact, they are a study in artifice. Water diverted, riverbed reshaped, brink stabilized and landscape redesigned, the Falls are more a monument to man’s meddling than to nature’s strength.
Held up as an example of something real, they are hemmed in with fakery — waxworks, haunted houses, IMAX films and ersatz Indian tales. A symbol of American manifest destiny, they are shared politely with Canada. Emblem of nature’s power, they are completely human-controlled. Archetype of natural beauty, they belie an ugly environmental legacy still bubbling up from below. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to how America falsifies nature, reshaping its contours and redirecting its force while claiming to submit to its will.Publisher description
The first time I saw Niagara, I felt overwhelmed by the urge to photograph it. Today I would pull out my iPhone, experimenting with panoramas, positioning my kids by a rainbow … but 17 years ago, my blocky cell phone and its tiny camera was OK for 10-cent text messages and not much else. I had to remember that first falls experience the old-fashioned way: living in the moment. (Thankfully, my mom had her own ever-present lens to document our adventures.)
The falls are a memorable experience. As Strand beautifully illustrates throughout Inventing Niagara, being there is a physical thing. It’s loud. It’s wet. It’s windy. Things I despise in any other scenario … but, you know, I’m willing to overlook all kinds of discomforts for the sake of waterfalls. Hence that sticky poncho above! And bobbing around on the Maid of the Mist’s open deck feels treacherous … but it’s a sanitized fear. The illusion of danger is part of the fun.
Inventing Niagara examines many aspects of the falls’ history, both real and mythical — everything from Seneca history as keepers of the Western Door to the region’s role in the Underground Railroad. These were all new stories to me, and inspired lots of on-the-side googling to explore more. French tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who understood “the appeal of the morbid to the masses,” using his famed aerial walks as a metaphor for slavery before emancipation? This is some pretty fascinating stuff.
The romance and Hollywood-inspired section was great fun, too. Honestly, I had no idea Niagara featured in so many aspects of pop culture. Marilyn Monroe’s longest walk in cinema offered a different “view” at Niagara in the 1950s, and of course there’s the long history of the falls as a honeymoon capital of yesteryear. (Also, ever wondered how Viagra got its name?)
Of course, it’s not all misty fun. Strand gives equal attention to the environmental impacts on the region in the name of progress: the sad and criminal history of Love Canal, the genesis of the EPA’s Superfund program; power plants and the harnessing of the falls’ power; construction of a soulless parkway straight through town. Dead malls and vacant storefronts in the shadow of landfills. The juxtaposition of the American and Canadian towns, sharing a name … staring each other down from opposite the gorge. If you’ve ever wondered why there is such a stark difference between nations, you’ll definitely learn that and then some here.
What I loved most about Ginger Strand’s accounting of Niagara is her obvious love for the place. I thought the author’s voice featured perfectly within the narrative. It was like going on a road trip with an entertaining but slightly-obsessive friend, who uses the drive to tell you every fun fact about her latest obsession. (Privately … you’re just glad it isn’t drugs.)
She’s a strong, detailed, lyrical writer with a talent for drawing you immediately into a scene and making you feel at home. Strand isn’t analyzing Niagara with a calculated, dispassionate eye; she’s generating the full picture, accounting for its warts and sparkle in equal measure.
While Niagara’s “natural wonder” is now under human control, there remains an otherworldliness to it. It’s still beautiful.
As humans, we just have to decide the degree to which we’re willing to make believe.
I learned so much in Inventing Niagara — and paying attention to the man behind the curtain does nothing to diminish its power. If anything, my interest is stronger now, knowing just how many people have converged in their attempts to admire, own, tame, promote, or protect this thundering strip of land.
I think it ultimately comes back to that very human desire to utter three words — words echoed in the carvings often found on wooden park handrails, encased in lovers’ hearts on redwoods, scribbled into theme-park ride waiting areas … from sea to shining sea.
I was here.