Voices of Niagara: Jim Hill, Niagara Parks Commission, Ontario

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Jim Hill of the Niagara Parks Commission, interviewed in April 2018 at Oak Hall, Niagara Falls, Ontario © Alan Gignoux

My name is Jim Hill, I’m the Senior Manager of Heritage, for the Niagara Parks Commission. Our park has been around since 1885 and we’re an agency of the Province of Ontario.  Our mandate is to preserve the nature and heritage along the Niagara corridor on the Canadian side of the river.  When we were created in 1885, there was already a lot of development going on here that people felt was limiting access for visitors to the Falls, or maybe taking away from the experience.   They wanted to get back to a natural setting, and that no-one would interfere with visitors who wanted to see Niagara Falls.

Now that sounds simple today, but at the time local property owners would put up fences and walls, and if you wanted to see Niagara Falls up close you would pay some gentleman a couple of pennies, he’d open up a little slot in the wall, when he figured you’d seen enough, he’d close it.  There were stairwells down into the gorge, and it was often free to go down.  But then you’d pay if you ever wanted to leave the Niagara Gorge.  And there was a bit of a sliding scale: we think pretty much based on how you were dressed – in some cases it was pretty exorbitant.  This very aggressive operation was causing concerns for governments on both sides, American and Canadian.

We were established with two rules in mind: that access to Niagara Falls should be free, and that it would cost the taxpayer nothing.  So that’s the rules we have been operating off of since 1885.

The purpose of the Niagara Parks Commission is still to maintain that parkland, but now it has expanded the full length of the river.  So from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, we have a 56 kilometre parkway, and it’s our responsibility to maintain the natural and historic heritage along the river.  So we have efforts to maintain the watershed along there with natural species, plants and wildlife, and to also care for and maintain historic sites and museums along the river corridor.

The core park area, I think will be preserved for generations to come, because it is just as important to the people who operate the casinos and hotels that this parkland is saved, that these lands stay in the public trust, and that there’s a place for their visitors to relax and enjoy this.  I think they would acknowledge that, in as much as they are interested in visitors coming and staying at their hotel or going to the casino.  They acknowledge that we need this important ribbon of land, to create that green space for visitors.

Geography and geology gave us that better view of the Falls, so most photographs you’ll see of Niagara Falls are taken from the Canadian side of the river.  So people want to recreate that experience.

Because we share the river – the border literally goes right down the middle – the waterfall and the Great Lakes, the Niagara River is a matter of particular concern to people on both sides.  The Boundary Waters Treaty goes back to 1909, so very early on, there was a recognition that something needed to be done to preserve and protect not only the appearance of the river, but literally the health of the river itself – how much water we would divert, for industry, for municipal waterworks, and for hydro-electricity.

Just as they are a State Park (on the American side), we are a provincial park here, but we are very much self-funded – all of the resources basically stay here in the community and with the park.  So that’s, I’d say, a benefit to the community that the resources stay here and are managed by the commission itself.

We employ around 1800 employees, so we are one of the largest employers not only in the city of Niagara Falls, but in the entire Niagara region. We aren’t any expense to the taxpayer, at any level, municipal, regional, provincial, or federal – we have our own police department, so we provide provincial level policing also at no expense to the community or the people who live along the river corridor.

What we are currently doing is looking at the park as a whole, including the (disused) power plants, a sort of strategic overview of the significance of the plants and how they fit into our park.  They are massive structures.  The plants that were handed over to the park are right near the Falls, all of them built, basically in the first decade of the twentieth century, so they are amongst the oldest power plants in the world.

This is the beginning of hydro-electric power, here in Niagara.  So they are significant just because of that history, but also the scale of those plants – when you see those plants down by the Falls, it’s like looking at an iceburg, you’re only seeing a portion of the building.  They go down stories underground, so you’re maybe seeing 20% of the building above ground, the rest of the penstocks and wheel pits, where the power was actually generated, go down below into the ground.

These were massive projects for their time, and changed how both sides of the river developed, which brought that industry here, brought larger populations of people here.  But I think that even as industry was building there was also an acknowledgement that this was a place that people needed to see, and needed to visit, and that all the water was not going to be going through power plants and factories, and that somehow this needed to be preserved for future generations.

 

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