Of all the sights on this earth of ours which tourists travel to see — at least of all those which I have seen — I am inclined to give the palm to the Falls of Niagara. In the catalogue of such sights I intend to include all buildings, pictures, statues, and wonders of art made by men’s hands, and also all beauties of nature prepared by the Creator for the delight of his creatures. This is a long word; but, as far as my taste and judgment go, it is justified. I know no other one thing so beautiful, so glorious, and so powerful. I would not by this be understood as saying that a traveler wishing to do the best with his time should first of all places seek Niagara. In visiting Florence he may learn almost all that modern art can teach. At Rome he will be brought to understand the cold hearts, correct eyes, and cruel ambition of the old Latin race. In Switzerland he will surround himself with a flood of grandeur and loveliness, and fill himself, if he be capable of such filling, with a flood of romance. The tropics will unfold to him all that vegetation in its greatest richness can produce. In Paris he will find the supreme of polish, the ne plus ultra of varnish according to the world’s capability of varnishing. And in London he will find the supreme of power, the ne plus ultra of work according to the world’s capability of working. Any one of such journeys may be more valuable to a man — nay, any one such journey must be more valuable to a man — than a visit to Niagara. At Niagara there is that fall of waters alone. But that fall is more graceful than Giotto’s tower, more noble than the Apollo. The peaks of the Alps are not so astounding in their solitude. The valleys of the Blue Mountains in Jamaica are less green. The finished glaze of life in Paris is less invariable; and the full tide of trade round the Bank of England is not so inexorably powerful.
I came across an artist at Niagara who was attempting to draw the spray of the waters. “You have a difficult subject,” said I. “All subjects are difficult,” he replied, “to a man who desires to do well.” “But yours, I fear is impossible,” I said. “You have no right to say so till I have finished my picture,” he replied. I acknowledged the justice of his rebuke, regretted that I could not remain till the completion of his work should enable me to revoke my words, and passed on. Then I began to reflect whether I did not intend to try a task as difficult in describing the falls, and whether I felt any of that proud self-confidence which kept him happy at any rate while his task was in hand. I will not say that it is as difficult to describe aright that rush of waters as it is to paint it well. But I doubt whether it is not quite as difficult to write a description that shall interest the reader as it is to paint a picture of them that shall be pleasant to the beholder. My friend the artist was at any rate not afraid to make the attempt, and I also will try my hand.
That the waters of Lake Erie have come down in their courses from the broad basins of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, and Lake Huron; that these waters fall into Lake Ontario by the short and rapid river of Niagara; and that the falls of Niagara are made by a sudden break in the level of this rapid river, is probably known to all who will read this book. All the waters of these huge northern inland seas run over that breach in the rocky bottom of the stream; and thence it comes that the flow is unceasing in its grandeur, and that no eye can perceive a difference in the weight, or sound, or violence of the fall whether it be visited in the drought of autumn, amid the storms of winter, or after the melting of the upper worlds of ice in the days of the early summer. How many cataracts does the habitual tourist visit at which the waters fail him! But at Niagara the waters never fail. There it thunders over its ledge in a volume that never ceases and is never diminished — as it has done from times previous to the life of man, and as it will do till tens of thousands of years shall see the rocky bed of the river worn away back to the upper lake.
This stream divides Canada from the States — the western or farthermost bank belonging to the British Crown, and the eastern or nearer bank being in the State of New York. In visiting Niagara, it always becomes a question on which side the visitor shall take up his quarters. On the Canada side there is no town; but there is a large hotel beautifully placed immediately opposite to the falls and this is generally thought to be the best locality for tourists. In the State of New York is the town called Niagara Falls; and here there are two large hotels, which, as to their immediate site, are not so well placed as that in Canada. I first visited Niagara some three years since. I stayed then at the Clifton House, on the Canada side, and have since sworn by that position. But the Clifton House was closed for the season when I was last there, and on that account we went to the Cataract House, in the town on the other side. I now think that I should set up my staff on the American side, if I went again. My advice on the subject to any party starting for Niagara would depend upon their habits or on their nationality. I would send Americans to the Canadian side, because they dislike walking; but English people I would locate on the American side, seeing that they are generally accustomed to the frequent use of their own legs. The two sides are not very easily approached one from the other. Immediately below the falls there is a ferry, which may be traversed at the expense of a shilling; but the labor of getting up and down from the ferry is considerable, and the passage becomes wearisome. There is also a bridge; but it is two miles down the river, making a walk or drive of four miles necessary, and the toll for passing is four shillings, or a dollar, in a carriage, and one shilling on foot. As the greater variety of prospect can be had on the American side, as the island between the two falls is approachable from the American side and not from the Canadian, and as it is in this island that visitors will best love to linger, and learn to measure in their minds the vast triumph of waters before them, I recommend such of my readers as can trust a little — it need be but a little — to their own legs to select their hotel at Niagara Falls town.
It has been said that it matters much from what point the falls are first seen, but to this I demur. It matters, I think, very little, or not at all. Let the visitor first see it all, and learn the whereabouts of every point, so as to understand his own position and that of the waters; and then, having done that in the way of business, let him proceed to enjoyment. I doubt whether it be not the best to do this with all sight-seeing. I am quite sure that it is the way in which acquaintance may be best and most pleasantly made with a new picture.
The falls, as I have said, are made by a sudden breach in the level of the river. All cataracts are, I presume, made by such breaches; but generally the waters do not fall precipitously as they do at Niagara, and never elsewhere, as far as the world yet knows, has a breach so sudden been made in a river carrying in its channel such or any approach to such a body of water. Up above the falls for more than a mile the waters leap and burst over rapids, as though conscious of the destiny that awaits them. Here the river is very broad and comparatively shallow; but from shore to shore it frets itself into little torrents, and begins to assume the majesty of its power. Looking at it even here, in the expanse which forms itself over the greater fall, one feels sure that no strongest swimmer could have a chance of saving himself if fate had cast him in even among those petty whirlpools. The waters though so broken in their descent, are deliciously green. This color, as seen early in the morning or just as the sun has set, is so bright as to give to the place one of its chiefest charms.
This will be best seen from the farther end of the island — Goat Island as it is called — which, as the reader will understand, divides the river immediately above the falls. Indeed, the island is a part of that precipitously-broken ledge over which the river tumbles, and no doubt in process of time will be worn away and covered with water. The time, however, will be very long. In the mean while, it is perhaps a mile round, and is covered thickly with timber. At the upper end of the island the waters are divided, and, coming down in two courses each over its own rapids, form two separate falls. The bridge by which the island is entered is a hundred yards or more above the smaller fall. The waters here have been turned by the island, and make their leap into the body of the river below at a right angle with it — about two hundred yards below the greater fall. Taken alone, this smaller cataract would, I imagine, be the heaviest fall of water known; but taken in conjunction with the other, it is terribly shorn of its majesty. The waters here are not green as they are at the larger cataract; and, though the ledge has been hollowed and bowed by them so as to form a curve, that curve does not deepen itself into a vast abyss as it does at the horseshoe up above. This smaller fall is again divided; and the visitor, passing down a flight of steps and over a frail wooden bridge, finds himself on a smaller island in the midst of it.
But we will go at once on to the glory, and the thunder, and the majesty, and the wrath of that upper hell of waters. We are still, let the reader remember, on Goat Island — still in the States — and on what is called the American side of the main body of the river. Advancing beyond the path leading down to the lesser fall, we come to that point of the island at which the waters of the main river begin to descend. From hence across to the Canadian side the cataract continues itself in one unabated line. But the line is very far from being direct or straight. After stretching for some little way from the shore to a point in the river which is reached by a wooden bridge at the end of which stands a tower upon the rock — after stretching to this, the line of the ledge bends inward against the flood — in, and in, and in-till one is led to think that the depth of that horseshoe is immeasurable. It has been cut with no stinting hand. A monstrous cantle has been worn back out of the center of the rock, so that the fury of the waters converges; and the spectator, as he gazes into the hollow with wishful eyes, fancies that he can hardly trace out the center of the abyss.
Go down to the end of that wooden bridge, seat yourself on the rail, and there sit till all the outer world is lost to you. There is no grander spot about Niagara than this. The waters are absolutely around you. If you have that power of eye-contrio which is so necessary to the full enjoyment of scenery, you will see nothing but the water. You will certainly hear nothing else; and the sound, I beg you to remember, is not an ear-cracking, agonizing crash and clang of noises, but is melodious and soft withal, though loud as thunder. It fills your ears, and, as it were, envelops them, but at the same time you can speak to your neighbor without an effort. But at this place, and in these moments, the less of speaking, I should say, the better. There is no grander spot than this. Here, seated on the rail of the bridge, you will not see the whole depth of the fall. In looking at the grandest works of nature, and of art too, I fancy it is never well to see all. There should be something left to the imagination, and much should be half concealed in mystery. The greatest charm of a mountain range is the wild feeling that there must be strange, unknown, desolate worlds in those far-off valleys beyond. And so here, at Niagara, that converging rush of waters may fall down, down at once into a hell of rivers, for what the eye can see. It is glorious to watch them in their first curve over the rocks. They come green as a bank of emeralds, but with a fitful, flying color, as though conscious that in one moment more they would be dashed into spray and rise into air, pale as driven snow. The vapor rises high into the air, and is gathered there, visible always as a permanent white cloud over the cataract; but the bulk of the spray which fills the lower hollow of that horseshoe is like a tumult of snow. This you will not fully see from your seat on the rail. The head of it rises ever and anon out of that caldron below, but the caldron itself will be invisible. It is ever so far down — far as your own imagination can sink it. But your eyes will rest full upon the curve of the waters. The shape you will be looking at is that of a horseshoe, but of a horseshoe miraculously deep from toe to heel; and this depth becomes greater as you sit there. That which at first was only great and beautiful becomes gigantic and sublime, till the mind is at loss to find an epithet for its own use. To realize Niagara, you must sit there till you see nothing else than that which you have come to see. You will hear nothing else, and think of nothing else. At length you will be at one with the tumbling river before you. You will find yourself among the waters as though you belonged to them. The cool, liquid green will run through your veins, and the voice of the cataract will be the expression of your own heart. You will fall as the bright waters fall, rushing down into your new world with no hesitation and with no dismay; and you will rise again as the spray rises, bright, beautiful, and pure. Then you will flow away in your course to the uncompassed, distant, and eternal ocean.
When this state has been reached and has passed away, you may get off your rail and mount the tower. I do not quite approve of that tower, seeing that it has about it a gingerbread air, and reminds one of those well-arranged scenes of romance in which one is told that on the left you turn to the lady’s bower, price sixpence; and on the right ascend to the knight’s bed, price sixpence more, with a view of the hermit’s tomb thrown in. But nevertheless the tower is worth mounting, and no money is charged for the use of it. It is not very high, and there is a balcony at the top on which some half dozen persons may stand at ease. Here the mystery is lost, but the whole fall is seen. It is not even at this spot brought so fully before your eye, made to show itself in so complete and entire a shape, as it will do when you come to stand near to it on the opposite or Canadian shore. But I think that it shows itself more beautifully. And the form of the cataract is such that here, on Goat Island, on the American side, no spray will reach you, although you are absolutely over the waters. But on the Canadian side, the road as it approaches the fall is wet and rotten with spray, and you, as you stand close upon the edge, will be wet also. The rainbows as they are seen through the rising cloud — for the sun’s rays as seen through these waters show themselves in a bow, as they do when seen through rain — are pretty enough, and are greatly loved. For myself, I do not care for this prettiness at Niagara. It is there, but I forget it, and do not mind how soon it is forgotten.
But we are still on the tower; and here I must declare that though I forgive the tower, I cannot forgive the horrid obelisk which has latterly been built opposite to it, on the Canadian side, up above the fall; built apparently — for I did not go to it — with some camera-obscura intention for which the projector deserves to be put in Coventry by all good Christian men and women. At such a place as Niagara tasteless buildings, run up in wrong places with a view to money making, are perhaps necessary evils. It may be that they are not evils at all; that they give more pleasure than pain, seeing that they tend to the enjoyment of the multitude. But there are edifices of this description which cry aloud to the gods by the force of their own ugliness and malposition. As to such, it may be said that there should somewhere exist a power capable of crushing them in their birth. This new obelisk, or picture-building at Niagara, is one of such.
And now we will cross the water, and with this object will return by the bridge out of Goat Island, on the main land of the American side. But as we do so, let me say that one of the great charms of Niagara consists in this: that over and above that one great object of wonder and beauty, there is so much little loveliness — loveliness especially of water I mean. There are little rivulets running here and there over little falls, with pendent boughs above them, and stones shining under their shallow depths. As the visitor stands and looks through the trees, the rapids glitter before him, and then hide themselves behind islands. They glitter and sparkle in far distances under the bright foliage, till the remembrance is lost, and one knows not which way they run. And then the river below, with its whirlpool — but we shall come to that by-and-by, and to the mad voyage which was made down the rapids by that mad captain who ran the gantlet of the waters at the risk of his own life, with fifty to one against him, in order that he might save another man’s property from the sheriff.
The readiest way across to Canada is by the ferry; and on the American side this is very pleasantly done. You go into a little house, pay twenty cents, take a seat on a wooden car of wonderful shape, and on the touch of a spring find yourself traveling down an inclined plane of terrible declivity, and at a very fast rate. You catch a glance of the river below you, and recognize the fact that if the rope by which you are held should break, you would go down at a very fast rate indeed, and find your final resting-place in the river. As I have gone down some dozen times, and have come to no such grief, I will not presume that you will be less lucky. Below there is a boat generally ready. If it be not there, the place is not chosen amiss for a rest of ten minutes, for the lesser fall is close at hand, and the larger one is in full view. Looking at the rapidity of the river, you will think that the passage must be dangerous and difficult. But no accidents ever happen, and the lad who takes you over seems to do it with sufficient ease. The walk up the hill on the other side is another thing. It is very steep, and for those who have not good locomotive power of their own, will be found to be disagreeable. In the full season, however, carriages are generally waiting there. In so short a distance I have always been ashamed to trust to other legs than my own, but I have observed that Americans are always dragged up. I have seen single young men of from eighteen to twenty-five, from whose outward appearance no story of idle, luxurious life can be read, carried about alone in carriages over distances which would be counted as nothing by any healthy English lady of fifty. None but the old invalids should require the assistance of carriages in seeing Niagara, but the trade in carriages is to all appearance the most brisk trade there.
Having mounted the hill on the Canada side, you will walk on toward the falls. As I have said before, you will from this side look directly into the full circle of the upper cataract, while you will have before you, at your left hand, the whole expanse of the lesser fall. For those who desire to see all at a glance, who wish to comprise the whole with their eyes, and to leave nothing to be guessed, nothing to be surmised, this no doubt is the best point of view.
You will be covered with spray as you walk up to the ledge of rocks, but I do not think that the spray will hurt you. If a man gets wet through going to his daily work, cold, catarrh, cough, and all their attendant evils, may be expected; but these maladies usually spare the tourist. Change of air, plenty of air, excellence of air, and increased exercise, make these things powerless. I should therefore bid you disregard the spray. If, however, you are yourself of a different opinion, you may hire a suit of oil-cloth clothes for, I believe, a quarter of a dollar. They are nasty of course, and have this further disadvantage, that you become much more wet having them on than you would be without them.
Here, on this side, you walk on to the very edge of the cataract, and, if your tread be steady and your legs firm, you dip your foot into the water exactly at the spot where the thin outside margin of the current reaches the rocky edge and jumps to join the mass of the fall. The bed of white foam beneath is certainly seen better here than elsewhere, and the green curve of the water is as bright here as when seen from the wooden rail across. But nevertheless I say again that that wooden rail is the one point from whence Niagara may be best seen aright.
Close to the cataract, exactly at the spot from whence in former days the Table Rock used to project from the land over the boiling caldron below, there is now a shaft, down which you will descend to the level of the river, and pass between the rock and the torrent. This Table Rock broke away from the cliff and fell, as up the whole course of the river the seceding rocks have split and fallen from time to time through countless years, and will continue to do till the bed of the upper lake is reached. You will descend this shaft, taking to yourself or not taking to yourself a suit of oil-clothes as you may think best. I have gone with and without the suit, and again recommend that they be left behind. I am inclined to think that the ordinary payment should be made for their use, as otherwise it will appear to those whose trade it is to prepare them that you are injuring them in their vested rights.
Some three years since I visited Niagara on my way back to England from Bermuda, and in a volume of travels which I then published I endeavored to explain the impression made upon me by this passage between the rock and the waterfall. An author should not quote himself; but as I feel myself bound, in writing a chapter specially about Niagara, to give some account of this strange position, I will venture to repeat my own words.
In the spot to which I allude the visitor stands on a broad, safe path, made of shingles, between the rock over which the water rushes and the rushing water. He will go in so far that the spray, rising back from the bed of the torrent, does not incommode him. With this exception, the farther he can go in the better; but circumstances will clearly show him the spot to which he should advance. Unless the water be driven in by a very strong wind, five yards make the difference between a comparatively dry coat and an absolutely wet one. And then let him stand with his back to the entrance, thus hiding the last glimmer of the expiring day. So standing, he will look up among the falling waters, or down into the deep, misty pit, from which they re-ascend in almost as palpable a bulk. The rock will be at his right hand, high and hard, and dark and straight, like the wall of some huge cavern, such as children enter in their dreams. For the first five minutes he will be looking but at the waters of a cataract — at the waters, indeed, of such a cataract as we know no other, and at their interior curves which elsewhere we cannot see. But by-and-by all this will change. He will no longer be on a shingly path beneath a waterfall; but that feeling of a cavern wall will grow upon him, of a cavern deep, below roaring seas, in which the waves are there, though they do not enter in upon him; or rather, not the waves, but the very bowels of the ocean. He will feel as though the floods surrounded him, coming and going with their wild sounds, and he will hardly recognize that though among them he is not in them. And they, as they fall with a continual roar, not hurting the ear, but musical withal, will seem to move as the vast ocean waters may perhaps move in their internal currents. He will lose the sense of one continued descent, and think that they are passing round him in their appointed courses. The broken spray that rises from the depths below, rises so strongly, so palpably, so rapidly that the motion in every direction will seem equal. And, as he looks on, strange colors will show themselves through the mist; the shades of gray will become green or blue, with ever and anon a flash of white; and then, when some gust of wind blows in with greater violence, the sea-girt cavern will become all dark and black. Oh, my friend, let there be no one there to speak to thee then; no, not even a brother. As you stand there speak only to the waters.
Two miles below the falls the river is crossed by a suspension bridge of marvelous construction. It affords two thoroughfares, one above the other. The lower road is for carriages and horses, and the upper one bears a railway belonging to the Great Western Canada Line. The view from hence, both up and down the river, is very beautiful, for the bridge is built immediately over the first of a series of rapids. One mile below the bridge these rapids end in a broad basin called the whirlpool, and, issuing out of this, the current turns to the right through a narrow channel overhung by cliffs and trees, and then makes its way down to Lake Ontario with comparative tranquillity.
But I will beg you to take notice of those rapids from the bridge, and to ask yourself what chance of life would remain to any ship, craft, or boat required by destiny to undergo navigation beneath the bridge and down into that whirlpool. Heretofore all men would have said that no chance of life could remain to so ill-starred a bark. The navigation, however, has been effected. But men used to the river still say that the chances would be fifty to one against any vessel which should attempt to repeat the experiment.
The story of that wondrous voyage was as follows: A small steamer, called the Maid of the Mist, was built upon the river, between the falls and the rapids, and was used for taking adventurous tourists up amid the spray as near to the cataract as was possible. “The Maid of the Mist plied in this way for a year or two, and was, I believe, much patronized during the season. But in the early part of last summer an evil time had come. Either the Maid got into debt, or her owner had embarked in other and less profitable speculations. At any rate, he became subject to the law, and tidings reached him that the sheriff would seize the Maid. On most occasions the sheriff is bound to keep such intentions secret, seeing that property is movable, and that an insolvent debtor will not always await the officers of justice. But with the poor Maid there was no need of such secrecy. There was but a mile or so of water on which she could ply, and she was forbidden by the nature of her properties to make any way upon land, The sheriff’s prey, therefore, was easy, and the poor Maid was doomed.
In any country in the world but America such would have been the case; but an American would steam down Phlegethon to save his property from the sheriff — he would steam down Phlegethon, or get some one else to do it for him. Whether or no, in this case, the captain of the boat was the proprietor, or whether, as I was told, he was paid for the job, I do not know. But he determined to run the rapids, and he procured two others to accompany him in the risk. He got up his steam, and took the Maid up amid the spray according to his custom. Then, suddenly turning on his course, he, with one of his companions, fixed himself at the wheel, while the other remained at his engine. I wish I could look into the mind of that man, and understand what his thoughts were at that moment — what were his thoughts and what his beliefs. As to one of the men, I was told that he was carried down not knowing what he was about to do but I am inclined to believe that all the three were joined together in the attempt.
I was told by a man who saw the boat pass under the bridge that she made one long leap down, as she came thither; that her funnel was at once knocked flat on the deck by the force of the blow; that the waters covered her from stem to stern; and that then she rose again, and skimmed into the whirlpool a mile below. When there she rode with comparative ease upon the waters, and took the sharp turn round into the river below without a struggle. The feat was done, and the Maid was rescued from the sheriff. It is said that she was sold below at the mouth of the river, and carried from thence over Lake Ontario, and down the St. Lawrence to Quebec.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14