Niagara lit by falling stars

NF MeterorsHow could an artist make the most spectacular meteor shower ever recorded look even more stupendous?

The same way a tightrope walker adds drama to his act: by placing it over Niagara Falls.

The dramatic engraving shown above was published in an 1865 edition of Smith’s Illustrated Astronomy, a school textbook written by Asa Smith, originally published in 1848. It is one of many illustrations produced in America and Europe to depict what is generally known as the most intense meteor shower ever known, and the beginning of the study of meteors and their origins.

On the night of Nov. 12-13, 1833, “a tempest of falling stars broke over the Earth,” as Agnes Mary Clerke, an Irish astronomer, described it. ” The sky was scored in every direction with shining tracks and illuminated with majestic fireballs. … Their numbers… were quite beyond counting…”

According to the website “Reactions to the 1833 display varied from the hysterics of the superstitious claiming Judgment Day was at hand, to just plain excitement by the scientific, who estimated that a thousand meteors a minute emanated from the constellation Leo. Newspapers of the time reveal that almost no one was left unaware of the spectacle, for if they were not awakened by the cries of excited neighbors, they were usually awakened by flashes of light cast into normally dark bedrooms by the fireballs.”

Anyone viewing Niagara Falls in the early morning hours of that night would have seen the light show of a lifetime. It wasn’t until 1925 that such intense illumination – this time powered by electricity – would glow on the mighty cataracts.

There was no city of Niagara Falls, New York, then. A growing town called Manchester sat beside the river on the American side. While regular tourism to the famous falls had begun, the riverside above and below the falls was already marred by spewing mills and manufacturers. Visitors had to pay to view the falls from the shore or walk over private toll bridges to Goat Island.

The intensity of the 1833 Leonid meteor shower drew widespread attention to the annual phenomenon, and led scientists to greater study of it. They learned that the Earth passes through the meteor range every November, generally between Nov. 13 and 21. Every 33 years we see a more dramatic display as the Earth travels through the tail of the meteors’ parent comet.

Today, we don’t have to wait for meteors to light up Niagara Falls. We can see them lit in all the colors of the rainbow every night of the year, thanks to electricity.

Mark Twain’s ‘finest thing’ was Niagara Falls

Most of the literary accounts of Niagara Falls in the nineteenth century spoke raptures about the cataracts as awe-inspiring and transcendent. Charles Dickens, who visited in 1841, even described the waterfalls as “angels’ tears” with “drops of many hues.”adam1

Count on Mark Twain to poke fun at all the pretentious writings, as well as the hucksterism and trumpery that surrounded the falls themselves.

Twain visited Niagara Falls around 1871, when the falls were perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in the country, despite the fact that all the viewing sites around the falls were privately owned, and people had to pay not only to go on Goat Island, but even to view the falls from the mainland. There was also a proliferation of polluting mills and factories along the river shoreline, and on the islands above the Falls.

Complaints about the degradation and exploitation of Niagara Falls led New York state to buy the private properties and establish the first state park, the Niagara Reservation, in 1885. But when Twain visited, Niagara Falls was already infamous as a tawdry tourist trap.

In his short story, “Niagara,” Twain aimed his mocks at the tourists and hucksters. Of the “papa and momma, Johnny and Bub and Sis” who posed for photos before the falls, he wrote, “There is no actual harm in making Niagara a background whereon to display one’s marvelous insignificance in a good strong light, but it requires a sort of superhuman self-complacency to enable one to do it.”

The narrator of the story approaches “Indians” selling handmade beads and wares; they all speak with Irish accents. Ultimately, after he barely survives being thrown over the Falls after they mug him, the hapless tourist learns that all the “Indians” came from Limerick.

Twain had to endure Niagara Falls as ” the snubbed and diminished presentment of that majestic presence whose ministering spirits are the rainbows, whose voice is the thunder, whose awful front is veiled in clouds, who was monarch here dead and forgotten ages before this hackful of small reptiles [humans] was deemed temporarily necessary to fill a crack in the world’s unnoted myriads, and will still be monarch here ages and decades of ages after they shall have gathered themselves to their blood relations, the other worms, and been mingled with the unremembering dust.”

Despite his barbs at human frailty and venality, Twain was impressed by Niagara Falls. He may have thought it was too magnificent to be wasted on the paltry human race. In another short story, “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” he placed Niagara Falls in the Garden of Eden. He called the waterfalls “the finest thing on the estate.”

You can download a copy of the short story, “Niagara,” here thanks to the good folks at the University of Virginia.


Envision Niagara

Girl by NF RapidsThis photo embodies the experience of those of us who grew up in Niagara Falls during the 1950s and 60s. The girl is gazing toward the brink of the Horseshoe Falls from a treacherous perch on one of the Three Sisters Islands. One misstep would take her “to Eternity,” as the writers of the 19th century would say. Today, the waters are diminished by diversion for power, and barriers try to keep people on the trails, and not clambering over the rocks. The essence of the Niagara experience is awe of Nature’s power tempered with the reality of our own flimsy mortality. (Photo by the late Buffalo photographer Joseph P. Driscoll)


Encounter Niagara Falls

Every person encounters Niagara Falls in an individual way.

Visitors bring their expectations and dreams.

People who grow up next to the great waterfalls learn to live in the constant company of Nature’s drama and fury. We have a unique sense, I think, of the surging life of the planet, and our place in it. We often feel very small indeed.

What does Niagara mean to you? Do you feel it in your heart? Or is it just a picturesque backdrop to your selfies?

The purpose of this blog is to engage in thoughtful reflections of Niagara Falls – personal experiences, history, depictions in art, literature and cinema. I’ll also explore Niagara’s present, and what its future could be.

Just as every person has his or her own experience of Niagara Falls, every century has its own version of Niagara Falls. Now – the beginning of the 21st century, with a flurry of hopeful new activities around our beloved waterfalls – is a good time to begin the discussion; I hope you will leave your comments and thoughts below.

Let’s begin with a look back.

Europeans first began to hear about Niagara Falls after 1683, when Father Louis Hennepin, a Catholic French missionary, wrote the first eyewitness description of it. Hennepin was so awestruck by the amazing waterfall that he estimated it to be more than 600 feet tall. “… the Universe does not afford its Parallel,” he wrote. Years later, in 1698, he published a second edition of his report in London, with a fanciful drawing that became the iconic image of Niagara Falls for more than a hundred years.

Thus Niagara Falls became the enigmatic icon of the New World, an indescribable wonder in a still-unexplored land. Only intrepid travelers visited Niagara during most of the seventeen-hundreds, since it was still on the edge of the western frontier. The French and British fought over the territory, while the Native Americans were trying to hold on to their lands. The Niagara frontier was not a peaceful place until after the War of 1812.

The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 moved “civilization” westward, and once the railroad from the east coast to Niagara was completed in 1842 the rush of tourists was on. And so was the rush to harness the power of the rushing river for industry; a large paper mill was built right above the falls, on Bath Island, and the gorge soon became lined with factories spilling their waste down the rocks into the river.

Industry and tourism have always competed for Niagara Falls. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, it seems that industry always won, as mills and factories lined Niagara’s shores, and canals diverted more and more water as the age of electricity began.

There were always people who fought against Niagara’s exploitation. In the 1860’s an early environmental movement, “Free Niagara,” began. Under pressure, the state of New York purchased private land around the falls and river, and in 1885 created the first state park in the country. It was a sweet, but rare, victory.

Industry at Niagara thrived unabated until the 1970s, when America’s industries began their decline. Not only did the city of Niagara Falls lose jobs and population, it became the global symbol of chemical pollution with the discovery of buried chemicals at Love Canal. Niagara Falls now has half the population it had in 1950.

How did Niagara Falls go from being the natural wonder of the continent to the symbol of the ravages of 20th century industry? And where do we go from here?

What does Niagara Falls symbolize now? Does it still grab our imaginations and instill awe? Or is the majestic flow of water now just a backdrop for thrilling boat rides and high-rise casinos?

Does Niagara Falls have meaning in our digital age? Or is it too primal, too dramatic for most people, as it excites and moves them from digital detachment?

I was born and raised in Niagara Falls, and have had a lifetime to ponder these questions. I hope you will join me in this exploration.