An Unnatural Wonder
Beauty, Power, and Lies
By Ginger Strand
Simon & Schuster. 337 pp. $25
"This book documents an obsession," writes Ginger Strand in her entertaining study of the exploitation of Niagara Falls, both town and waterfall. Niagara's history, she claims, is fraught with "falsification, prevarication and omission." In Inventing Niagara, she sets out on a quest to cut through the cultural accretions of centuries and find the fundamental truth about Niagara.
At its most basic, Niagara Falls is a big, green waterfall that straddles the border between the United States and Canada on the strait that links Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. But over time, Niagara has also become a place of kitschy tourism, daredevil stunts, gambling and large-scale industrial development which all too quickly turned into environmental disaster. The waterfall itself has been propped up and rejiggered by feats of engineering in an attempt to prevent it from crumbling under the force of its own water and to maintain its scenic impact despite the diversion of as much as three-quarters of its water to produce electricity.
Inventing Niagara begins with Strand debunking the popular legend of the Maid of the Mist, a gorgeous Indian maiden purportedly sent over the falls in a canoe to save her village from a plague. But Native Americans in what became western New York never practiced human sacrifice. In a place defined by artifice, Strands writes, "it seems appropriate that its originary myth would be made-up."
Strand touches on a broad array of topics, from the Underground Railroad to the 19th-century romantic view of the sublime, "prettiness with a point." She's a bit hard on Frederick Law Olmsted, who did, indeed, superimpose his own version of nature when he designed the allegedly natural state park at Niagara, but one hesitates to imagine what America would be like today without the designed-to-appear-natural parks that Olmsted created.
Strand's explanation of how the Army Corps of Engineers solved the problem of accommodating massive water diversion for hydroelectric power while maintaining the falls' magnificent appearance is at once complex and accessible. This work, accomplished primarily in the mid-20th century, included the construction of a series of mostly submerged dams to control and even cut the flow of water, as well as the blasting and reinforcing of the rock face. Equally masterful is her presentation of the publicity campaign, dating back to the 1910s and '20s, that convinced the public that "keeping Niagara pretty meant taking more water away."
In writing about Niagara Falls, most likely Strand had no choice but to review the oft-told tales of thrill-seekers going over in barrels, of daredevils and tightrope walkers, honeymooners, gamblers and shady entrepreneurs arranging for animals to be sent over the falls for the edification of paying observers. She presents the whole gaudy, tiresome tourist show, and in the process she sometimes lets her tendency to play for the laugh get the better of her.
Strand is strongest when she's filled with indignation. Her denunciation of the terrible excesses of industrial development is especially pointed in her discussion of Love Canal, the toxic waste dumping ground turned residential Niagara Falls neighborhood that literally made its citizens ill. Her sadness is palpable as she shows how the misguided values of Robert Moses helped to destroy the town of Niagara Falls, N.Y., by separating it from the waterfall with a four-lane highway. The final blow was delivered by the unconscionable urban renewal project of the 1960s, which tore down large swaths of the old town in an act of what she calls "municipal citycide."
And yet . . . one morning Strand visits the falls and discovers this: "The rapids swirl and crash, and the trees in their brilliant autumn colors have a hallucinatory three-dimensionality. The little glades along the riverbank look like habitations for sprites and dryads, and the burbling river glints like crystal."
Niagara Falls is still a place worthy of obsession. ·
Lauren Belfer is the author of the novel "City of Light."