The Englishwoman in America, by Isabella Bird

Chapter 11.

“I’ve seen nothing” — A disappointment — Incongruities — Hotel gaieties and “doing Niagara” — Irish drosky-drivers — “The Hell of Waters” — Beauties of Niagara — The picnic party — The White Canoe — A cold shower-bath — “The Thunder of Waters” — A magic word — “The Whirlpool” — Story of “Bloody Run” — Yankee opinions of English ladies — A metamorphosis — The nigger guide — A terrible situation — Termination Rock — Impressions of Niagara — Juvenile precocity — A midnight journey — Street adventures in Hamilton.

“Have you seen the Falls?” — “No.” “Then you’ve seen nothing of America.” I might have seen Trenton Falls, Gennessee Falls, the Falls of Montmorenci and Lorette; but I had seen nothing if I had not seen the Falls (par excellence) of Niagara. There were divers reasons why my friends in the States were anxious that I should see Niagara. One was, as I was frequently told, that all I had seen, even to the “Prayer Eyes,” would go for nothing on my return; for in England, America was supposed to be a vast tract of country containing one town — New York; and one astonishing natural phenomenon, called Niagara. “See New York, Quebec, and Niagara,” was the direction I received when I started upon my travels. I never could make out how, but somehow or other, from my earliest infancy, I had been familiar with the name of Niagara, and, from the numerous pictures I had seen of it, I could, I suppose, have sketched a very accurate likeness of the Horse-shoe Fall. Since I landed at Portland, I had continually met with people who went into ecstatic raptures with Niagara; and after passing within sight of its spray, and within hearing of its roar — after seeing it the great centre of attraction to all persons of every class — my desire to see it for myself became absorbing. Numerous difficulties had arisen, and at one time I had reluctantly given up all hope of seeing it, when Mr. and Mrs. Walrence kindly said, that, if I would go with them, they would return to the east by way of Niagara.

Between the anticipation of this event, and the din of the rejoicings for the “capture of Sebastopol,” I slept very little on the night before leaving Toronto, and was by no means sorry when the cold grey of dawn quenched the light of tar-barrels and gas-lamps. I crossed Lake Ontario in the iron steamer Peerless; the lake was rough as usual, and, after a promenade of two hours on the spray-drenched deck, I retired to the cabin, and spent some time in dreamily wondering whether Niagara itself would compensate for the discomforts of the journey thither. Captain D—— gravely informed me that there were “a good many cases” below, and I never saw people so deplorably sea-sick as in this steamer. An Indian officer who had crossed the Line seventeen times was sea-sick for the first time on Lake Ontario. The short, cross, chopping seas affect most people. The only persons in the saloon who were not discomposed by them were two tall school-girls, who seemed to have innumerable whispered confidences and secrets to confide to each other.

We touched the wharf at Niagara, a town on the British side of the Niagara river — “cars for Buffalo, all aboard,” — and just crossing a platform, we entered the Canada cars, and on the top of some frightful precipices, and round some terrific curves, we were whirled to the Clifton House at Niagara. I left the cars, and walked down the slope to the verge of the cliff; I forgot my friends, who had called me to the hotel to lunch — I forgot everything — for I was looking at the Falls of Niagara.

“No more than this! — what seem’d it now

By that far flood to stand?

A thousand streams of lovelier flow

Bathe my own mountain land,

And thence o’er waste and ocean track

Their wild sweet voices call’d me back.

They call’d me back to many a glade,

My childhood’s haunt of play,

Where brightly ‘mid the birchen shade

Their waters glanced away:

They call’d me with their thousand waves

Back to my fathers’ hills and graves.”

The feelings which Mrs. Hemans had attributed to Bruce at the source of the Nile, were mine as I took my first view of Niagara. The Horse-shoe Fall at some distance to my right was partially hidden, but directly in front of me were the American and Crescent Falls. The former is perfectly straight, and looked like a gigantic mill-weir. This resemblance is further heightened by an enormous wooden many-windowed fabric, said to be the largest paper-mill in the United States. A whole collection of mills disfigures this romantic spot, which has received the name of Manchester, and bids fair to become a thriving manufacturing town! Even on the British side, where one would have hoped for a better state of things, there is a great fungus growth of museums, curiosity-shops, taverns, and pagodas with shining tin cupolas. Not far from where I stood, the members of a picnic party were flirting and laughing hilariously, throwing chicken-bones and peach-stones over the cliff, drinking champagne and soda-water. Just as I had succeeded in attaining the proper degree of mental abstraction with which it is necessary to contemplate Niagara, a ragged drosky-driver came up, “Yer honour, may be ye’re in want of a carriage? I’ll take ye the whole round — Goat Island, Whirlpool, and Deil’s Hole — for the matter of four dollars.” Niagara made a matter of “a round,” dollars, and cents, was too much for my equanimity; and in the hope of losing my feelings of disappointment, I went into the Clifton House, enduring a whole volley of requests from the half-tipsy drosky-drivers who thronged the doorway.

This celebrated hotel, which is kept on the American plan, is a huge white block of building, with three green verandahs round it, and can accommodate about four hundred people. In the summer season it is the abode of almost unparalleled gaiety. Here congregate tourists, merchants, lawyers, officers, senators, wealthy southerners, and sallow down-easters, all flying alike from business and heat. Here meet all ranks, those of the highest character, and those who have no character to lose; those who by some fortunate accident have become possessed of a few dollars, and those whose mine of wealth lies in the gambling-house — all for the time being on terms of perfect equality. Balls, in doors and out of doors, nightly succeed to parties and picnics; the most novel of which are those in the beautiful garden in front of the hotel. This garden has spacious lawns lighted by lamps; and here, as in the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ the visitors dance on summer evenings to the strains of invisible music. But at the time of my second visit to the Falls all the gaiety was over; the men of business had returned to the cities, the southerners had fled to their sunny homes — part of the house was shut up, and in the great dining-room, with tables for three hundred, we sat down to lunch with about twenty-five persons, most of them Americans and Germans of the most repulsive description. After this meal, eaten in the “five minutes all aboard” style, we started on a sight-seeing expedition. Instead of being allowed to sit quietly on Table Rock, gazing upon the cataract, the visitor, yielding to the demands of a supposed necessity, is dragged a weary round — he must see the Falls from the front, from above, and from below; he must go behind them, and be drenched by them; he must descend spiral staircases at the risk of his limbs, and cross ferries at that of his life; he must visit Bloody Run, the Burning Springs, and Indian curiosity-shops, which have nothing to do with them at all; and when the poor wretch is thoroughly bewildered and wearied by “doing Niagara,” he is allowed to steal quietly off to what he really came to see — the mighty Horse-shoe Fall, with all its accompaniments of majesty, sublimity, and terror.

Round the door of the Clifton House were about twenty ragged, vociferous drosky-drivers, of most demoralised appearance, all clamorous for “a fare.” “We want to go to Goat Island; how much is it?” “Five dollars.” “I’ll take you for four dollars and a half.” “No, sir, he’s a cheat and a blackguard; I’ll take you for four.” “I’ll take you as cheap as any one,” shouts a man in rags; “I’ll take you for three.” “Very well.” “I’ll take you as cheap as he; he’s drunk, and his carriage isn’t fit for a lady to step into,” shouted the man who at first asked five dollars. After this they commenced a regular mêlée, when blows were given and received, and frequent allusions were made to “the bones of St. Patrick.” At last our friend in rags succeeded in driving up to the door, and we found his carriage really unfit for ladies, as the stuffing in most places was quite bare, and the step and splash-boards were only kept in their places by pieces of rope. The shouting and squabbling were accompanied by Niagara, whose deep awful thundering bass drowns all other sounds.

We drove for two miles along the precipice bank of the Niagara river: this precipice is 250 feet high, without a parapet, and the green, deep flood rages below. At the Suspension Bridge they demanded a toll of sixty cents, and contemptuously refused two five-dollar notes offered them by Mr. Walrence, saying they were only waste paper. This extraordinary bridge, over which a train of cars weighing 440 tons has recently passed, has a span of 800 feet, and a double roadway, the upper one being used by the railway. The floor of the bridge is 230 feet above the river, and the depth of the river immediately under it is 250 feet! The view from it is magnificent; to the left the furious river, confined in a narrow space, rushes in rapids to the Whirlpool; and to the right the Horse-shoe Fall pours its torrent of waters into the dark and ever invisible abyss. When we reached the American side we had to declare to a custom-house officer that we were no smugglers; and then by an awful road, partly covered with stumps, and partly full of holes, over the one, and through the other, our half-tipsy driver jolted us, till we wished ourselves a thousand miles from Niagara Falls. “There now, faith, and wasn’t I nearly done for myself?” he exclaimed, as a jolt threw him from his seat, nearly over the dash-board.

We passed through the town bearing the names of Niagara Falls and Manchester, an agglomeration of tea-gardens, curiosity-shops, and monster hotels, with domes of shining tin. We drove down a steep hill, and crossed a very insecure-looking wooden bridge to a small wooded island, where a man with a strong nasal twang demanded a toll of twenty-five cents, and anon we crossed a long bridge over the lesser rapids.

The cloudy morning had given place to a glorious day, abounding in varieties of light and shade; a slight shower had fallen, and the sparkling rain-drops hung from every leaf and twig; a rainbow spanned the Niagara river, and the leaves wore the glorious scarlet and crimson tints of the American autumn. Sun and sky were propitious; it was the season and the day in which to see Niagara. Quarrelsome drosky drivers, incongruous mills, and the thousand trumperies of the place, were all forgotten in the perfect beauty of the scene — in the full, the joyous realisation of my ideas of Niagara. Beauty and terror here formed a perfect combination. Around islets covered with fair foliage of trees and vines, and carpeted with moss untrodden by the foot of man, the waters, in wild turmoil, rage and foam: rushing on recklessly beneath the trembling bridge on which we stood to their doomed fall. This place is called “The Hell of Waters,” and has been the scene of more than one terrible tragedy.

This bridge took us to Iris Island, so named from the rainbows which perpetually hover round its base. Everything of terrestrial beauty may be found in Iris Island. It stands amid the eternal din of the waters, a barrier between the Canadian and American Falls. It is not more than sixty-two acres in extent, yet it has groves of huge forest trees, and secluded roads underneath them in the deepest shade, far apparently from the busy world, yet thousands from every part of the globe yearly tread its walks of beauty. We stopped at the top of a dizzy pathway, and, leaving the Walrences to purchase some curiosities, I descended it, crossed a trembling foot-bridge, and stood alone on Luna Island, between the Crescent and American Falls. This beauteous and richly-embowered little spot, which is said to tremble, and looks as if any wave might sweep it away, has a view of matchless magnificence. From it can be seen the whole expanse of the American rapids, rolling and struggling down, chafing the sunny islets, as if jealous of their beauty. The Canadian Fall was on my left; away in front stretched the scarlet woods; the incongruities of the place were out of sight; and at my feet the broad sheet of the American Fall tumbled down in terrible majesty. The violence of the rapids cannot be imagined by one who has not seen their resistless force. The turbulent waters are flung upwards, as if infuriated against the sky. The rocks, whose jagged points are seen among them, fling off the hurried and foamy waves, as if with supernatural strength. Nearer and nearer they come to the Fall, becoming every instant more agitated; they seem to recoil as they approach its verge; a momentary calm follows, and then, like all their predecessors, they go down the abyss together. There is something very exciting in this view; one cannot help investing Niagara with feelings of human agony and apprehension; one feels a new sensation, something neither terror, wonder, nor admiration, as one looks at the phenomena which it displays. I have been surprised to see how a visit to the Falls galvanises the most matter-of-fact person into a brief exercise of the imaginative powers.

As the sound of the muffled drum too often accompanies the trumpet, so the beauty of Luna Island must ever remain associated in my mind with a terrible catastrophe which recently occurred there. Niagara was at its gayest, and the summer at its hottest, when a joyous party went to spend the day on Luna Island. It consisted of a Mr. and Mrs. De Forest, their beautiful child “Nettie,” a young man of great talent and promise, Mr. Addington, and a few other persons. It was a fair evening in June, when moonlight was struggling for ascendancy with the declining beams of the setting sun. The elders of the party, being tired, repaired to the seats on Iris Island to rest, Mr. De Forest calling to Nettie, “Come here, my child; don’t go near the water.” “Never mind — let her alone — I’ll watch her,” said Mr. Addington, for the child was very beautiful and a great favourite, and the youthful members of the party started for Luna Island. Nettie pulled Addington’s coat in her glee. “Ah! you rogue, you’re caught,” said he, catching hold of her; “shall I throw you in?” She sprang forward from his arms, one step too far, and fell into the roaring rapid. “Oh, mercy! save — she’s gone!” the young man cried, and sprang into the water. He caught hold of Nettie, and, by one or two vigorous strokes, aided by an eddy, was brought close to the Island; one instant more, and his terrified companions would have been able to lay hold of him; but no — the hour of both was come; the waves of the rapid hurried them past; one piercing cry came from Mr. Addington’s lips, “For Jesus’ sake, O save our souls!” and, locked in each other’s arms, both were carried over the fatal Falls. The dashing torrent rolled onward, unheeding that bitter despairing cry of human agony, and the bodies of these two, hurried into eternity in the bloom of youth, were not found for some days. Mrs. De Forest did not long survive the fate of her child.

The guide related to me another story in which my readers may be interested, as it is one of the poetical legends of the Indians. It took place in years now long gone by, when the Indians worshipped the Great Spirit where they beheld such a manifestation of his power. Here, where the presence of Deity made the forest ring, and the ground tremble, the Indians offered a living sacrifice once a year, to be conveyed by the water spirit to the unknown gulf. Annually, in the month of August, the sachem gave the word, and fruits and flowers were stowed in a white canoe, to be paddled by the fairest maiden among the tribes.

The tribe thought itself highly honoured when its turn came to float the blooming offering to the shrine of the Great Spirit, and still more honoured was the maid who was a fitting sacrifice.

Oronto, the proudest chief of the Senecas, had an only child named Lena. This chief was a noted and dreaded warrior; over many a bloody fight his single eagle plume had waved, and ever in battle he left the red track of his hatchet and tomahawk. Years rolled by, and every one sent its summer offering to the thunder god of the then unexplored Niagara. Oronto danced at many a feast which followed the sacrificial gift, which his tribe had rejoicingly given in their turn. He felt not for the fathers whose children were thus taken from their wigwams, and committed to the grave of the roaring waters. Calma, his wife, had fallen by a foeman’s arrow, and in the blood of his enemies he had terribly avenged his bereavement. Fifteen years had passed since then, and the infant which Calma left had matured into a beautiful maiden. The day of sacrifice came; it was the year of the Senecas, and Lena was acknowledged to be the fairest maiden of the tribe. The moonlit hour has come, the rejoicing dance goes on; Oronto has, without a tear, parted from his child, to meet her in the happy hunting-grounds where the Great Spirit reigns. The yell of triumph rises from the assembled Indians. The white canoe, loosed by the sachems, has shot from the bank, but ere it has sped from the shore another dancing craft has gone forth upon the whirling water, and both have set out on a voyage to eternity.

The first bears the offering, Lena, seated amidst fruits and flowers; the second contains Oronto, the proud chief of the Senecas. Both seem to pause on the verge of the descent, then together rise on the whirling rapids. One mingled look of apprehension and affection is exchanged, and, while the woods ring with the yells of the savages, Oronto and Lena plunge into the abyss in their white canoes.*

* [I have given both these anecdotes, as nearly as possible, in the bombastic language in which they were related to me by the guide.]

This wild legend was told me by the guide in full view of the cataract, and seemed so real and life-like that I was somewhat startled by being accosted thus, by a voice speaking in a sharp nasal down-east twang: “Well, stranger, I guess that’s the finest water-power you’ve ever set eyes on.” My thoughts were likewise recalled to the fact that it was necessary to put on an oilskin dress, and scramble down a very dilapidated staircase to the Cave of the Winds, in order to “do” Niagara in the “regulation manner.” This cave is partly behind the American Fall, and is the abode of howling winds and ceaseless eddies of spray. It is an extremely good shower-bath, but the day was rather too cold to make that luxury enjoyable. I went down another steep path, and, after crossing a shaky foot-bridge over part of the Grand Rapids, ascended Prospect Tower, a stone erection 45 feet high, built on the very verge of the Horse-shoe Fall. It is said that people feel involuntary suicidal intentions while standing on the balcony round this tower. I did not experience them myself, possibly because my only companion was the half-tipsy Irish drosky-driver. The view from this tower is awful: the edifice has been twice swept away, and probably no strength of masonry could permanently endure the wear of the rushing water at its base.

Down come those beauteous billows, as if eager for their terrible leap. Along the ledge over which they fall they are still for one moment in a sheet of clear, brilliant green; another, and down they fall like cataracts of driven snow, chasing each other, till, roaring and hissing, they reach the abyss, sending up a column of spray 100 feet in height. No existing words can describe it, no painter can give the remotest idea of it; it is the voice of the Great Creator, its name signifying, in the beautiful language of the Iroquois, “The Thunder of Waters.” Looking from this tower, above you see the Grand Rapids, one dizzy sheet of leaping foamy billows, and below you look, if you can, into the very caldron itself, and see how the bright-green waves are lost in foam and mist; and behind you look to shore, and shudder to think how the frail bridge by which you came in another moment may be washed away. I felt as I came down the trembling staircase that one wish of my life had been gratified in seeing Niagara.

Some graves were recently discovered in Iris Island, with skeletons in a sitting posture inside them, probably the remains of those aboriginal races who here in their ignorance worshipped the Great Spirit, within the sound of his almighty voice. We paused on the bridge, and looked once more at the islets in the rapids, and stopped on Bath Island, lovely in itself, but desecrated by the presence of a remarkably hirsute American, who keeps a toll-house, with the words “Ice-creams” and “Indian Curiosities” painted in large letters upon it. Again another bridge, by which we crossed to the main land; and while overwhelmed at once by the beauty and the sublimity of the scene, all at once the idea struck me that the Yankee who called Niagara “an almighty fine water privilege” was tolerably correct in his definition, for the water is led off in several directions for the use of large saw and paper mills.

We made several purchases at an Indian curiosity-shop, where we paid for the articles about six times their value, and meanwhile our driver took the opportunity of getting “summat warm,” which very nearly resulted in our getting something cold, for twice, in driving over a stump, he all but upset us into ponds. Crossing the suspension-bridge we arrived at the V. R. custom-house, where a tiresome detention usually occurs; but a few words spoken in Gaelic to the Scotch officer produced a magical effect, which might have been the same had we possessed anything contraband. A drive of three miles brought us to the whirlpool. The giant cliffs, which rise to the height of nearly 300 feet, wall in the waters and confine their impetuous rush, so that their force raises them in the middle, and hurls them up some feet in the air. Their fury is resistless, and the bodies of those who are carried over the falls are whirled round here in a horrible dance, frequently till decomposition takes place. There is nothing to excite admiration about the whirlpool; the impression which it leaves on the mind is highly unpleasing.

Another disagreeable necessity was to visit a dark, deep chasm in the bank, a very gloomy spot. This demon-titled cavity has never felt the influence of a ray of light. A massive cliff rises above it, and a narrow stream, bearing the horrible name of Bloody Run, pours over this cliff into the chasm. To most minds there is a strange fascination about the terrible and mysterious, and, in spite of warning looks and beseeching gestures on the part of Mr. Walrence, who feared the effect of the story on the weak nerves of his wife, I sat down by the chasm and asked the origin of the name Bloody Run. I will confess that, as I looked down into the yawning hole, imagination lent an added horror to the tale, which was bad enough in itself.

In 1759, while the French, who had in their pay the Seneca Indians, hovered round the British, a large supply of provisions was forwarded from Fort Niagara to Fort Schlosser by the latter, under the escort of a hundred regulars. The savage chief of the Senecas, anxious to obtain the promised reward for scalps, formed an ambuscade of chosen warriors, several hundred in number. The Devil’s Hole was the spot chosen — it seemed made on purpose for the bloody project. It was a hot, sultry day in August, and the British, scattered and sauntered on their toilsome way, till, overcome by fatigue or curiosity, they sat down near the margin of the precipice. A fearful yell arose, accompanied by a volley of bullets, and the Indians, breaking from their cover, under the combined influences of ferocity and “fire-water,” rushed upon their unhappy victims before they had time to stand to their arms, and tomahawked them on the spot. Waggons, horses, soldiers, and drivers were then hurled over the precipice, and the little stream ran into the Niagara river a torrent purple with human gore. Only two escaped to tell the terrible tale. Some years ago, bones, arms, and broken wheels were found among the rocks, mementos of the barbarity which has given the little streamlet the terror-inspiring name of Bloody Run.

After depositing our purchases at the Clifton House, where the waiter warned us to put them under lock and key, I hoped that sight-seeing was over, and that at last I should be able to gaze upon what I had really come to visit — the Falls of Niagara. But no; I was to be victimised still further; I must “go behind the great sheet,” Mr. and Mrs. Walrence would not go; they said their heads would not stand it, but that, as an Englishwoman, go I must. In America the capabilities of English ladies are very much overrated. It is supposed that they go out in all weathers, invariably walk ten miles a day, and leap five-barred fences on horseback. Yielding to “the inexorable law of a stern necessity,” I went to the Rock House, and a very pleasing girl produced a suit of oiled calico. I took off my cloak, bonnet, and dress. “Oh,” she said, “you must change everything, it’s so very wet.” As, to save time, I kept demurring to taking off various articles of apparel, I always received the same reply, and finally abandoned myself to a complete change of attire. I looked in the mirror, and beheld as complete a tatterdemallion as one could see begging upon an Irish highway, though there was nothing about the dress which the most lively imagination could have tortured into the picturesque. The externals of this strange equipment consisted of an oiled calico hood, a garment like a carter’s frock, a pair of blue worsted stockings, and a pair of India-rubber shoes much too large for me. My appearance was so comic as to excite the laughter of my grave friends, and I had to reflect that numbers of persons had gone out in the same attire before I could make up my mind to run the gauntlet of the loiterers round the door. Here a negro guide of most repulsive appearance awaited me, and I waded through a perfect sea of mud to the shaft by which people go under Table Rock. My friends were evidently ashamed of my appearance, but they met me here to wish me a safe return, and, following the guide, I dived down a spiral staircase, very dark and very much out of repair.

Leaving this staircase, I followed the guide along a narrow path covered with fragments of shale, with Table Rock above and the deep abyss below. A cold, damp wind blew against me, succeeded by a sharp pelting rain, and the path became more slippery and difficult. Still I was not near the sheet of water, and felt not the slightest dizziness. I speedily arrived at the difficult point of my progress: heavy gusts almost blew me away; showers of spray nearly blinded me; I was quite deafened and half-drowned; I wished to retreat, and essayed to use my voice to stop the progress of my guide. I raised it to a scream, but it was lost in the thunder of the cataract. The negro saw my incertitude and extended his hand. I shuddered even there as I took hold of it, not quite free from the juvenile idea that “the black comes off.” He seemed at that moment to wear the aspect of a black imp leading me to destruction.

The path is a narrow, slippery ledge of rock. I am blinded with spray, the darkening sheet of water is before me. Shall I go on? The spray beats against my face, driven by the contending gusts of wind which rush into the eyes, nostrils, and mouth, and almost prevent my progress; the narrowing ledge is not more than a foot wide, and the boiling gulf is seventy feet below. Yet thousands have pursued this way before, so why should not I? I grasp tighter hold of the guide’s hand, and proceed step by step holding down my head. The water beats against me, the path narrows, and will only hold my two feet abreast. I ask the guide to stop, but my voice is drowned by the “Thunder of Waters.” He guesses what I would say, and shrieks in my ear, “It’s worse going back.” I make a desperate attempt: four steps more and I am at the end of the ledge; my breath is taken away, and I can only just stand against the gusts of wind which are driving the water against me. The gulf is but a few inches from me, and, gasping for breath, and drenched to the skin, I become conscious that I have reached Termination Rock.

Once arrived at this place, the clouds of driving spray are a little thinner, and, though it is still very difficult either to see or breathe, the magnificence of the temple, which is here formed by the natural bend of the cataract and the backward shelve of the precipice, makes a lasting impression on the mind. The temple seems a fit and awful shrine for Him who “rides on the wings of mighty winds,” and, completely shut out from man’s puny works, the mind rises naturally in adoring contemplation to Him whose voice is heard in the “thunder of waters.” The path was so very narrow that I had to shuffle backwards for a few feet, and then, drenched, shivering, and breathless, my goloshes full of water and slipping off at every step, I fought my way through the blinding clouds of spray, and, climbing up the darkened staircase, again stood on Table Rock, with water dripping from my hair and garments. It is usual for those persons who survive the expedition to take hot brandy and water after changing their dresses; and it was probably from neglecting this precaution that I took such a severe chill as afterwards produced the ague. On the whole, this achievement is pleasanter in the remembrance than in the act. There is nothing whatever to boast of in having accomplished it, and nothing to regret in leaving it undone. I knew the danger and disagreeableness of the exploit before I went, and, had I known that “going behind the sheet” was synonymous with “going to Termination Rock,” I should never have gone. No person who has not a very strong head ought to go at all, and it is by every one far better omitted, as the remaining portion of Table Rock may fall at any moment, for which reason some of the most respectable guides decline to take visitors underneath it. I believe that no amateur ever thinks of going a second time. After all, the front view is the only one for Niagara — going behind the sheet is like going behind a picture-frame.

After this we went to the top of a tower, where I had a very good bird’s-eye view of the Falls, the Rapids, and the general aspect of the country, and then, refusing to be victimised by burning springs, museums, prisoned eagles, and mangy buffaloes, I left the Walrences, who were tired, to go to the hotel, and walked down to the ferry, and, scrambling out to the rock farthest in the water and nearest to the cataract, I sat down completely undisturbed in view of the mighty fall. I was not distracted by parasitic guides or sandwich-eating visitors; the vile museums, pagodas, and tea-gardens were out of sight: the sublimity of the Falls far exceeded my expectations, and I appreciated them the more perhaps from having been disappointed with the first view. As I sat watching them, a complete oblivion of everything but the falls themselves stole over me. A person may be very learned in statistics — he may tell you that the falls are 160 feet high — that their whole width is nearly four-fifths of a mile — that, according to estimate, ninety million tons of water pass over them every hour — that they are the outlet of several bodies of water covering one hundred and fifty thousand square miles; but unless he has seen Niagara, he cannot form the faintest conception of it. It was so very like what I had expected, and yet so totally different. I sat there watching that sea-green curve against the sky till sunset, and then the crimson rays just fell upon the column of spray above the Canadian Fall, turning it a most beautiful rose-colour. The sun set; a young moon arose, and brilliant stars shone through the light veil of mist, and in the darkness the cataract looked like drifted snow. I rose at length, perfectly unconscious that I had been watching the Falls for nearly four hours, and that my clothes were saturated with the damp and mist.

It would be out of place to enter upon the numerous geological speculations which have arisen upon the structure and recession of Niagara. It seems as if the faint light which science has shed upon the abyss of bygone ages were but to show that its depths must remain for ever unlighted by human reason and research.

There was such an air of gloom about the Clifton House that we sat in the balcony till the cold became intense; and as it was too dark to see anything but a white object in front, I could not help regretting the waste (as it seems) of this wonderful display going on, when no eyes can feast upon its sublimity. In the saloon there was a little fair-haired boy of seven years old, with the intellectual faculties largely developed — indeed, so much so as to be painfully suggestive of water on the brain. His father called him into the middle of the room, and he repeated a long oration of Daniel Webster’s without once halting for a word, giving to it the action and emphasis of the orator. This was a fair specimen of the frequent undue development of the minds of American children.

At Niagara I finally took leave of the Walrences, as I had many visits to pay, and near midnight left for Hamilton, under the escort of a very kind, but very Grandisonian Scotch gentleman. I was intensely tired and sleepy, and it was a very cheerless thing to leave a warm room at midnight for an omnibus-drive of two miles along a bad, unlighted road. There did not appear to be any waiting-room at the bustling station at the suspension bridge, for, alas! the hollow scream of the locomotive is heard even above the thunder of Niagara. I slept in the cars for an hour before we started, and never woke till the conductor demanded payment of my fare in no very gentle tones. We reached Hamilton shortly after two in the morning, in the midst of a high wind and pouring rain; and in company with a dozen very dirty emigrants we entered a lumber waggon with a canvas top, drawn by one miserable horse. The curtains very imperfectly kept out the rain, and we were in continual fear of an upset. At last the vehicle went down on one side, and all the Irish emigrants tumbled over each other and us, with a profusion of “Ochs,” “murders,” and “spalpeens.” The driver composedly shouted to us to alight; the hole was only deep enough to sink the vehicle to the axletree. We got out into a very capacious lake of mud, and in again, in very ill humour. At last the horse fell down in a hole, and my Scotch friend and I got out and walked in the rain for some distance to a very comfortable hotel, the City Arms. The sun had scarcely warmed the world into waking life before I was startled from my sleep by the cry, “Six o’clock; all aboard for the ‘bus at half-past, them as goes by the Passport and Highlander:” but it was half-past, and I had barely time to dress before the disagreeable shout of “All aboard!” echoed through the house, and I hurried down stairs into an omnibus, which held twenty-two persons inside, commodiously seated in arm-chairs. I went down Lake Ontario in the Highlander; Mr. Forrest met me on the wharf, and in a few hours I was again warmly welcomed at his hospitable house.

My relics of my visit to Niagara consisted of a few Indian curiosities, and a printed certificate filled up with my name,* stating that I had walked for 230 feet behind the great fall, which statement, I was assured by an American fellow-traveller, was “a sell right entirely, an almighty all-fired big flam.”

[“Niagara Falls, C. W.: Register Office, Table Rock. — This is to certify, that Miss —— has passed behind the Great Falling Sheet of Water to Termination Rook, being 230 feet behind the Great Horse-shoe Fall. — Given under my hand this 13th day of —— 1854. — THOMAS BARNETT.”]

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31