A Brief History of Niagara Falls

A Brief History of Niagara Falls

While it is not certain how long there have been people living in the Niagara area, estimates usually range between 5000 and 8000 years. Little is known about the earliest inhabitants of the region, but later residents have left a rich and exciting history. By the 1st century A.D., ancestors of the present-day “Iroguoian” peoples were firmly established in the area. Approximately 1500 years later their descendants reached a major turning point in their history when they took park in the formation of the “Great League of Peace”.

The League, also known to us today as the Iroquois Confederacy, was a joining of five nations whose territories stretched across what is now New York State. The Five Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onandaga, Oneida, and Mohawk) called themselves “Ho-de-no-saunee” (People of the Extended House), and were a major influence in the Northeast for the next two centuries. The Niagara region was under the stewardship of the Seneca, who were called “Keepers of the Western Door”.

A series of events that would have far-reaching consequences for Niagara took place in the 1600’s. Europeans, who had been busily colonizing other parts of North America, began to explore the interior of the continent. The first of these explorers to pass through the Niagara area were French, and among them was Father Louis Hennepin, a Recollect priest. Father Hennepin visited the region in December of 1678 and was overwhelmed by the size and magnificence of the Falls. Father Hennepin later returned to France, and there, in 1683, published an account of his travels. This work was translated into a number of European languages, and brought the existence of Niagara Falls to the attention of the “Old World” for the first time.

At the same time that they were exploring North America, the Europeans were also taking control of the continent. The French gradually occupied the middle of the continent from Northeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The Niagara River, which joins Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, quickly became an important link in the French water transport systems. Soldiers and supplies could be carried by boat along most of the river’s length with only one portage (around the Falls and rapids). In order to maintain control over the river, the French found it necessary to establish a permanent presence in Niagara. In 1679, they built a crude log fort at the mouth of the Niagara River where it joins Lake Ontario. It was soon abandoned. Another log fort was built in 1687, but it, too, was abandoned.

By the early 1700’s, however, it became apparent that the British (another colonial power in North America) had designs on New France. Accordingly, in 1726, the French began the construction of the present Fort Niagara on the site of the previous forts. This time, they built for permanence. The first building the French erected at Fort Niagara was a heavily-fortified stone chateau, which remains today and is called the “French Castle”. It was a self-contained fort in and of itself. The French later expanded Fort Niagara, adding other buildings and massive earthworks, but these efforts did them little good in the end. During the so-called “French and Indian Wars” of the 1750’s – a series of bloody battles fought in many parts of the Northeast – the British managed to wrest control of much of the continent away from France. Britain gained control of the Niagara region July 26, 1759, when the French surrendered Fort Niagara after a two-week siege.

Although the British occupied Fort Niagara the Iroquois were still a major power in the region. The Five Nations had become the Six Nations. In the early 1720’s, the Tuscarora nation had been driven out of their native Carolinas by European settlers. They migrated to the Niagara area, where they became “little brothers” of the League of Peace. The British remained in Fort Niagara, however, and by the time the American Revolution ended they had gained total control over the region. The Six Nations were divided over the Revolution, and those who had sided with the British were devastated by a vengeful US Government. The power of the League was shattered. During the years of the Revolution, the British had used Fort Niagara as a base for military raids into the rebelling colonies.

The Niagara area remained entirely in the possession of the British Crown until 1796. In that year, the new US government (in accordance with the Jay Treaty) took possession of the eastern shores of the Niagara River, while the British crossed over to remain in control of the western shores. A few small communities existed on both sides of the river by the end of the American Revolution, but their growth was slow. Few persons came to Niagara over the next few years. The War of 1812 had a disastrous effect on the region. Battle after battle raged across the Niagara Frontier. Villages and settlements on both sides of the new border were burned to the ground. The war was particularly cruel to the residents of the region because many of them had relatives and friends on both sides of the border. When the war ended in 1815, settlements and villages were re-established and began to grow.

Niagara was (and is) a fertile land, with a climate suitable for the cultivation of many food crops. Many farms sprang up across the region. By that time, some persons had begun to see the potential of Niagara Falls as an attraction. A number of artists had sketched and painted the Falls, and copies of their works appeared in homes and public buildings throughout North America and Europe. Niagara became increasingly famous, and the number of visitors to the area rose each year.

Two marvels of engineering made Niagara accessible to the world during the second quarter of the 19th century. The first was the Erie Canal (completed in 1825), which connected the Hudson River with Lake Erie. It quickly became part of a heavily-traveled water transportation route between the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes. The second engineering marvel was the Roebling Suspension Bridge over the Niagara Gorge, which was opened in 1855. Superseding a light carriage bridge that had been built in 1848, the Roebling Bridge (named for the family of engineers who later built the Brooklyn Bridge) was a massive structure that carried traffic on two levels – rail traffic above and carriages below. The railroad level of the bridge connected the East Coast and the growing western cities of Detroit and Chicago by the shortest possible route. The Niagara region became a busy center for shipping and commerce. By water and by rail, the flow of goods and travelers moving through the area increased year by year.

Niagara’s new accessibility encouraged a growing number of travelers to visit for the specific purpose of seeing the falls. The American Civil War put a damper on tourism. Niagara was untouched by the battles that desolated many American communities, but the region was not unaffected by the war and the issues surrounding it. Many local men died on the battlefields. Even before the Civil War, the Niagara Frontier had been involved in the bitter dispute over the existence of slavery in the United States. The area was a northern terminus of the Underground Railway. By night the Niagara River was a dangerous place, where professional slave catchers patrolled the waters trying to snare locals who smuggled escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. Many of the old houses along the lower Niagara River still have secret cellars and tunnels that were used to hide the slaves until it was safe to move them. When the Civil War ended, the pattern of tourism and commerce was gradually restored. More people came to Niagara than ever before.

The last quarter of the 19th century also saw the rapid growth of a new sector of the local economy: Manufacturing. The Niagara River was the source of power for this new industry. As early as 1850 a hydraulic canal had been blasted through the village of Niagara Falls to provide water to turn the wheels of local mills and factories. By the 1880’s the number of factories in Niagara had grown dramatically as many companies sought to tap into Niagara’s abundant and inexpensive water power. Industrial growth would continue in the area for the next several decades.

During the 1880’s and 1890’s, Niagara’s growth in population, tourism, and industry was reflected in three events that would have important consequences for the area, for the United States, and for the world. One of these events took place in 1892, when the villages of Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge incorporated to form the City of Niagara Falls. The city continued to grow in size and population for several decades, eventually incorporating several other villages. Another important event occurred in 1895. Thoughtful persons had long feared that the area around the famous waterfalls at Niagara would be spoiled by overbuilding and commercialization.

In 1885, the New York State Legislature created the Niagara Reservation in order to preserve the beauty of the Falls and guarantee that the public would always have access to them. The Reservation was the first of New York’s many State Parks, and its creation inspired the formation of other state parks across the United States. Perhaps the most consequential event of all took place ten years later.

In 1885 the Edward Dean Adams hydroelectric generating station was opened at Niagara Falls. Before then, widespread generation and use of electricity had not been practical because the generating facilities of the time produced direct current, which is difficult to transmit over distances of more than a few miles. The Adams Station was the world’s first commercial-scale producer of alternating current, which could be sent over great distances. In 1896, one year after the station’s opening, the world was astounded when electricity generated at Niagara Falls was transmitted to the city of Buffalo, twenty five miles away. Electricity, which had been more or less of a novelty with limited applications, could now become an easily-obtained, dependable source of power for humanity. The world would never be the same. The arch that formed the front entrance of the Adams Station was moved to Goat Island State Park (in the middle of the Falls) in 1966.

Ten years later a large bronze statue of Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the A-C induction motor that altered the future of the world, was placed in front of the arch. During the first half of the 20th century, Niagara’s pattern of population, industrial, and tourism growth continued more or less unchanged except for temporary fluctuations in tourism during both World Wars. The second half of the century, however, has seen great changes in the region. Preservation and restoration programs have served to highlight much of Niagara’s past, while ambitious new building programs have reshaped both the area’s face and its economy.

Still one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, Niagara is also becoming known as a major convention destination, a Great Lakes vacation resort, and center of Native American culture. The remainder of the 20th century cannot, of course, be foreseen. It is probable, however, that certain characteristics of the Niagara area will affect its future. The Falls of Niagara will continue to draw millions of visitors each year. Niagara’s resources of water and energy will become increasingly valuable. The area’s temperate climate will remain attractive to those who must deal with North America’s many climatic extremes, and the people of Niagara will prove to be an important asset in the growth of the local economy.

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