Exploring Niagara Falls from different viewpoints

A full rainbow forms in the mists churned up by Niagara Falls

What happens when you explore in (more or less) your ‘own backyard’?

You find amazing things that have been around much longer than you thought, and new attractions that celebrate history.

Niagara Falls, the longtime honeymoon cliche that was made even more famous by two movies, Niagara (1953), starring Marilyn Monroe, and Superman II (1980), is a natural wonder that has been reinventing itself for almost 11,000 years. At that time, the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three falls in the cluster, and which forms the border between Canada and the U.S., was about six miles downstream, stretching between the towns of Queenston on the Canadian side and Lewiston on the U.S. side. and started as a small arch.

Today those falls are a large curve 2,590 feet wide, tossing 85,000 cubic feet of water over the edge every second (on average). The cities that overlook the spectacle, both named after the falls, are thriving tourist meccas, and most people who live in easy driving distance, at least on the Canadian side, tend to avoid the area in peak tourist season because the traffic slows to a crawl. On our side, the city is a mix of party town, attractions ranging from cool to cheesy, decent restaurants, and some beautiful old homes (many of which have been turned into B&Bs). The falls themselves are surrounded by hotels, eateries and casinos, so it’s hard to get a sense of what they must have looked like when their full natural beauty could be appreciated.

But, like most tourist destinations, there are ways to see the sights that are more authentic. It’s fun to walk beside the falls, watching the water churn over like gallons upon gallons of green gelatin and getting damp from the far-reaching spray, but to truly appreciate the falls you need to see them from other points of view.

One of those is the White Water Walk, a boardwalk with viewing platforms right along the edge of the Niagara River below the falls, crashing and rushing through Class 6 rapids.

From 1876 to 1934 these views were accessible by a steam-powered incline railway. In 1934 the railway was destroyed by a fire. The Niagara Parks Commission leased the land to a private company, Niagara Concessions, and this enterprise built a 230-foot elevator shaft down to the floor of the valley the river cuts through, along with a 240-foot tunnel to get closer to the river through the rainforest-like profusion of trees and ferns that line the river banks. A boardwalk was built, but was frequently damaged by the raging waters and winter ice floes. However, in the mid 1900s a weir was built above the falls to control the flow for the power plants on either side of the border, and the lowered water flow allowed for a new boardwalk to be built.

I can only say that, if the pounding water that we saw when we did the White Water Walk recently is the reduced version of the river’s flow, the original flow must have been truly ferocious.

The boardwalk runs for 1/4 of a mile and is an easy walk. Good walking shoes or sandals are all that’s needed; there’s no spray from the water to worry about.

Take time to notice the lush vegetation on the other side of the boardwalk, like a scene out of 10,000 Years B.C.

Remnants of the old boardwalks are still visible, rusted monuments to our fascination with this magical piece of nature.

But the water is the biggest attraction, as it rides roughshod over everything in its path, like a green monster on a rampage. The colour of the water is a result of the dissolved salts and powdered rock dust that fills it.

The water is mesmerizing. Allow yourself some time to just watch it leap, curl, dive and crash its way through the chasm. There are viewing platforms that jut out from the boardwalk in a couple of places, allowing you to get even closer to the river (they’re not wheelchair accessible).

It didn’t take people long to realize what a fabulous source of power the falls presented. In 1892 the Niagara Falls Power Company began construction of the Edward Dean Adams Power Plant.

It was the first large-scale alternating current generating plant in the world, Westinghouse Electric built the 5,000 horsepower generators, which were based on designs by Nikola Tesla and Benjamin Lamme, an American electrical engineer.

What a fantastic and exciting enterprise that must have been. Touring the historic power plant today gives a small idea of the mammoth amount of construction, particularly walking through the 2,200-foot long, brick-lined tunnel that discharged the used water back into the Niagara River. It was excavated by lantern-light, using only shovels, pickaxes and dynamite. The new Tunnel attraction takes you from the floor of the plant, down and down in a glass-walled elevator, past the huge pipes and turbines, to the floor of the tunnel, where you can follow a self-guided excursion all the way to the river and the edge of the Horseshoe Falls.

The tunnel is huge, at least 12 to 15 feet wide, and maybe thirty feet high (just my own estimates, I haven’t been able to find actual stats), and runs for half a mile. Imagine the massive amount of water rushing through there in the plant’s heyday. The new floor is damp from water seepage, but textured enough that it’s not slippery. Thick walls and a depth of 180 feet below ground keep the air inside quite chilly, and the walk, if you want to read all the fascinating information kiosks, is long, so don’t go in shorts and a tank top.

If you don’t rush through to get to the prize at the end, where the tunnel opens up to the roar of the falls (as we saw some people do), you’ll notice interesting things like the funky trumpet-shaped fungi growing right out of the walls.

An arch of glowing daylight marks the end of the tunnel…

…and a unique view of all three falls (Horseshoe below), as well as the intrepid boats that take poncho-shrouded, awe-struck visitors as close to the base of the thundering waters as it’s safe to go. We did the boat ride several years ago, and the power of the falls has to be seen to be believed; if you’re visiting, the ride is one thing you absolutely shouldn’t miss.

Across the river, you can watch visitors on the American side get their own close-up views from the top of the Horseshoe Falls, while rainbows form in the mists at the bottom…

…and along platforms near the base of Bridal Veil Falls and the American Falls.

One could easily, if it were available, spend an entire afternoon on the viewing platform, sipping drinks at a riverside table. Unfortunately, the platform would fill up quickly that way, but you can linger as long as you want. There’s much to be seen back up in the power plant, however, if, as I am, you’re fascinated by vintage machinery and architecture. You can walk around by yourself, poking around at your leisure, or take a guided tour.

There is an excellent gift shop as well, filled with well-thought out electricity-themed goods, not kitschy tourist junk.

I also recommend that you come back at night for the new sound-and-light show, Currents, which with wonderful light effects, music and narration tells the story of water and the power it has generated at Niagara Falls for over 100 years.

The interior space of the power plant is turned into an immersive, interactive journey. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

When patterns are projected onto the floor, you can even walk and jump around to make them follow your movement (kids in the audience, and quite a few adults, really got into that). There are a handful of benches that you can sit on if you need to be more sedentary.

The falls in Niagara aren’t the only wonder to behold — people’s ingenuity at creating an enduring source of power that feeds much of Ontario and New York State, as well as innovative ways to appreciate Nature’s artistry, have highlighted the core of what makes Niagara Falls special.

All photos are by me, and all rights are reserved. These photos may not be reproduced without my express permission. E. Jurus

Ghosts in the Graveyard

spectral soldiers walking on the grounds, clo

Ghosts have been seen in all manner of locations. A cemetery might seem a bit clichéd, if you’re a non-corporeal citizen, but I imagine you wouldn’t have much choice in the matter.

If the cemetery in question has an additional layer of drama, such as Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario, ghost sightings are inevitable.

The natural rise in the landscape where the cemetery lies was part of a 23-acre parcel sold to a young couple in 1799 by the wife’s father, James Forsyth. Forsyth had received a crown land grant of 388 acres along the Niagara River at the Horseshoe Falls and became one of the first ten families to settle into the Niagara Falls area.

The husband, Christopher Buchner, was a United Empire Loyalist, i.e. a loyalist to the British side during the American Revolution. He’d fled to Ontario around 1786, and married Sarah Forsyth, James’ daughter. At some point, Christopher and Sarah decided to set aside some of their land as a burying ground for themselves and neighbouring settlers.

It would soon prove prophetic. Within three years of the happy couple settling on their homestead, the War of 1812 broke out. A dispute over trade issues between the United States and the United Kingdom, it naturally spilled across the easiest access points in and around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. After the American armies tried to cut off military supply lines at Montreal but failed, in the summer of 1814 they tried again at Niagara Falls, in what would become the infamous Battle of Lundy’s Lane.

This battle took place right on the peaceful, orchard-flanked hill where the Buchners had decided to allow people to lay their loved ones to rest, and it became known as one of the bloodiest battles of the War. Hundreds of soldiers fought at very close quarters;  Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond reported that:  

“Of so determined a Character were [the American] attacks directed against our guns that our Artillery Men were bayonetted by the enemy in the Act of loading, and the muzzles of the Enemy’s Guns were advanced within a few Yards of ours”.

Both sides suffered heavy of casualties, but the British had won a strategic victory.

Today the battlefield lies like a phantom below the green grass of Drummond Hill and the same-named Cemetery. It’s a nationally recognized heritage site, and an interesting stroll as Halloween approaches.

There have been accounts of five spectral soldiers limping around the grounds, clouds of vague ectoplasm, as well as the sounds of boots and shouting. Since the cemetery is cheek-by-jowl with one of the busiest tourist sites in the world, however, noises heard in the vicinity may be coming from the boisterous living.

I visited the cemetery on a chilly day shadowed by dark, heavy clouds with occasional piercings of sunlight. The colonial origins of the place show in numerous tombstones so weathered that it’s impossible to read their entire inscription.

The cemetery is in itself a time capsule of the region — old headstones of early settlers that fractured when they fell over and have been respectfully encased in a stone bed for preservation,

while those still upright have been given steel sleeves to keep them in situ,

One interesting find was the burial place of a survivor on the Underground Railroad.

Burr Plato went on to become a free, prominent citizen in the Niagara Region. One of the most famous residents is Laura Secord, a local heroine who famously walked 20 miles through hilly, tree-studded terrain to warn British forces of an impending attack by American troops.

In 1895 the Canadian Parliament contributed a battle memorial to mark the remains of 22 British soldiers who were buried in the vault below it. The tall monument is flanked by stacks of cannonballs and two large cannons (the provenance of which I haven’t been able to find out).

There appears to be an entrance to the under-croft that’s shrouded in locks and iron fencing; it’s not a spot I’d like to wander near in the dead of night.

The age of the cemetery gives a certain amount of gravity, and the atmospheric old cairns among the trees supply an inherent eeriness.

One headstone that I came across was surprisingly creepy. The figure at the top, where you might expect to find an angel or a religious statue, is instead something completely encased in a draped shroud — perhaps the deceased on the next stage of their journey?

I can’t report any ghosts, orbs or strange feelings while I was there, or any spectral shapes showing up in my photographs. I wish the area surrounding the site had been better preserved; it’s hard to get a sense of the battle or the time period. Unfortunately Niagara Falls has been subjected to rampant tourism development, so this little remnant of history sits like a ghost town in the middle of the city. May all the people who fought valiantly for their cause find a tranquil rest there. On the other hand, judging by the photo below, this place would make a great film site for a zombie horde 😉

All photos are by me and all rights reserved.

Frosty wonderland

A little armchair travel for those of you who may have never had the opportunity to see this: Niagara Falls, partially frozen into spectacular blue-tinged stalactites amidst cold blue tumbles of water raising billows of white mist.

The Niagara River doesn’t always freeze — in fact, it has never completely frozen over, but it came extremely close in 1848 when an ice jam blocked up the falls, except for a few trickles, for almost two days.

In 1912 the American Falls froze solid, which must have been an amazing sight. This year, they look like a scene out of Nordic mythology.

Our Canadian Falls are still flowing freely, except for rivulets through the rock layers that have frozen on their downward drop.

Between the two Falls, more gigantic blue icicles dot the rock layers. The Falls formed when the last ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago, but the resulting gorge had a harder top layer of limestone and dolomite over softer shale, and you can see flows of water that have worked their way through only to be petrified before they finished their journey.

Just below the Canadian Falls, chunks of ice have piled on exposed brown rock to look like sugar crystals sprinkled on chocolate chunks.

As the river continues on its way below the Falls toward Lake Erie, this winter it’s a cold steely-blue band on which we were surprised to see someone out on a boat.

Our closest groundhog has predicted an early Spring, but in the meantime we’ve been treated to a beautiful winter wonderland that’s become rare as our globe heats up. I don’t know when we’ll see it again.