Day 3: Buffalo (Part i: Niagara Falls)

No trip to Olmsted’s Buffalo would be complete without a visit to Niagara Falls.  In the 1870s Olmsted (and Calvert Vaux) had marked the head of the Niagara River, and by association all the waters of the Great Lakes, with Front Park.  In the late 1880’s Olmsted and Vaux would influence the landscape where those waters drop over the Niagara Escarpment on their way to Lake Ontario, at a major hydrological and aesthetic power spot, the Goat Island Niagara Reserve.

By 1882, Jacob Schoellkopf’s Hydraulic Power Company (later Niagara Falls Power) had attracted seven mills along the high bank (the top edge of the Niagara Gorge north of the American Falls) all producing power from his hydraulic canal.

[General View of Power Development by the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company, from The Niagara Falls Electrical Handbook: Being a Guide for Visitors from Abroad Attending the International Electrical Congress, St. Louis, Mo., September, 1904. Niagara Falls, N. Y. : Pub. under the auspices of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1904. p. 36.

In part thanks to Nikola Tesla and his development of an alternating current transmission system, which Westinghouse produced, the power of Niagara Falls reached Buffalo on November 15th, 1896–completing a loop of water and electricity (sent back upstream), the first long distance transmission for commercial purposes.  New industry (including the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, whose canals and railyards are now the Tifft Preserve) moved to Buffalo: the Steel Belt was underway.  Buffalo soon became the City of Lights, when Niagara Falls power lit up the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.


Frederick Church, whose huge painting “Niagara Falls” was first shown in 1857, lectured sometime before 1869 on the Falls’ impending ruin.

As Olmsted’s biographer, Laura Wood Roper, describes it, “mills, flumes, shops, icehouses, signboards, hotels, and fences gradually defaced and crowded the once natural riverbank” and “visitors grew increasingly exasperated by the horde of peddlers, guides, photographers, gatekeepers, hack drivers and assorted sharpers who importuned them at every step” (FLO: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted 379).  People paid a fee to look through holes in a fence to see the Falls.

(Man and woman on Canadian side: note development above American Falls.)

In 1864 President Lincoln had signed a bill “withdrawing the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove from the public lands and ceding them to California to be held for ‘public use, resort and recreation . . . inalienable for all time'” (Roper 268).  It was the first official recognition by the US of the obligation of a democratic government to preserve natural beauty for the enjoyment of all people, not just for an elite class.

Appointed to the Yosemite Commission, Olmsted drafted and delivered a report in 1865 that articulated the philosophical basis for state and national parks: “For the same reason that the water of rivers should be guarded against private appropriation and the use of it for the purpose of navigation and otherwise protected against obstruction, portions of natural scenery may therefore properly be guarded and cared for by government.  To simply reserve them from monopoly by individuals” is not enough, though.  They also should be “laid open to the use of the body of the people” (Roper 284-285).  Olmsted thus considered magnificent natural scenery a “commons,” equivalent to other natural resources and deserving of the same protection, resources, stewardship and infrastructure for accessibility.

While working on the Buffalo parks, Olmsted would visit the Falls–where in August 1869 he met with the architect Henry Hobbs Richardson, NY State lieutenant governor William Dorsheimer and his colleague Calvert Vaux to discuss what might be done to preserve the scenery.  But it wasn’t until 1878 that the subject was first broached in public, by Lord Dufferin, then Governor General of Canada, in an address to the Ontario Society of Artists (Roper 379).

By 1880 a campaign on the American side had begun, led by Olmsted, for the establishment of a “reservation” to preserve the natural beauty of the Falls and to facilitate access by the public.  The NY State Legislature passed a bill providing for the selection and appropriation of land around the falls in 1883 and a bond bill to finance the purchase of the land in 1885, officially creating the Niagara Reservation (often referred to as the nation’s oldest State Park, though technically Yosemite Valley, under California State control 1864-1906, came first).  Olmsted and Vaux were subsequently employed to prepare a plan for the state reservation, which they presented in 1887.  In their report, they mention the changing public attitude toward natural scenery: a century before, the Falls might have been termed hideous or awful, while sixty years before, they were looked at chiefly as a source of power.  Now their particular weather was sublime.

Calvert and Vaux’s plan to “restore the landscape around Niagara Falls,” including Goat Island, provides “only such constructions as would forward the enjoyment of it” (Roper 397).

In1763, Seneca Indians killed eighty citizens and British soldiers who were transporting material along the Niagara Gorge; the next year to make amends they ceded to the British a four mile wide strip of land along the east side of the Niagara River from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie.  (Thus Buffalo’s Allen Street, which touches the southern end of that grant, marks what Jack Foran has termed a “schizogeographic fault line,” clearly sensible in the displacement of street blocks north and south of Allen.)  John Stedman, one of only two survivors of the Devil’s Hole Massacre, claimed the land and islands above the Falls for himself.  In the 1770s, he raised a herd of goats on the island, “Goat Island.”

From my first visit to the Falls–on a cross-country drive with a gentleman who had offered me a lift to Boston in exchange for early morning driving shifts behind the wheel of his VW camper–I remember the crazy blossoms of the Linden trees (or Basswood), a phenomenon I noticed for the first time there, not the grandeur of the Falls.

The paths and walks at Niagara Reservation–on Goat Island, Luna and Green Islands, with views of Bird, Robinson, Chapin Islands, and their Three Sisters and one Brother–are calculated to draw the walker back from the Falls, to linger in this beauty.  (There is an account of Olmsted leading H.H. Richardson around the woods of Goat Island for a long time, before showing him the Falls.)  The pools, riffles and rapids by Luna just above the Bridal Falls are intimately seductive, without effective barrier.

A terrifying intimacy, when you know where it leads: “the densest region of shade merges its identity into a desperate kiss” (Aragon, Paris Peasant).  Listen, and you will hear the massive ground tone of the Falls, just downstream, offstage.

The design is radically intact, the extent to which it invites “an all-consuming thirst for open air and danger.”  The state cops keep an eye on “people they see standing in the same place for long periods of time or walking about aimlessly, muttering to themselves or looking distraught.”  One study has logged 20-25 suicides a year, and notes that the most popular time is Monday at 4pm  Honeymooners flock to the pools above the Falls in a spirit of contradiction.

When Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated, I was waiting for some dubious tacos in a restaurant in Niagara Falls’ economic drop-out zone.  You may never in your life see a more busted-up town.  The driver of a pickup truck here hit a drunk and dragged his body under the truck all the way to the border.  Here is where Elon Hooker built the ideal workers’ village, on a toxic waste dump.  Here is where the Manhattan Project shipped its dirty steel.  Here is sickness and misery.  Here also is heroism, where Lois Gibbs organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association, nursing her children in front of national television cameras.

Skipping the blight of Niagara Falls, many prefer to focus on Clifton Hill on the Canadian side, its gambling and amusements.

And yet, the Falls is a magnificent spot.  Amidst land scraped bare by retreating glaciers and thrust under the sky, tabula rasa between two Great Lakes, Niagara Falls channels one-fifth the planet’s fresh surface water.  Maybe it’s the ions, static in the gorge that lifts the hair from your skull.

When you think about it, the Canadians played it right.  Lord Dufferin campaigned for a reservation, then backed off, once the US ran with it.  It was only a matter of time before the USA would preserve Goat Island, and erase industry along the gorge, restoring a natural look to the Falls, as seen from the Canadian side.  The Triscuit factory

hides–or hid–behind the tallest trees.

Canadians have framed this view with landscaping of their own, for a doubly green promenade–over which Frankenstein lifts a Clifton Hill cheeseburger, grinning back at the toothless storefronts of Niagara Falls, USA.

The economic gradient feels steep: Canada gets the view, the US builds a bridge to nowhere, for a bit of it.  At the same time, the tourist economy that drops through Niagara Falls (and its casino) makes few stops in Buffalo.

My forbearing and fun host, Robin Brox, drives me to the Falls.  We can’t resist the draw to Terrapin Point beside Horseshoe Falls.  As soon as we are taking it in, we hear frantic shouting: right in front of us appears a man, lunging for his son smiling and leaning from the other side of the barrier.  A boy with Down’s Syndrome, he had been dangling his foot in the water, a few feet upstream from the Falls.  The father’s heart in throat communicates instantly to ours.

Every park has its rangers

and its Mennonites.

Its group of communicants

receiving instruction from the Cave of the Winds.

In a gentler dell, at a wooded bit opposite Crow Island, upstream of Bridal Falls, the watery mirrors caused us to reflect on the mythology in the course of our lives.  Thanatos held our ankles as we contemplated the riffles.

At the Bridal Falls, a marriage.  I hid behind the viewfinder and captured the kiss.

Isabelle and I were married twelve years and two days ago: we actually drove to the Falls for our “honeymoon” (I moved to Buffalo for grad school right after we got hitched in New Mexico) and enjoyed champagne in a plastic ice bucket at the Econolodge.  Little did we know at the time that, five years later, Isabelle would create one of her first large-scale steel pieces, a”Post-Car” for the Buffalo Art on Wheels initiative, to be exhibited in the autumn of 2003 on the State Reservation near Prospect Point.


At one point, the piece was vandalized and Isabelle had to do some onsite repair work, running an enormous extension cord from the Visitor’s Center.  I accompanied her there and enjoyed watching the flow of couples as they circled round the piece and the guys (typically) did a double take at the sight of Isabelle’s arc flashing.

We missed the statue of Nicola Tesla.

Tesla suffered a peculiar affliction in which blinding flashes of light would appear before his eyes, often accompanied by visions.  In 1926, Tesla commented on the ills of the social subservience of women and the struggle of women toward gender equality, indicating that humanity’s future would be run by “Queen Bees.”  He believed that women would become the dominant sex in the future.

The “American Electrician” gives a description of an early tesla coil wherein a glass battery jar, 15 x 20 cm (6 x 8 in) is wound with 60 to 80 turns of AWG No. 18 B & S magnet wire (0.823 mm²). Into this is slipped a primary consisting of eight to ten turns of AWG No. 6 B & S wire (13.3 mm²) and the whole combination immersed in a vessel containing linseed or mineral oil.

Robin describes a phenomenon she had once seen: “It’s called the reverse waterfall.  Essentially, the shape of the land underneath the surface of this very narrow inland bay.  It’s really deep in the middle, much more shallow on the sides.  So, when the tide changes, the middle surges upward and turns into this churning white water, in the middle of, like, very smooth, placid sort of flow on either side.  Really insane roiling bubbling nastiness.”

Some weeds toss in the winds of the Falls.

As Robin talks to me, the Falls make their own weather.  The weather drifts.  At the heart of power and contradiction a delicate spiral rises turning toward the sky.

1 Comment »

  1. Robin Brox said

    The reverse waterfall is located in Hancock, Maine (only a bit over 700 miles north-northeast of Niagara Falls, New York).

    The roar of white noise embedded here is spectacular–thanks, Jonathan!

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