There are three entities that go by the name “Niagara Falls”:- the falls themselves and the two towns of Niagara Falls – one in New York State and one in Ontario. The falls themselves are comprised of three waterfalls: the American Falls and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls are on the American side, separated by Goat Island from the Horseshoe Falls, which lie on the American-Canadian border. The waterfalls are created by the water from Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie, one fifth of the world’s freshwater, draining into Lake Ontario and out to sea. The waterfalls have an average flow rate of 85,000 cubic feet per second over a drop of 167 feet. The jewel-like green colour of the water is caused by the presence of salts, a by-product of erosion.
These are the bare facts, but from the moment of their discovery by Europeans, Niagara Falls came to assume complex layers of meaning. In his book, Imagining Niagara: The Meaning and Making of Niagara Falls, Patrick McGreevy offers a thoughtful analysis of the way in which this evolved through the nineteenth century in particular:
Niagara Falls seems to have functioned as a device for reverie – a screen on which nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans could project their personal explorations of certain collective preoccupations.¹
He focuses on four interlocking themes that recur in descriptions of the falls: Niagara as a thing imagined from afar; as a metaphor for death; as an embodiment of nature and as a focus of future events. All four of the themes are linked by the idea of “otherness” or a removal from the ordinary. McGreevy argues that the fate of Niagara Falls since the nineteenth century is closely linked to the flights of imagination that the natural wonder inspired, particularly in the minds of Europeans unable to see the falls for themselves.
Imagined from Afar
The earliest description of Niagara Falls was written by Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan missionary and explorer, who accompanied Robert de la Salle’s expedition to the Great Lakes and the Illinois River in 1678. Published in his collected writings about his travel experiences, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America (Utrecht, 1697), his account became known throughout Europe. Niagara Falls remained inaccessible to the common traveller until the completion of the Eerie Canal in 1825, with the result that a public fascinated by the possibilities of a New World assigned to the falls the attributes of their own flights of fantasy:
Niagara was a thing that could only be imagined, and Europeans imagined it as a fabulous place that had no parallel in their own world. They imbued it with all of the exotic possibilities attributed to the New World in general.²