Inventing Niagara

“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.

On the edge

American Falls and bridge


For someone so afraid of heights, you wouldn’t take me for a crazy waterfall fanatic.

But something about cascading water — plummeting, falling, twirling, twisting — always holds me captive. And of all the cataracts I’ve had the pleasure of seeing? Well, Niagara Falls stands alone. (Until I see the Devil’s Throat, anyway.)

My first visit was in 2004 on a family trip with my sister and parents; we hit Buffalo, Toronto and surrounding areas one muggy week in July. I had my first “legal” beer at a bar on the Canadian side of the falls, my dad teaching me how to tip the bartender as I tried not to gag on the light-colored brew. (Pretty sure it was Labatt Blue. Kind of a thing up north.)

My husband grew up in New York south of the famous sight, so they’re a wee bit “old hat” to him. On my first-ever trip to meet his family, we detoured from Buffalo to see Niagara — my second visit ever, and my first on the American side. I was captivated, especially when we donned ponchos to see American Falls from below. We got soaked; we smiled and laughed; I felt far away and happy.


Niagara 2010

American Falls from below


When I think of Niagara, I think of looking over the precipice with Spencer. Wind in our eyes and our hair; mist gathering around my shoulders. I remember our romance and how exciting it was to visit when everything was bright and bold and Technicolor. We were with the kind, wonderful woman who has become my mother-in-law, and the very dear friend who would someday serve as the best man at our wedding. The sun was shining, the roar was pounding in my ears . . . and I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so happy.

Because of the company, of course.

And because of the giant, exhilarating waterfalls.


Niagara II


When I stand at the edge of Niagara, I have that free-falling, free-floating feeling — like my feet have gone out from under me. My toes tingle. My stomach flips. It’s like I’ve been dropped into a barrel and that barrel is ricocheting toward the edge. Like I can’t be righted, as though I’ve lost my balance; everything is topsy-turvy and uncontrollable.

It’s a strange sensation, an odd stomach-gripping feeling; it’s like I really do need to grip the railing and hold on.

Just a little like love, perhaps.


Niagara I


Though I’m many years out of school, it’s spring break!
And I’m breaking to enjoy time up north with our family.
I’ll see you back here on April 21! Happy Easter, friends.


Can you read this post over the roar of the Niagara?

Home again, friends, and I’ll say this: it’s incredibly difficult coming home from a fabulous weekend, especially when you find yourself back at your desk in less than 12 hours. Good thing I have a Diet Coke, granola bar and some fabulous memories to fuel my morning.

Spencer’s family couldn’t have been any kinder, and I can’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed — even at the beach. Though I had my trusty Palm Pre with me to upload an occasional photo to Twitter or scan my email, I wasn’t walking around Niagara Falls clutching a piece of technology. What I was clutching? My camera and Spencer’s hand. And it felt amazing.

They really rolled out the red carpet for me and made me feel so warm and welcomed, and the entire time I was gone I just kept thinking: I’m so happy. His mom made so many awesome plans for us and took me all over the area, where I definitely felt like I was away from it all. Growing up in the suburbs, a land of strip malls with a  Starbucks on every corner, it’s hard to envision wide open spaces. But New York has them — in spades. And it was just fun to be there with such great people and my amazing boyfriend, seeing the place where he grew up. I knew him well before, but I feel like I know him in a different way now. A more complete way.

Oddly enough, I didn’t get much reading done — mostly because I was socializing, traveling, driving about and eating (oh, eating. Lots of eating!). Mockingjay was tucked in my bag through my entire stay, but I only cracked the cover once and read about 10 pages. So I still don’t know what’s become of Katniss, Gale and Peeta, and I’m going to have to tread lightly around the blogosphere until I figure it out! But that should be quite all right.

While I was out, I learned I’d been shortlisted in the Book Blogger Appreciation Awards for Best Written Book Blog and Best Eclectic Book Blog. What an honor — and I’m so excited for all the festivities in September! Thanks, everyone. Voting is open now to registered participants.

I’ll be posting photos from my trip to New York’s Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Jamestown, Chautauqua Lake and Gerry over the coming weeks — probably on Wordless Wednesdays, since that’s often how I roll — but wanted to whet your appetite with just a few snapshots! I took nearly 400 shots over the course of four days — enough to fill up my SD card, blast it — and barely had the energy to lift my head last night, let alone edit my shots. I did manage to get a few up straight out of the camera . . . with many more to come.


Book review: ‘The Day The Falls Stood Still’ by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Bess Heath is 17 when her father loses his job at the powerful, successful Niagara Power Company and brings his family close to ruin. She arrives home from a nearby academy to find her mother has been forced to take on sewing projects for her wealthy former friends while Isabel — the bright, shining youngest Heath daughter — has locked herself away and stopped eating, haunted by a secret she cannot and will not name.

Unsure of how to help her family withstand their sudden fall from grace, Bess takes on the thankless task of coming back into Isabel’s confidences and mending the clothes her weary mother cannot tend to — just as Mr. Heath is drowning his sorrows daily at a nearby hotel. The only source of interest or comfort in Bess’s new life comes from daily sightings of Tom Cole, a handsome young riverman who knows more about nearby Niagara Falls than anyone else. Almost to a mythical degree.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day The Falls Stood Still is an atmospheric, heart-breaking look at family, love and industrialization — weighty topics that rarely come across as dense as they sound. Told by Bess smack in the middle of World War I, the lives of so many on the Canadian side of the falls are touched by the battles happening thousands of miles away, and the war mentality hangs heavy over our narrator and her acquaintances. The novel felt thick, like soup, and once I’d fallen into it? I just couldn’t pull away until I’d finished.

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is its keen sense of place; never for a moment do you forget how close you are to Niagara, that great and terrifying waterfall on the U.S. and Canadian border. Everything that happens in the story seems to revolve around or make mention of the falls — it is, in fact, its own character. Giant. Daunting. Powerful. And as I whipped through page after page of Buchanan’s story, I could almost feel the mist on my face — a familiar and awesome sensation.

It’s hard to pin-point what I loved about this book, and harder still to describe my favorite moments without spoiling any of the content. As a reader, I never felt like I had my footing — something ominous seemed to be hovering just on the outskirts of Bess’s story, waiting to yank me out of a happy scene and push me beneath a current. Normally this would really bother me, that insecure feeling, but I have to say that it really worked for The Day The Falls Stood Still. The danger added a compelling element to the story that might not have otherwise been there!

Tom and Bess’s love story was convincing, romantic and heart-breaking. Those first love feelings were compellingly explored by the author, but it never lapsed into anything treacly. And thank goodness for that! Their love was the story’s anchor, but so much else was happening, too — including a powerful look at the loss of faith and maybe — maybe — how to get it back again. Also fantastic in the novel? The metaphysical way in which Tom relates to the river, a beast of its own; I can’t say there was actually “magic” happening here, but there isn’t any other way in which to really describe it.

I really, really loved the story, though I must confess to getting a little bored as I made my way through the final 60 pages of the novel. The pacing slowed down to a crawl just as time seemed to speed up. But don’t let that discourage you from reading this stunning story, a novel I’m happy to share with friends and coworkers. Anyone interested in the alteration of the natural world, industrialization, family dynamics and what it means to have and be a sister, parent, or friend will find something to enjoy in The Day The Falls Stood Still, and I’m eager to relive that awe-inspiring walk by the Niagara again myself.


4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1401340970 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from The Tome Traveller’s Blog