Visiting Niagara Falls in the early 19th Century

What would Niagara Falls be like without all of its tourist trappings? To get an idea, we can look at the accounts of people who visited Niagara Falls before tourism became the area’s main industry. If Napoleon had made the journey to Niagara Falls in the early 19th century – as he does fictionally in Napoleon in America – this is what he would have found.

A General View of Niagara Falls by Alvan Fisher, 1820

A General View of the Falls of Niagara by Alvan Fisher, 1820

This prodigious cascade

Niagara Falls consists of three waterfalls on the Niagara River, which flows north from Lake Erie into Lake Ontario. The river forms part of the border between Canada and the United States. The largest waterfall, Horseshoe Falls, is on the west side of the river and lies mainly in Canada. It is separated from the other falls by Goat Island, which is part of the United States. To the east of Goat Island is small Bridal Veil Falls (formerly known as Luna Falls), followed by tiny Luna Island, and then the large American Falls.

Niagara Falls was formed by the action of a continental ice sheet about 10,000 years ago. The rock beneath has been eroding ever since, changing the shape of the falls and causing them to retreat very slowly southward.

Although French explorers Jacques Cartier (1535) and Samuel de Champlain (1604) were told about Niagara Falls by the Native American inhabitants of the area, the first written eyewitness account of the falls comes to us from Belgian missionary Louis Hennepin, a member of Robert Sieur de la Salle’s expedition to North America. He saw the falls in December 1678.

We passed back by the great Fall of Niagara and employed ourselves during half a day in contemplating this prodigious cascade. …

[T]he discharge of so much water, coming from these fresh water seas, centres at this spot and thus plunges down more than six hundred feet, falling as into an abyss which we could not behold without a shudder. The two great sheets of water which are on the two sides of the sloping island that is in the middle, fall down without noise and without violence, and glide in this manner without din; but when this great mass of water reaches the bottom then there is a noise and a roaring greater than thunder.

Moreover this spray of the water is so great that it forms a kind of clouds above this abyss, and these are seen even at the time when the sun is shining brightly at midday. (1)

Early honeymooners to Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls from the American Side by John Vanderlyn, 1801-1803

Niagara Falls from the American Side by John Vanderlyn, 1801-1803

In the early 19th century, Niagara Falls became a destination for well-off American and European visitors. In the spring of 1801, Theodosia Burr, daughter of US Vice-President Aaron Burr, and her husband Joseph Alston went on a “bridal tour” to Niagara Falls. In 1804, Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte and his American bride Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson followed suit.

Englishman John Grew, who visited Niagara Falls in July 1803, gives a sense of what the honeymooners might have encountered. He approached the falls from Fort Erie on the Canadian side.

At length we arrive at the tremulous precipice which has continually rolling over it the waters of the different lakes & rivers which run into them from the Lake of Woods to Lake Erie. We however do not stop at them but ride on to a house situated about a mile & a half farther down the river, which commands a fine view of the whole scene. Here we put up our horses, get some little refreshments & fit ourselves to descend the banks of the river that we may thoroughly view them. As we expected to be completely drenched by the sprays, we here undressed ourselves, & put on loose trousers, that we might have dry clothes upon our return.

We walk about a quarter of a mile towards the river where we came to a place where we were told by our conductor we should get down its bank, but its being so rocky so perpendicular & so high from the bed of the river that the prospect of it almost made us shudder. Determined however to make the attempt we followed our guide and by making use of our hands as well as feet – holding by rocks & trees & winding down by a kind of track that was made, we at length got down nearly half way. Here we came to a place for a number of feet entirely perpendicular where had been placed a kind of ladder for the convenience of those who wish’d to descend, but it was so broken & weak that without the assistance of our guide we could not have got down.

We however arrive at the bottom but have no sooner surmounted these difficulties than we found we had fresh ones to encounter. We had now to go nearly a mile over rocks along the bank and a rougher path cannot be conceived. We were heartily tired of our expedition before we had got half way, & wish’d ourselves safely lodged on the top of the bank. Not willing to turn back we proceeded over rocks & stones & sometimes on all fours to the foot of the Falls, & to have it in our power to say it, we just went under the edge of them – a situation which it is impossible to describe. The force of the air rushing from between the water & the rock is so great carrying the sprays with such violence that the only thing which in least resembles it is a summer storm or hurricane of wind & rain, but if possible the confined air – here – exceeds it in velocity. We make the best of our way from this shower bath, & scramble over the stones for a quarter of a mile where we ascended the bank by what is called the New Ladder. Compared with our descent we got up this path easily and for fifty or sixty feet had only to climb up a proper & strong ladder. We hastened back to the house where we had left our horses & clothes, & after resting ourselves we proceed on our way towards Chippewa.

When we get up to the Falls we again dismount to view them from the bank upon a line with them, & take our station from Table Rock, so called from its projecting over the river nearly 50 feet, & from its thinness being composed of only one solid sheet of rock. Here we had the best prospect of them. The noise however was so great (as well as below) that we could not hear one another speak. The view here is truly grand & majestic. The height from the bed of river is almost terrific. The sprays ascending in a column & forming vast clouds in the atmosphere is not the least surprising object, to which may be added the various tints & hues of them which the sun rendered dazzling & beautiful. We had now a full view of the rainbow which was nearly a complete circle and whose arch extended from one end of the fall to the other. …

An immense number of logs are continually falling down with the stream & the force with which they are carried is so great that the bark is entirely stripped off, and they carry the appearance of being turn’d, their ends likewise undergo various & great alterations. The timber which floats down and thrown amongst the rocks is sufficient to supply the surrounding country & towns of Chippewa & Niagara with fuel. (2)

A fashionable route

View of Niagara Falls by John Vanderlyn, 1801-1803

View of Niagara Falls by John Vanderlyn, 1801-1803

During the War of 1812, several battles were fought in the vicinity of Niagara Falls. This added to the popularity of the area after the war. A newspaper noted in 1816 that “the crowd of visitors this season from every part of the country has been unexampled.” (3)

In 1817, Augustus Porter, the owner of land and water rights on the American side of Niagara Falls, built a bridge to Goat Island. Prior to this, the only way to get to the island was to put a boat into the river a mile or so above the falls and then steer carefully between the rapids to avoid being swept over the precipice. Unfortunately the bridge was carried away by an unusual buildup of ice in the spring of 1818. Undaunted, Porter soon had a new bridge erected in a more favourable location. In addition, a flight of stairs was constructed on the American side so that ladies could safely descend to the bottom of the falls. These improvements were well-timed.

[Niagara Falls] has, during the present season, from the unusual number of visitors, been frequently spoken of in the public journals, and the journey to it is now considered a fashionable route. It is, however, one of those stupendous phenomena which repays the fatigue and gratifies the curiosity of all. It realizes expectation, though raised to an inordinate degree, and the contemplation of it has this salutary effect: to impress every one with an idea of his own insignificance. (4)

Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, who fled to the United States after Napoleon’s 1815 defeat, visited Niagara Falls during this period.

No longer one of nature’s secret mysteries

Distant View of Niagara Falls by Thomas Cole, 1830

Distant View of Niagara Falls by Thomas Cole, 1830

British author Frances Wright approached Niagara Falls from Lewiston on the American side in September 1819.

This mighty cataract is no longer one of nature’s secret mysteries; thousands now make their pilgrimage to it…over a broad highway; none of the smoothest, it is true, but quite bereft of all difficulty or danger. This in time may somewhat lessen the awe with which this scene of grandeur is approached….

[W]e alighted to look down from a broad platform of rock, on the edge of the precipice, at a fine bend of the river. From hence the blue expanse of [Lake] Ontario bounded a third of the horizon; Fort Niagara on the American shore; Fort George on the Canadian, guarding the mouth of the river, where it opens into the lake; the banks, rising as they approached us, finely wooded, and winding, now hiding and now revealing the majestic waters of the channel. Never shall I forget the moment when…I first beheld the deep, slow, solemn tide, clear as crystal, and green as the ocean, sweeping through its channel of rock with a sullen dignity of motion and sound, far beyond all that I had heard, or could ever have conceived. You saw and felt immediately that it was no river you beheld, but an imprisoned sea; for such indeed are the lakes of these regions. …

A mile farther, we caught a first and partial glimpse of the cataract, on which the opposing sun flashed for a moment, as on a silvery screen that hung suspended in the sky. It disappeared again behind the forest, all save the white cloud that rose far up into the air, and marked the spot from whence the thunder came. We now pressed forward with increasing impatience, and after a few miles reaching a small inn, we left our rude equipage, and hastened in the direction that was pointed to us.

Two foot-bridges have latterly been thrown, by daring and dexterous hands, from island to island, across the American side of the channel, some hundred feet above the brink of the fall; gaining in this manner the great island which divides the cataract into two unequal parts, we made its circuit at our leisure. From its lower point, we obtained partial and imperfect views of the falling river; from the higher, we commanded a fine prospect of the upper channel. Nothing here denotes the dreadful commotion so soon about to take place; the thunder, indeed, is behind you, and the rapids are rolling and dashing on either hand; but before, the vast river comes sweeping down its broad and smooth waters between banks low and gentle as those of the Thames. Returning, we again stood long on the bridges, gazing on the rapids that rolled above and beneath us; the waters of the deepest sea-green, crested with silver, shooting under our feet with the velocity of lightning, till, reaching the brink, the vast waves seemed to pause, as if gathering their strength for the tremendous plunge. …

Descending the ladder (now easy steps), and approaching to the foot of this lesser [American] Falls, we were driven away blinded, breathless, and smarting, the wind being high and blowing right against us. A young gentleman, who incautiously ventured a few steps farther, was thrown upon his back, and I had some apprehension, from the nature of the ground upon which he fell, was seriously hurt; he escaped, however, from the blast, upon hands and knees, with a few slight bruises. Turning a corner of the rock (where, descending less precipitously, it is wooded to the bottom) to recover our breath, and wring the water from our hair and clothes, we saw, on lifting our eyes, a corner of the summit of this graceful division of the cataract hanging above the projecting mass of trees, as it were in mid air, like the snowy top of a mountain. Above, the dazzling white of the shivered water was thrown into contrast with the deep blue of the unspotted heavens….

The wind at length having somewhat abated, and the ferryman being willing to attempt the passage, we here crossed in a little boat to the Canada side. The nervous arm of a single rower stemmed this heavy current, just below the basin of the Falls, and yet in the whirl occasioned by them….

Being landed two-thirds of a mile below the cataract, a scramble, at first very intricate, through, and over, and under huge masses of rock, which occasionally seemed to deny all passage, and among which our guide often disappeared from our wandering eyes, placed us at the foot of the ladder by which the traveller descends on the Canada side. From hence a rough walk along a shelving ledge of loose stones brought us to the cavern formed by the projection of the ledge over which the water rolls, and which is known by the name of the Table Rock.

The gloom of this vast cavern, the whirlwind that ever plays in it, the deafening roar, the vast abyss of convulsed waters beneath you, the falling columns that hang over your head, all strike, not upon the ears and eyes only, but upon the heart. For the first few moments the sublime is wrought to the terrible. This position, indisputably the finest, is no longer one of safety. A part of the Table Rock fell last year, and in that still remaining, the eye traces an alarming fissure, from the very summit of the projecting ledge over which the water rolls….

The cavern formed by the projection of this rock extends some feet behind the water, and could you breathe, to stand behind the edge of the sheet were perfectly easy. I have seen those who have told me they have done so; for myself, when I descended within a few paces of this dark recess, I was obliged to hurry back some yards to draw breath. …

From this spot (beneath the Table Rock), you feel, more than from any other, the height of the cataract and the weight of its waters. It seems a tumbling ocean; and you yourself what a helpless atom amid these vast and eternal workings of gigantic nature! …

Never surely did nature throw together so fantastically so much beauty with such terrific grandeur. Nor let me pass without notice the lovely rainbow that, at this moment, hung over the opposing division of the cataract as parted by the island, embracing the whole breadth in its span. …. We now ascended the precipice on the Canada side, and having taken a long gaze from the Table Rock, sought dry clothes and refreshment at a neighbouring inn. (5)

Infinitely exceeded anticipations

Niagara Falls by Karl Bodmer, 1839

Niagara Falls by Karl Bodmer, 1839

In 1821 there were further enhancements for tourists at Niagara Falls.

[T]he accommodations for visitors are daily increasing here, and there are now besides Forsyth’s tavern on the Canadian side, two new houses of entertainment, Whitney’s on the American side, and Brown’s on the Canadian side of the river…. Scarce anything has yet been done to facilitate the access to the falls. You will be pleased to learn however, that this defect is likely to be soon remedied. During the late visit of our fellow-citizen Colonel Parkins to the falls, a subscription was set on foot by him and headed with the liberal sum of fifty dollars, for the purpose of laying a plank walk over the wet grounds, which must be passed in approaching the Falls, and of building a covered staircase to descend from Table Rock [on the Canadian side] immediately to the foot of the main sheet. The subscription rose in two days to near 200 dollars and the work is already in progress. (6)

British naval officer Basil Hall visited Niagara Falls in June 1827. He approached from Lockport on the American side.

[T]he Falls of Niagara…infinitely exceeded our anticipations. I think it right to begin with this explicit statement, because I do not remember in any instance in America, or in England, when this subject was broached, that the first question has not been, ‘Did the Falls answer your expectations?’

The best answer on this subject I remember to have heard of, was made by a gentleman who had just been at Niagara, and on his return was appealed to by a party he met on the way going to the Falls, who naturally asked him if he thought they would be disappointed. ‘Why, no,’ said he; ‘not unless you expect to witness the sea coming down from the moon!’ …

The first glimpse we got of the great Fall, was at the distance of about three miles below it, from the right or eastern bank of the river. Without attempting to describe it, I must say that I felt at the moment quite sure no subsequent examination, whether near or remote, could ever remove, or even materially weaken, the impression left by this first view.

From the time we discovered the stream, and especially after coming within hearing of the cataract, our expectations were of course wound up to the highest pitch. Most people, I suppose, in the course of their lives, must, on some occasion or other, have found themselves on the eve of a momentous occurrence; and by recalling what they experienced at that time, will perhaps understand better what was felt, than I can venture to describe it. I remember myself experiencing something akin to it at St. Helena, when waiting in Napoleon’s outer room, under the consciousness that the tread which I heard was from the foot of the man who, a short while before, had roved at will over so great a portion of the world; but whose range was now confined to a few chambers – and that I was separated from this astonishing person, only by a door, which was about to open. So it was with Niagara. I knew that at the next turn of the road, I should behold the most splendid sight on earth, — the outlet to those mighty reservoirs, which contain, it is said, one-half of the fresh water on the surface of our planet. …

The scenery in the neighbourhood of Niagara has, in itself, little or no interest, and has been rendered still less attractive by the erection of hotels, paper manufactories, saw-mills, and numerous other raw, staring, wooden edifices.…

I had the satisfaction of walking over the whole of Goat Island one day with the proprietor, who seemed unaffectedly desirous of rendering it an agreeable place of resort to strangers. He had been recommended, he told me, by many people, to trim and dress it; to clear away most of the woods; and by all means to extirpate every one of the crooked trees. I expressed my indignation at such a barbarous set of proposals, and tried hard to explain how repugnant they were to all our notions of taste in Europe. His ideas, I was glad to see, appeared to coincide with mine; so that this conversation may have contributed, in some degree, to the salvation of the most interesting spot in all America. (7)

Hall went into the cavern beneath Horseshoe Falls, which had so frightened Frances Wright.

We reached a spot 153 feet from the outside, or entrance, by the assistance of a guide, who makes a handsome livelihood by this amphibious pilotage. There was a tolerably good, green sort of light within this singular cavern; but the wind blew us first in one direction then in another with such alarming violence, that I thought at first we should be fairly carried off our feet, and jerked into the roaring caldron beneath. This tempest, however, was not nearly so great an inconvenience as the unceasing deluges of water driven against us. Fortunately the direction of this gale of wind was always more or less upwards, from the pool below, right against the face of the cliffs; were it otherwise, I fancy it would be impossible to go behind the Falls, with any chance of coming out again. Even now there is a great appearance of hazard in the expedition, though experience shows that there is no real danger. Indeed the guide, to reassure us, and to prove the difficulty of the descent, actually leaped downwards, to the distance of five or six yards, from the top of the bank of rubbish at the base of the cliff, along which the path is formed. The gusts of wind rising out of the basin or pool below, blew so violently against him that he easily regained the walk.  …

All parties agreed that there was considerable difficulty in breathing; but while some ascribed this to a want of air, others asserted that it arose from the quantity being too great. The truth, however, obviously is, that we have too much water; not too much air. For I may ask, with what comfort could any man breathe with half a dozen fire-engines playing full in his face? …

Though I was only half an hour behind the Fall, I came out much exhausted, partly with the bodily exertion of maintaining a secure footing while exposed to such buffeting and drenching, and partly, I should suppose, from the interest belonging to this scene, which certainly exceeds any thing I ever witnessed before. All parts of Niagara, indeed, are on a scale which baffles every attempt of the imagination to paint, and it were ridiculous, therefore, to think of describing it. The ordinary materials of description, I mean analogy, and direct comparison with things which are more accessible, fail entirely in the case of that amazing cataract, which is altogether unique. (8)

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  1. John Gilmary Shea, A Description of Louisiana by Father Louis Hennepin (New York, 1880), p. 378.
  2. John Grew, Journal of a Tour from Boston to Niagara Falls and Quebec (1803), pp. 69-73.
  3. “Falls of Niagara,” The Supporter (Chillicothe, Ohio), December 3, 1816.
  4. “Niagara Falls (From the American Daily Advertiser),” The Morning Post (London, England), October 26, 1818.
  5. Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America (London, 1821), pp. 237-245.
  6. “Falls of Niagara [From the Boston Daily Advertiser],” The Morning Post (London, England), October 2, 1821.
  7. Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828, I (Edinburgh, 1829), pp. 177, 180-181, 190, 192.
  8. Ibid., pp. 198-199, 204.

10 commments on “Visiting Niagara Falls in the early 19th Century”

  • Bob Jase says:

    What, no Bierstadt?

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Bierstadt visited Niagara Falls in the second half of the 19th century, when tourism really took off there. His paintings of the falls are gorgeous.

  • Geoffrey says:

    What about Oscar Wilde?

  • Jim W says:

    David Livingstone, famous African missionary and explorer, first set eyes on Victoria Falls, or Mosi oa Tunya as it was called by the locals, in 1855. He returned to the falls around 1862 as part of his Zambezi Expedition. Interestingly, one member of his expedition was his brother, Charles, who had graduated from seminary in NYC in 1850. While Charles was living in America, he visited Niagara Falls (the Livingstones were from Scotland). This means Charles Livingstone was, most likely, the first person ever to see both Niagara and Victoria Falls. You can find Charles Livingstone’s description and comparative thoughts on the two falls in D. Livingstone’s “Zambezi Expedition,” and other sources.

  • M. Mitchell Marmel says:

    Call me a hopeless fan of slapstick if you will, but I can never hear the phrase “Niagara Falls” without the concomitant rejoinder, “Slowly I turned…” 🙂

  • Geoffrey says:

    Many thanks for your trouble in finding this material about Oscar Wilde. The remark I have always heard attributed to Oscar was “What else can it do?” when someone said how amazing it was to see all that water hurtling over the falls.

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The ordinary materials of description, I mean analogy, and direct comparison with things which are more accessible, fail entirely in the case of that amazing cataract, which is altogether unique.

Basil Hall