America's first state park: Niagara Falls

by Talbot Eckweiler

Part two in a five-part series.

While driving North on I-90, I caught my first view of the city of Niagara Falls’ skyline. Tall spires of concrete, metal, and glass snaked toward the heavens: the miracle of man, evident in many a metropolis. To the right, in front of the city, squat patches of orange, yellow, red and green huddled together. My eyes may strayed from the road one more moment to watch a wide, rolling puff of hazy gray matter rise off the clustered trees and partially obscure the view of the city.

My first thought: “There’s some sort of forest fire! How am I going to get to the park?” However, there were no siren wails, no fire trucks rushing down the middle of the road. Nothing on the radio suggested there was anything wrong.

When I reached Niagara Falls state park, I learned that the rising cloud I watched wasn’t smoke at all. It was water—mist—rising from the falls.

Water drops over Niagara Falls at a rate of 3,160 tons per second. It hits the base of the falls with 280 tons on the American side and 2,509 tons of force at the Canadian side. The massive amount of force tumbling over the falls every second creates a constant, heavy mist visible from miles away.

In 1856, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted noticed that the perpetual mist provides a steady source of moisture for local wildlife. Olmsted claimed the area was so full of natural wonders that Niagara was a place where “the masses could be renewed.”

However, in the mid 19th century, much America’s attention and energy was focused on industrialization. The country’s natural resources were power sources waiting to be tapped, and Niagara Falls offered an even bigger promise than most. Entrepreneurs saw the raw energy of the falls and recognized the opportunity to churn water into profit. By the 1850’s mills sprawled along the shores; industries re-arranged the natural rock formations and built dams along the falls.

According to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation website, “little more than a hundred years ago, the land surrounding Niagara Falls belong(ed) to private owners who charged visitors a fee to see the mighty waterfalls. People had to pay to be allowed to look through holes in a fence in order to be able to see Niagara.”

Only Goat Island, owned by the Porter family, remained close to its natural state.  Augustus Porter built a bridge and a toll for his island, and tourists paid to visit.

The industrialization of the falls bothered Olmsted. He believed that Niagara was a unique site of natural beauty, that it should be restored to its original state and protected by the government. It would take some convincing for the state of New York to agree.

In 1869, Olmsted rallied a group of influential writers, scientists, and other politically connected people together to “Free Niagara.” The group included Thomas Vincent Welch, Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Olmsted collected 600 signatures and sent the petition to Albany.

In 1882, journalist Baxter Harrison wrote a series of letters for New York and Boston newspapers, detailing the values of the falls which transcended economic profits. “Apart from the profound interest which belongs to the great Falls, the river scenery of Niagara has many charms peculiar to itself. As with charms of scenery elsewhere, these are hardly to be known at first sight and are the more enjoyed the more they are courted,” Harrison wrote.

Harrison urged the legislature to enact new laws to restore the falls to their natural beauty, and to protect the falls against future human interference. “In whatever is done by the State there should be not only a wise consideration of immediate public requirements, but a prudent forecast of the future,” he wrote.

In 1879, the New York state legislature commissioned Olmsted and James Gardner to conduct a survey of the area. Olmsted and Gardner presented their report in 1880, and they advocated that the state should purchase and restore the land around the falls.

Welch documented the passage of Niagara Reservation Act in his book, How Niagara was Made Free. In the first chapter, he writes, “On March 22, 1880, Hon. Horatio Seymour, President of the State Survey Board, transmitted a special report to the Legislature on the preservation of the scenery of the Falls of Niagara, recommending the extinguishment of the private titles to certain lands immediately adjacent to the falls, which the State should acquire by purchase and hold in trust for the people forever.”

On April 30th, 1885 Governor David B. Hill signed legislation creating the Niagara Reservation, New York’s first state park.

The “Free Niagara,” movement grew out of an idea that America’s natural wonders were worth more than the money they could generate through industry. In his “Special Report on the Preservation of Niagara Falls,” Olmsted wrote that saving the area was a “sacred obligation to mankind.” Since then, New York State has set aside land for 177 other state parks.

In 2010, the park celebrates its 125th year anniversary. Today, visitors can ride the elevator to the eighth floor of the Welcome Center, where they can catch a first glimpse of the falls. The view from the building reveals a park mostly unobstructed by buildings. The landscape of Niagara Falls state park was designed by Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York City.

Visitors at Niagara Falls state park can also walk across pedestrian bridge to Goat Island. As they wander through paved paths surrounded by native wilderness, they can admire the memorial Nikola Tesla, one of the fathers of commercial electricity. Not far from Tesla, they can find Luna Island, which straddles the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. There, rainbows flicker in and out of view, common as the birds that rest on the rapid-surrounded rocks. Across Goat Island, visitors can stand at Terrapin Point, where they can look at the top of the Horseshoe Falls.

Niagara draws an average of 13 million people a year. They bring their families, their lovers, their pets and their cameras. The sight of the falls is one that people seek and attempt to share with those they care for most.

Harrison’s suggestion for a prudent future has proven true. For all that humans can achieve, there are some wonders that make us simply stop and stare.  People from all over the world come to Niagara Falls for the sheer beauty of the natural landscape, for experiences as powerful and elusive as the mist.