Niagara Falls is Still America's Honeymoon Capital
by Carl L. Biemiller)
June 1946, Vol. 1, No. 4
The Curtis Publishing Company
Independence Square, Philadelphia 5, PA
Franklin Delano Roosevelt."
Twenty-two miles from the northern end of Lake Erie, and fourteen from the southwestern tip of Lake Ontario, one of the world’s most famous rivers drops off a cliff. Despite appearances, the substance which hurtles over the brink to stain the sky with rainbow mist is not water. It is sentiment in liquid form. Twenty thousand years from now when the cataract disappears upstream in a gurgling Erie whirlpool, as the geologists predict, its tides may still be flowing. For this is no ordinary waterfall. This is Niagara.
Generations of sightseers have crossed state lines, international boundaries and oceans to view its tumbling majesty. The great and the near great have known awe and wonder at its might. The truth is that Niagara Falls long ago passed out of the resort state into that warm and especial niche America reserves for its fondest traditions. If the city were a song, it would be a folk ballad.
Millions of plain people are responsible for that. They built Niagara’s enduring reputation patiently, with post cards reading “wish you were here,” with gaudy cushion covers stamped Sweetheart, with Tuscarora Indian leather work, with gay pennants, with rides on the Great Gorge line, with heroes daring death in barrels. But most of all they built Niagara’s phenomenal lure with love.
The masthead of The Gazette, the newspaper which serves Niagara Falls’ 87,000 citizens, proclaims the long-established tourist mecca as “the world’s power city.” The chamber of commerce speaks of it as the “state’s tenth largest community” and boasts of its industrial prowess.
Such civic trumpeting is truthful. It is also waste breath. To the rest of the nation, The Falls (and the town of the same name across the river in Canada) is America’s honeymoon capital. Nobody knows exactly how many of the 2,000,000 visitors to The Falls each year arrive wearing stars in their eyes. But a survey of marital traffic made in 1945 revealed the visits of more than nine thousand touring honeymoon couples. Last year was not a good one, thanks to the uniformed duties which occupied most of the nation’s prospective benedicts elsewhere.
The old timers scorn surveys and estimates. They remember, as age always remembers youth, the slow, drowsy summer days of the 80’s, 90’s and the early years of the new century. Rackety trains chugged into the Falls Street station with hundreds of straw hatted men and white-gloved, sweep-skirted, button-shoed ladies crowding the excursion coaches and wooden Pullmans. The old-timers remember violins singing above the relentless, surging sound of the torrent, and the June night rockers on the long verandas of the old Cataract House. They recall the sunny afternoon hand-holding on the open-air trolleys of the Great Gorge Route.
Take a bit of minor impertinence to Prospect Point some warm afternoon and ask any couple in sight if they are honeymooners and why they came to The Falls. Eleven couples queried in succession said, “Our parents came here. We could have gone anywhere, but somehow this just seemed right.”
Niagara can thank Nature for this heritage. The jade torrent which was first documented in 1678 by Father Louis Hennepin, chaplain of a La Salle scouting party, is a spectacle that, once seen, can never be forgotten. Long before Hennepin and the exploring French, the Seneca Indians believed the falls to be the home of the Great Spirit. Twice a year they placed the fairest maiden in a white canoe laden with fruit and flowers, and set her adrift to be swept over the brink, thus becoming the “bride” of Manitou.
The emotional impact which moved Red Men to sacrifice has moved millions since in many ways. Lafayette, describing Goat Island, which separates the Horseshoe (Canadian) and the American falls, dubbed it “an aerial garden sustained by clouds and surrounded by thunder.” Charles Dickens called the avalanche of water “an image of beauty…changeless and indelible, until the pulses ceased to beat forever.”
Actually its best description can be found in the rapt silence which grips first-time visitors. Wave on wave, the concentrated drainage of half a continent piles over the 158 feet of the Horseshoe Falls and the 169 feet of the American descent at the rate of 210,000 cubic feet per second. Through the narrow, ever-eroding channel of the Niagara River the teeming waters of glacier-scooped Lake Erie fall 325 feet into Lake Ontario en route to the St. Lawrence River and the sea. As the flood leaps off the dolomite ledges, great clouds of mist rise to heights exceeding the cliff face itself. The water becomes a milky maelstrom in the churning pool below. Then, like shredded lace, the river streaks away down the narrowing gorge into vicious rapids and the implacable whirlpool, where, during the course of time, it has gored a hole 400 feet deep into the earth’s heart.
Niagara’s echoes endure. Historians find them in the yellowed journals of the French, British and early Americans who fought for this key corner to the fur routes. They exist in music. Jan Sibelius, the Finnish composer, once obtained permission to stand by the falls at midnight so that he might become attuned to their great chords for some future masterwork.
Best of all they exist, with their own special harmonies, in the hearts of plain Mister and Missus; people who, thirty years ago, dropped more than 100,000 post cards through the local post office every summer week end.
Nobody knows exactly when the villages of Manchester and Clarksville—amalgamated as the village of Niagara Falls in 1848 and incorporated as a city in 1892—received the first major impetus as a play, rest, and romance fad for the public.
The story goes that Jerome Bonaparte, brother of the stubby Corsican, married Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore against the wishes of his powerful kinsman.
Jerome, taking a broad hint to stay out of Europe, chose the site of the tumbling torrent for their honeymoon. The attendant publicity did the rest for Niagara.
All through the middle and late nineteenth century the charm of the Niagara Peninsula made pleasant news in many places. Westerners and Chicago was “West” then, came by the thousands to pause a bit in their empire building.
People jammed trains from New York. They came from Philadelphia by sleeper. In 1941 the town conducted a search for the oldest honeymooners, as part of a promotion to dedicate the new Rainbow (Honeymoon) Bridge which replaced the old structure destroyed by ice in 1938. Mr. and Mrs. Albert Praul of Philadelphia, then eighty-nine and eighty-six respectively, won hands down. They’d been newlyweds in 1876.
Through the graceful years preceding the gasoline age the registers of the old Cataract House, established in 1825, held the names of presidents, princes and potentates.
“A. Lincoln and family” registered in 1853, an unworried un-presidential “A. Lincoln” who wandered the shady walks of Goat Island and took a survey ride up to one of the oldest Indian reservations in the nation to watch the Tuscaroras fashioning leather wear. A wandering Chinaman named Li Hung-chang stopped by with sedan chair, retinue and trappings. He occupied the bridal suite alone and further puzzled the local citizens with astute questions about American wages.
Bobbie Burns, Scottish poet and genius, depressed by the sight of so much tipple and all water, allegedly scrawled his name on the Cataract register. So did Millard Fillmore, Grover Cleveland, and in more recent years a New York governor named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When fire gutted the white, chimney-studded Cataract House in 1945, seventy-seven old registers, some of which date back to 1840 were salvaged from the flames. They are in the hands of the historical society.
While Cupid acted as the city’s best press agent, Niagara Falls grew famous on another human weakness—the morbid fascination for danger. There is something about the grim old Thunderer which brings out a compelling desire to joust with death.
Probably the most notably insatiate Niagara daredevil was a French tightrope walker named Blondin.
He strung a rope about 1200 feet from the Canadian to the American falls, and walked over the torrent. On the return trip he carried a forty-pound iron ball.
Still not satisfied, he crossed with feet and hands loosely chained. Next he took a cook-stove out on the rope and made an omelet which he lowered to miracle-struck passengers aboard the Maid of the Mist, which bobbed below. He even walked the rope on stilts.
Many an early chastened bride came home from her honeymoon in 1859 with a husband who apparently remembered nothing about the stay except Blondin.
Luck held for tightrope walkers at Niagara. The records show that Signor Ballini, Maria Spelterman, Harry Leslie and a man named Calverly gave exhibitions without casualties. Steve Brodie gave up his Brooklyn Bridge hopping to jump into the cataract in a special metal-rubber rig, successfully. Still others dared and got away with it. Many were not so fortunate.
Oddly enough, the first person to go over The Falls in a barrel was a woman. She was also a schoolteacher. In 1901 Mrs. Annie Edson Taylor tucked herself into a specially designed barrel and went rolling through the Upper Rapids and over Horseshoe Falls.
The year that Annie was bunged in for her cruise was a wonderful one at Niagara. Many point to it as the year that marked the start of the resort’s big fame. Visitors came in mounting numbers. The Pan American Exposition in Buffalo had opened in May to “demonstrate progress on both continents.” It wasn’t any trouble for folks to pack a lunch and ride the train up to Niagara Falls.
Capt. John Brinker’s world-famous Great Gorge Route, an engineering marvel of railroad genius was rolling some thirty-two miles along both sides of the foaming river, offering one of the globe’s greatest scenic rides. It’s gone today, vanished in a rock fall that planted some five thousand tons of cliffside on the rail-bed. But it was comparatively new then. President McKinley rode the Gorge Route in a special car the morning of the same day he was shot by an anarchist in Buffalo.
The Shredded Wheat plant had been finished. Brand new, it was “a model factory with thirty thousand lights of glass to admit the golden sun.” Tourists poured through it. By 1925 they were visiting at the rate of 110,000 annually. World War II closed it, but it may open again someday.
The year 1901 marked the dawn of a new century. The air was as full of promise as dawn seen through the cataract spray. At the lower end of Falls Street, where approximately 175 souvenir shops still operate in the summer, all the world’s Aunt Minnies bought spar jewelry to send home. All the world’s Uncle Georges spent the morning bouncing around the basin at the foot of The Falls in the Maid of the Mist, a daring little craft which carried thrill seekers right up to the base of the torrent. Uncles’ afternoons were divided between adventures in the Cave of the Winds—the narrow rock paths which lead beneath the Bridal Veil portion of the American Falls—and adventures with Canadian ale in the cool and restful hotel bars and taverns.
There was conversation about the dangers of big business destroying the Niagara spectacle, and in 1910 the United States and Canada made a treaty limiting the amount of water diversion. Through the early years of the century people came from Australia, India, South America, Europe and the corners of the United States to enjoy the wonders of The Falls. They still do.
The Niagara they see isn’t the town that dad and granddad saw. Big industry lines the river banks now, war-swollen factories which employed some 36,000 people last year; firms that created more than $200,000,000 worth of manufactured products. The city’s back areas are shabby, work-grimed. But while industry has altered, it has not appreciably changed the enduring charm. State commissions and civic associations have seen to that. Tourists still come first. Practically every street holds its surprising quota of tourist homes where very little money buys lodging. The eleven hotels, eight in Niagara Falls, New York, and three in Niagara Falls, Ontario, stay full most of the year round.
Almost as many people visit the ice-locked beauty of The Falls in winter as come during the summer months. For only when the great white cold stalks from the Arctic is the thunder of the torrent muted into an eerie hush; only then do the fallen rocks hump themselves into grotesque figures and shining white mountains; only then do The Falls on both sides of the international line blaze in the sun like monstrous, magic portals to some ice king’s palace. And, at night, when twenty-four searchlights mounted on the Canadian shore beam their 1,440,000,000 candlepower of colored light on this frozen grandeur, the aurora borealis blushes for shame.
The things that visitors do at Niagara are essentially the same as they always did. Generally speaking, the first day is spent meandering around the ten acres of Prospect Park, looking at the view from Prospect Point or from Hennepin View where the good priest first observed the falling river. Perhaps a boat ride on the historic Maid of the Mist craft seems in order. A simple elevator descent, a dollar for a ticket, and the cruise is under way. Maid of the Mist boats have been bobbing around The Falls since 1846.
First-day visitors also walk the shaded lanes of Goat Island, so named because the sole survivor of a pre-Revolutionary winter was a bearded old billy. They will cross little foot bridges to Luna Island to get a better look at Bridal Veil Falls, a part of the American spectacle. Certainly they will visit the famous Cave of the Winds, a concession of the Wright family for four generations.
This scenic adventure has been a conversation piece in millions of homes. It begins by donning special waterproofed clothing in a special dressing room. Then an elevator descent is made to a footpath which runs along the rocks at the base of Bridal Veil. The wooden path leads into a shallow cavern literally behind the curtain of falling water. Here, as the grinding voice of the cataract blasts your ears, and the whistling, spray-laden winds spurt from the boiling eddies and fuming rocks, is all the mighty impact of Niagara. Shouts are meaningless and irrevocable hazard is inches away.
Ordinarily, visitors reserve their second day for their Canadian trip. If they only want to see the magnificent floral gardens that the late Nassau-murdered Harry Oakes spent a million dollars to create, or the tunnel that runs from the Table Rock House underneath the Horseshoes Falls, they can walk across the Rainbow Bridge.
All that sister Canada asks before your entry is proof that you are a U. S. citizen or possess proper credentials. “Where do you live? Where are you going? How long do you plan to stay? Got a driver’s license? Any identification? Taking anything in besides stuff for personal use?”
You’ll get more questions if you drive across, and not because the toll is a quarter instead of a dime. “What’s in the trunk?...Anything to declare? How long are you going to be…Okay. Leave your registration card. Pick it up on the way back.” To return to the U. S., you must have some proof of citizenship.
By and large, customs rules and immigration practices between the two nations are simple. If you stay forty-eight hours or more you are allowed to bring back duty-free goods valued up to a hundred dollars. If you visit less than that time, then almost anything you buy is dutiable.
By the third day of a Niagara stay, most people are ready to go shopping, holding the afternoon for a bus or car ride to Old Fort Niagara, at the tip of Lake Ontario. It is a gem like restoration of the fortress once held by the French and British, during their wars for the New World.
Ten out of ten of the souvenir shoppers will buy Niagara spar jewelry. “They always have and they always will,” explained Frank E. Janiak, a curio dealer since 1927, whose father-in-law before him carried on the same business for a half century. “They come into my shop with the bliss still shining. He wants something nice for his mother. She wants something nice for her mother. That’s fine. The only thing is, he’s got ten dollars to spend and they also want something for about twenty other people. They fight, easy and bashful at first, then good. That first fight. It’s wonderful. I straighten everything out. I tell him spar jewelry for your mother and the lady’s mother—the rest get post cards.”
Niagara “spray” or spar goes back some three hundred years. Once known as “Erie stone” and reputed to have curative powers, this white, crystalline, quartzite substance, with a curious trick of holding light, is taken from the rock strata in the Gorge. After heat and patient craft in the hands of an expert like James Potter, who has been making it locally for more than thirty years, it shapes into magical little trinkets.
Second-ranking favorite among souvenirs is the Tuscarora Indian leather work. “The Indians still make it up at the reservation,” explained Janiak, “But sometimes I think the tribe has spread. Today I get a lot of it from Manhattan.”
And perennial of all perennials, the Niagara Falls post card will be going through the mails as long as the water goes over The Falls.
“I don’t know how many cards go out of this place,” pondered Janiak. “For years I’ve been glancing at them and wondering, ‘Wish you were here,’ they write first. What do they say most often? Easy. ‘I am enraptured!’”
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