Failed Utopias and Dystopian Futures

Gillette’s was not the only Utopian plan for the Falls – also in the 1890’s William T. Love attempted to raise money to construct Model City, an urban development scheme designed around a canal and a hydroelectric plant,  with housing for more than 1 million people.  Love’s plans collapsed after his investors backed out as a result of the 1894 financial crisis.

While entrepreneurs and visionaries such as Gillette and Love imagined marvellous futures at the falls enabled by the wonders of electrical power, others, such as early science fiction writer H.G. Wells foresaw an alternative future in which humankind’s frenzied drive to harness nature to its own ends results in a return to the savage state:

For a time it had seemed that by virtue of machines and scientific civilization, Europe was to be lifted out of this perpetual round of animal drudgery, and that America was to evade it very largely from the outset.  And with the smash of the high and dangerous and splendid edifice of mechanical civilization that had arisen so marvellously, back to the land came the common man, back to the manure.

HG Wells War in the Air
“The Airship staggered to the crest of the Fall”, The War in the Air, by H.G. Wells, 1908, first ed.

In his dark science fiction novel The War in the Air written in 1907, a few years after the inauguration of Tesla’s hydroelectric power plant, Wells sets the decisive air battle in the sky above Niagara Falls, symbol of industrial progress. Wells feared the military implications of air power and of unfettered industrial progress in general. He was suspicious of the hubris he detected in the prophets of technology and worried about the increasingly unshakeable belief in the ability of man, with the aid of science, to control nature.

While Wells’ vision is extreme, his scepticism is perhaps justified by subsequent events.  Before he was forced to abandon his Model City project Love succeeded in building a section of his canal, known today as Love Canal.  Ironically, this site, conceived as central to a Utopian vision of an industrial future, ended up at the heart of one of the nation’s worst industrial waste disasters.  During the 1970’s Love’s abandoned canal became the site of a 70-acre landfill that was not properly contained, leading to an environmental pollution disaster that affected the health of hundreds of residents.  The local residents’ struggle for recognition and reparations was the first example of grassroots environmentalism and led to the national Superfund clean-up operation.

The entire Love Canal neighbourhood was levelled apart from one or two houses, where residents chose to stay. Overgrown sidewalks, stop signs and fire hydrants mark the location of the vanished blocks of houses.  The site of the former Love Canal chemical landfill is fenced off as part of the Superfund clean-up operation.

Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York, April 2017
Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York, April 2017 © Alan Gignoux

 

 

 

Voices of Niagara: Constance Hamilton, Sass Hair Salon

Constance Hamillton
Constance Hamilton, interviewed at the Sass Hair Salon on Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York, on 18th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

“My name is Constance G. Hamilton and I own and operate the beauty salon.  I do hair, make up, ear piercing.

My father came here from Alabama because there was work.  At the time, there was no work in Alabama, unless you worked on a farm or something; he was having a new family, myself and my brother was born in Alabama, he had came out of the service and there were factories here, so he came here to work.  As a matter of fact, his friend sent for him, and he came here and got a job in a factory, and in turn sent for my mother, my brother and the little one, my baby sister, was on the way…

That was in 1956.  He ended up working at the Carborundum plant¹.  He worked from 1957 until ‘77.  Niagara Falls was a beautiful little place, I can remember the parades at Hyde Park, they used to have the Maid of the Mist Parade.  It accepted a lot of differences – the Maid of the Mist Parade was basically a Native American celebration², and here it is now, in 2018, and we have the Seneca Nation Casino, and they put a lot of money and work into our area.

(Things started to change in Niagara Falls) the minute I got this shop on Main Street in 1993.  I could see a big change.  The stores started to close, Jens closed the week I moved in here, and everything just started to close down…  That was in 1993 and I had this shop here for two years, but I couldn’t open the doors, because I was just working on it.  And at that time period everything changed.  Also, the bridge, to the Canadians, they cut off local traffic going back and forth, and they pushed it downtown. That was Nexus, Nexus was the name of it.³

Then I couldn’t get this shop open, it just seemed like they was pushing everything downtown, and I couldn’t get the shop open, and so I had to close down here, and then I waited for a shop on Third Street that was already open.  In other words, here, I had to build a beauty salon, because it used to be a store here.  When I went on Third Street, then it was already a salon that was done.  All I had to do was put my licence up, do a little bit of work around it.  I went to Third Street for ten years.

My mother had picked this shop on Main Street up in the beginning and I felt like it was time to come back.  Maybe – maybe, some of the other businesses would open up.  The city said that this would be a test business for the change that was about to take place on Main Street, because of the (newly built) police station.

The biggest change in Niagara Falls is that there are no stores, but that’s across the country, isn’t it? There’s no stores.  They used to have beautiful stores here.  You know, there are beautiful apartments above these shops, and a lot of that changed.  I don’t know if they just decided not to have these buildings open, but some of these apartments, like over here, across the street, they have beautiful, old-fashioned windows and things of that nature, and all kind of old, china toilets, where you pull the chain. I used to have a girlfriend over there that rented one… but for some reason they decided not to put the money in our area and they want it downtown.

(To revitalize Niagara Falls) I think first of all they have to accept differences in people, I think they need to accept that everybody is not coming from the same place.  We have Hispanic people, we have Native American people, we have people who are from India, Pakistan, we have black people, we have white people – people mix and understand differences and support each others’ differences, and try to make it with each other.  They try to accept just some people and that doesn’t work.

I would like to say jobs is one of the challenges facing African Americans in Niagara Falls.  But I think if we try to concentrate more on family, and put things into our children – see I don’t have children, but these kids are my children… I think you should pass on the things that you know, and make them do a lot of things.  I don’t know if we are steering our children in the way we should.  I think education is way too high, it’s so expensive, you know, and then they don’t have jobs when they get out.  So if you pass on, like a trade, and you give them something when they come out they can immediately start making money, because they have families they’re trying to support, then maybe we would do better.

But that’s with everybody, I just can’t say African Americans, that’s with everyone.  Back when we were little, you learned how to cook from your mom, you learned carpentry from your father, plumbing, things of that nature. So now we live in a world where they are taking our children, and they put them in schools and they charge them a lot of money and by the time they get out of school they got real high student loans, $90,000 – $100,000,and then they don’t have the money to pay for them.  So how are they going to come back and work it out?

Young people try to leave Niagara Falls, but they come back.  Because along with beauty in this place, they are also finding that some industry is coming back here, not the kind of industry you used to have, like chemical plants and things of that nature, the industry that is coming back here is technology.  They are finding that it’s cheaper to come here.

They just did – on the Grand Island toll – they did Easy Pass where you can go back and forth, because it was actually a nightmare, going from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, when the offices were closing because they had such terrible back-ups.  I’d be trying to figure out – where are all these people coming from?  People are coming back to work in Buffalo, Niagara, Youngstown, places like that…

(The salon) is making a living for everybody, although it’s not like it was back in the day. This is as light as it’s been in months, but the phone is ringing so it’s going to be busy this week.

(Niagara Falls) is a beautiful place.  This is my home town and I am able to work with local businesses and I am able to work with people, who are different; I have all kinds of clients, it doesn’t matter what colour they are, so I am able to touch many people who come to this city looking for something.  I got people coming from out of town, I take them down to the Falls a lot.  It gives them something to go see.  They love it.  It’s funny how people appreciate where you are more than you.  But then, sometimes I get a chance in the evenings to walk, you know I do my miles, I’ll go to the waterfalls.”

¹The Carborundum plant was opened in 1895 in Niagara Falls, New York by Edward G. Acheson.  It manufactured a  man-made abrasive with the consistency and accuracy of crushed diamonds.  The company started with 35 employees, which grew to 6,000 by the 1944.  The company flourished from the early 1960’s to the early 1980’s, when it was one of the largest employers in the city.  However, it went through a series of owners during the 1980’s, with the result that plants were closed and workers were laid off, with devastating consequences for those directly affected and the Niagara Falls economy.

²The Maid of the Mist parade ran from 1954 to 1970 or 1971.  According to Andrew Z, Galarneau in the Buffalo News on 8th April, 2005: 

“It commemorates the Six Nations legend of the Maid of the Mist, a young Native American woman — thrice widowed — who tries to commit suicide by riding a canoe over the falls. But before her plunge, she is saved by the Thunderbeings, who heal her in a cave behind the falls.

At one time, the annual summer festival, which included a beauty pageant for young women and a re-enactment of the legend — without the falls plunge — attracted large crowds to Goat Island, where it was presented.

But the event also has stirred controversy among some American Indians because, in an incorrect version of the story, a tribe sacrifices the maiden to the falls to appease a serpent god and save their village from drought and death.”

³A joint program between the United States and Canada, NEXUS allows pre-screened travelers expedited processing through dedicated NEXUS lanes at the designated ports of entry, including the international bridges of the Buffalo Niagara region.  The Whirlpool Rapids Bridge (the nearest bridge to Main Street, Niagara Falls, New York) only permits NEXUS travelers to cross, leading to a loss of traffic from non-NEXUS travelers.

The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Angela Berti, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Angela Berti
Angela Berti, Marketing and Public Affairs Coordinator, New York Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, interviewed at Prospect Point, Niagara Falls State Park on 10th April, 2018 © Alan Gignoux

The Niagara Falls State Park is in the city of Niagara Falls, New York, on the American-Canadian border. It lines the Niagara River near the Falls on the American side and incorporates the American Falls, the Bridal Veil Falls and a portion of the Horseshoe Falls, as well as Goat Island.  The State Park is a separate entity from the city of Niagara Falls, New York, and is managed by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.  

“Niagara Falls State Park was founded in 1883 by the leaders of New York State.  At that time in Niagara Falls State Park, all along the river were industries that were using the water to create power, so as a result of that, there was no public access to see the beautiful Falls.  The leaders of our state found that to be unacceptable – so they came up here and they took this land through eminent domain from the city of Niagara Falls, and they created what is Niagara Falls State Park today.  It was finally opened in 1885 as a State Park and it’s been operating ever since.  It’s completely free to enter this park and see the Falls – that was one of the founding principles – and so you can come in today for no money at all and see the Falls.

The main principle about the conservation of this park involved keeping it as natural as possible.  We went from one extreme to the other, where the Falls were being used to create power in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and so the thought process was, “Let’s bring it back to that.”  And I think they did a pretty good job.  Frederick Law Olmsted was a renowned American landscape architect, who came here and took a look around, and he left some ideas – he didn’t necessarily design this park, but the design is inspired by him, and that’s a big deal to us, and that’s what we’re trying to go back to, even today.

In the last six or seven years here in New York State we’ve been bringing that vision back.  Over time it’s kind of gotten diluted, and some of the materials that have come into the park, in terms of benches and garbage cans and those kinds of things have moved away from that historical Frederick Law Olmsted influence, and so we’re trying to bring a lot of that back.  We’re bringing native plantings back into the park, and really trying to bring the park back to a uniform, peaceful place to visit.

That contrasts with what we see over in Canada, where they’ve been focusing on this big city, razzle dazzle tourism industry for quite some time now, and we find that it offers people the best of both worlds, where they can come here to the Niagara Falls State Park, be immersed in nature, be right up close next to the rapids and the river, and then go over to Canada and see the beautiful wide view of the Falls and maybe experience some of the excitement of what they focus on over there.

About 50 years ago when the industries started leaving Niagara Falls, USA, we believed that they would come back some day, so we treaded water, deciding what we were going to do until that happened.  At that same time the Canadians were determining that tourism was their future and that’s why you see the disparity between the two cities.  Here in Niagara Falls, New York, we get 8 or 9 million people per year that come to see the Falls and at the end of that experience they are looking for things to do, so we’re really working closely with the city of Niagara Falls, to try to get people out of the park, to spend more time in the city.  It’s a great place, there are wonderful restaurants, there’s a culinary institute, there are other attractions – you could spend days in this area, just enjoying the other attractions.  And so we are working as a community, almost for the first time, to develop that infrastructure and make sure that people that are coming here to see the Falls are aware of the other things to do.

We’re trying to gracefully find our footing, in between the commercialisation of this park and the expectations of tourists, and maintaining the beauty.  It’s a pretty fine line that we are walking, and it also contributes to our relationship to the city of Niagara Falls, where we don’t want to over offer opportunities to eat and to shop, when that can also be going on in the city.

Niagara Falls is where my family is from, and so when I got the job here I remember telling my grandfather and he was over the moon.  He worked for a construction company that built a lot of the stuff here, the Tower and the Rainbow Bridge and the Aquarium, so there’s this history of my family that is here, which makes it even more special to me.  I say a lot of times that people save money their entire lives to come here, to what we have in our back yard, here in western New York, and we take that for granted too often – slowly but surely we’re turning that around.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will soon be available on video on You Tube.

Voices of Niagara: Charles Harris, Project Green Space

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Charles Harris, Director, Project Green Space, interviewed on 10th April.  He and children from The Connection are developing an urban farm on a vacant lot on Weston Street, Niagara Falls, New York © Alan Gignoux

“My name is Charles Harris, I am a Youth Center Assistant at The Connection Center, an after school programme run by Planned Parenthood.  Being a Youth Center Assistant I work in the kitchen, I fund different type of activities and I’m the Director of Project Green Space.  Project Green Space is basically what you see right here, it’s when we take vacant lots and we turn them into community gardens, meditation circles, or we even turn them into places where we do sculpture art.

This spot is on 16th and Weston, it’s located at 1639 Weston where a house used to stand.  What we did was we aligned with different residents in the neighbourhood, and we decided that we wanted to beautify their environment, so we took one vacant lot and we flipped it around using teams from The Connection Center, which I hired through funding which I got from my ioby campaign, which was a grassroots campaign.  I hired those five teenagers and we created pathways, we created four raised beds by hand, and we have four more raised beds coming out here. We planted different types of vegetables out here, kohlrabi, we planted radishes, we planted tomatoes, all of this stuff is for the community’s use and they’ll be able to continue to use this throughout this year.

We chose to use raised beds because Niagara Falls has a history of what we call brown fields, if you’re well informed about the Love Canal that’s happened here years ago at Niagara Falls, the ground has been polluted and it has a bad history of being polluted and so we don’t choose to grow inside the ground, we choose to use raised beds so that our vegetation isn’t contaminated.

Niagara Falls is my city, I was born and raised here, I do take pride in my city, despite a lot of things that people may see on the news or may hear from word of mouth, there are still people who take pride in this city.  Just like any other city we do have our problems with vacant houses, which we call “zombie” houses.  Zombie houses are vacant houses that just sit and over time become dilapidated to the point where they either end up falling down or the administration decides that they have to be torn down. As you can see in the area that we chose, there’s at least probably about 6 zombie houses in this neighbourhood, where it just shows a big lack of investment by local politicians and by local government.  We don’t really have a say-so of when we can tear these houses down or what’s the next step, are they going to be revitalized,  but we do have a little bit of say-so on the foundation, where we can grow our fruit and vegetables.

When I see the future of Niagara Falls I’m very optimistic, we’ve got a lot of people that do care about Niagara Falls, a lot of residents here that are pushing in the right direction, I do see some positive things happening, like with this programme here.  Through the Resident Engagement Council, we’ve actually been taking a stand to fight against food deserts and to fight blight, so I do see Niagara Falls moving in a positive direction in the next 20 years.”

This is an extract.  The full interview will shortly be available on video on You Tube.

Read more about The Connection

 

 

Voices of Niagara: Lou Paonessa, Robert Moses Niagara Power Project

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Lou Paonessa, Community Relations Director, New York Power Authority at the Robert Moses Niagara Power Project, 9th April, 2018 ©Alan Gignoux

We interviewed Lou Paonessa about the history of hydro-electric power at Niagara Falls and the Robert Moses Niagara Power Project, New York State’s biggest energy producer.  

“My name is Lou Paonessa, I work in community relations at the New York Power Authority.

We like to say that this is the birthplace of hydro-electricity here at Niagara Falls: folks like George Westinghouse and Nikolai Tesla, did some of their best work here.  Tesla came and saw the immense power and majesty of the falls and right away saw it as a force to be harnessed and a force for good. A lot of it was mechanical energy at that time – spinning water wheels – but Tesla and Edison were able to turn that mechanical energy into electrical energy through their inventions and their ability to transit electricity, which was done from here to Buffalo and really started a world-wide revolution.

This is the Robert Moses Niagara Power Project.  It’s really two facilities: we have a pump generating plant that allows us to store water like a battery, at our Lewiston pump generating plant.  There’s an international treaty between the United States and Canada that says a certain amount of water has to flow over the falls, because this is a tourist area and we want Niagara Falls to be an important part of tourism for the region.  We take what water is available, after allowing water to go over the falls for tourism purposes, and split it equally among this plant and the one on the other side of the river (in Canada);  so at night when power demands are low, and water may be more plentiful, we pump it up into the Lewiston reservoir so that we can use it twice during the day time, run it through our pump generators, generating a small amount of power, and then a quarter of a mile down to the main Moses facility where we can generate a large amount of power. This particular facility can generate upwards of ten percent of the power demands of New York State, at any one given time.

We’re here for the economy, to be a backbone of power for the State of New York, as well as this region.  One of the main reasons that this power project is here is for jobs; economic development is one of the major features of the mission of the New York Power Authority.  We produce low cost, clean energy that will allow businesses to operate here at a lower cost than other places, because hydro-electricity is cheaper than other forms of energy. Also, taking advantage of the wonderful geography – there’s no better place to build a power plant with the Great Lakes supply of clean, fresh water – but also the landscape, the 300 foot drop which helps to create the energy you need to power a 2600 megawatt power facility.

The New York Power Authority, as part of our federal licence, also has certain standards that it has to uphold: as part of our licence to be able to operate this facility, there are recreational and environmental standards that must be met.

One of our recreational projects is the Niagara Power Project; we also have fishing and other facilities available to the public.  One of the promises that we made was to offer this Visitor Center; because so many millions of people are coming to Niagara Falls, each and every year, and a lot of people are interested in the power plant, the power dam and how electricity is produced; we decided to make this a top notch attraction to help extend visitors’ stay in the region, and therefore increase tourism for the area, which is all good for the economy of Niagara.

The State of New York has high clean energy goals and we’re going to be a driver of that, not only through our hydro- power production, but through solar, wind and other renewable energies.  We want to be a leader in turning around what has been a poor environmental record in this area to make it a strong one.”

Niagara as a Focus for the Future

gillet06
Gillette, King Camp, The Human Drift, Plate V (Boston: New Era Publishing Co., 1894. Reprint: Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, Inc., 1976). A circular building designed by Gillette for his Utopian city, Metropolis.

Niagara gripped the imagination of not only travellers and writers, but also of engineers and entrepreneurs.  Many of these “envisioned the fall’s industrial and economic potential as limitless” and “they imagined a colossal, utopian future that would inevitably result from the relentless human drive to subdue and transform nature.” (McGreevy)

In his book Imagining Niagara  Patrick McGreevy argues that the idealization of Niagara Falls and the association of the falls with industrial progress and the future are intimately connected, writing:  “My contention here is that industrial development and idealization are intimately connected.  Visions of the future began as an extension of Niagara’s idealization. The Falls’ industrial development depended upon a host of factors that could be examined through traditional economic and locational analysis, but this development was also a matter of imagination.”

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A multiple exposure picture of Tesla sitting next to his “magnifying transmitter” generating millions of volts. The 7-metre (23 ft) long arcs were not part of the normal operation, but only produced for effect by rapidly cycling the power switch. Source: Wikipedia

Although industrial development of the Falls began already in the early nineteenth century, McGreevy posits that the idea of the future became bound up with Niagara Falls with the beginning of hydroelectric power in 1895.  It was in that year that Nikolai Tesla and George Westinghouse built the first hydro-electric plant in the world at Niagara Falls, harnessing the tremendous power of the falls to generate and transport electricity, marking the victory of the former’s Alternating Current over Thomas Edison’s Direct Current.

Tesla turbines Niagara Falls

Their achievement amounted to no less than a revolution that led to the electrification of the world.  The history of hydro-electric power at Niagara Falls is fraught with controversy, but by mastering the creation and distribution of electricity Tesla improved lives immeasurably, conforming to a positive view of progress that supports the idea of humankind using science to improve the material lives of the many.

Gillette map of Metropolis
Gillette, King Camp, The Human Drift, Map Showing the Location of Metropolis, 1894

Tesla’s scientific achievement helped to inspire a vision of a future Utopian society located at Niagara Falls in the form of King Camp Gillette’s socialist urban planning vision The Human Drift, published in 1894.  Gillette, better known for his invention of the safety razor with disposable blades, imagined a magnificent city called Metropolis at the site of Niagara Falls, which would be entirely powered by electricity generated by the Falls.  He wrote:

For many reasons I have come to the conclusion that there is no spot on the American continent, or possibly in the world, that combines so many natural advantages as that section of our country lying in the vicinity of the Niagara Falls, extending east into New York State and west into Ontario. The possibility of utilizing the enormous natural power resulting from the fall, from the level of Lake Erie to the level of Lake Ontario, some 330 feet is no longer the dream of enthusiasts, but is a demonstrated fact. Here is a power, which, if brought under control, is capable of keeping in continuous operation even manufacturing industry for centuries to come, and, in addition supply all the lighting… run all the elevators, and furnish the power necessary for the transportation system of the great central city….

Gillette envisaged that electricity would lead to increased mechanisation, resulting in improved efficiency and increased wealth for all;  social progress would naturally follow.

 

Imagining Niagara

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

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Unidentified, Chutes d’eau de Niagara, 1697, Private Collection.

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

¹McGreevy, p.11

²McGreevy, p.3

 

 

 

 

The Hudson River School

Thomas Cole
Portrait of Thomas Cole, American Painter, 1845, unidentified photographer

The Hudson River School was an American school of landscape painting that achieved its peak period of popularity in the years from 1830-1870.  The name of the movement refers to the artists’ preferred subject: the Hudson River Valley in New York State and the surrounding area, including the Catskill, Adirondack and White Mountains.  The second generation associated with the school (to which Regis Gignoux belonged) travelled further afield, north and south along the eastern seaboard and eventually west.  The acknowledged leading light of the Hudson River School was Thomas Cole (1801-1848),whose “Essay on American Scenery” (1836) became an inspiration for the movement.

In Praise of American Scenery

Cole was writing at a time when American artists were struggling to find an identity distinct from European painting, which drew on history, particularly of the classical period, for inspiration. Europeans saw the American landscape as “rude” and “monotonous,” possessing “little that is interesting or truly beautiful” and “destitute of those vestiges of antiquity, whose associations so strongly affect the mind.”  He turned these perceived flaws into virtues by emphasizing the distinctiveness and variety of American Scenery and, in particular, its uncultivated “wildness.” He argued passionately in favour of the American landscape as the most suitable subject for American artists.

Whether intentional or not, Cole’s identification of the New World landscape as a focus for a national school of art turned out to be an astute political move as it allowed immigrants with diverse religious, cultural, educational and economic backgrounds to rally around the one thing they all shared in their new home: the land itself.  Unwittingly perhaps, Cole also offered the European settlers, who were effectively colonisers with scant regard for the indigenous population, a visual means by which to promote their aims and aspirations.

“Short lived, short sighted”

Cole also worried that young American society was too concerned with the “low pursuits of avarice” and recommended the power of nature to provide relief from the toils of daily life and of the contemplation of scenery to inspire delight, well-being and moral improvement in the viewer.  While not opposed to the cultivation of the land for the purposes of creating homes and social environments, he lamented the “meagre utilitarianism” he saw around him, the growing tendency to see nature only as a resource to be exploited for profit.  He expressed sadness at the loss of so much natural beauty in the course of development:

I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes is quickly passing away – the ravages of the axe are daily increasing – the most noble scenes are made destitute, and oftentimes with barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.  This is a regret rather than a complaint; such is the road society has to travel.

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire:  The Arcadian or Pastoral State, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 63 1/2 inches, 1835
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Arcadian or Pastoral State, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 63 1/2 inches, 1835

Cole’s best known cycle of paintings, The Course of Empire (1833-36), traces the rise and fall of civilisation from wilderness through the ideal pastoral state to the creation and ultimate corruption and destruction of Empire.  For Cole, the destruction of Empire is brought about by a loss of the ideal, harmonious state between humankind and nature, caused by moral depravity and greed.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire, oil on canvas, 51 x 76 inches, 1836

Cole’s ambitions to create an art in celebration of the American landscape became part of a wider nation-building project, which was ultimately at odds with the artist’s personal views about nature and progress.  At the heart of his essay is, above all, a love of the natural scenery of his adopted country, which he believed should be appreciated, first and foremost, for itself:

(American scenery) is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for… it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity – all are his; and how undeserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, an unaffected heart!

Cole_Thomas_The_Course_of_Empire_Destruction_1836
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 63 1/2 inches, Destruction, 1836

It must be acknowledged that when he speaks of the birthright of his fellow Americans he was most likely thinking only of immigrants like himself – the rights of the indigenous people were overlooked by the majority of the European settlers.

The ideas in Cole’s essay inspired a generation of artists to create what they saw as a distinctly American school of painting that would record and celebrate the unique, but fast-disappearing, wilderness landscape of the New World; however, there would always be a potential conflict between the natural beauty they depicted and the nation they aspired to build.