Niagara Falls in the 1800’s

This is a section of the journal written by D.W. Clark entitled Two Days at Niagara.

We experienced all the truth of this observation, and were very glad to have our painfully distended thoughts relaxed by the guide, who took us around the Island and related some most marvellous stories about a certain Hermit, (whether Goldsmith’s or not, I don’t know,) who it appears used to inhabit it; bathe in the rapids, and read books in a log cabin, which standing dilapidated, is pointed out to the traveler as his former residence.

The legends, and a little book with a yellow cover, for which you’ll pay a “shilling,” say that he was drowned whilst bathing in the river below the Falls.  At 3 o’clock we sat down to a splendid dinner. People have to eat at Niagara Falls as well as at other places. Sublimity bewilders the brain; but fills not the stomach. After dining, we prepared to start for the British Fall. The descent to the ferry is made by means of a stairway, which is laid in a deep excavation of solid rock. It is entirely housed in, and in going down its dark avenue, one experiences the same feelings which would be felt in going through Thames’ tunnel. Arriving at the bottom, we found a boat awaiting us, and seating the ladies in the stern, and raising umbrellas to protect them from the drenching spray, which is blown at all times from the Falls in dense clouds, when you are below them, we shoved off into the boiling waves. When we had got a little distance from the shore, our boat, large as it was, commenced reeling and plunging like a drunken man on the vastness of the waters, and it required all the strength of our athletic ferry men for her to make any progress. As some tourist has remarked, she was as a mere “egg-shell,” and a very slight alteration of position in her, would cause you to be engulfed in the awful cauldron. The next adventure to going under the Falls, I conceive this of crossing the ferry in an open boat, the most hazardous. Arrived opposite the center of the vast line of Falls, all thoughts of fear are gone, the mind is otherwise filled.

You may have heard of Niagara, possessed engravings of Niagara, or read of Niagara; but you will never have seen it until now. The sensation which fills the soul is overwhelmingly sublime. Each moment that you look upwards at the vast volume of descending water, it appears to grow higher and higher, until it seems as if poured by the hand of omnipotence from the clouds. Another minute and our boat shot into an eddy caused by a large projecting rock, and ran up on her ways. Then followed a scene that fully assured me that from “the sublime to the ridiculous” is but a very short distance.  We had scarcely time to disembark, before our party was besieged by a number of Canadian Caleche drivers, who seize the opportunity of the presence of travelers, to get up a general melee, derogate vehicles, interchange choice epithets, and give each other a conventional cursing. One fellow, seizing me by the arm, said, “Mr. McDonald, get into my coach with your party,” so in eight of us went into his omnibus, and the rest got into another. By way of quizzing, I asked the owner of the vehicle, who was riding on the steps behind, how his lad, our driver, knew my name, was “McDonald!” so well!”

From here we were driven over a sandy road some two miles to the Battle Ground of Lundy’s Lane, where, on the evening and night of the 25th of July, 1814, the Americans fought one of the bloodiest and bravest battles on record.  The feelings produced, by the sight of a spot which was once crimsoned by so much patriotic blood; and the recollection, that it was here the laurels of our own Scott were won, are of no ordinary character.

After visiting the battleground, we drove to the Table Rock, where the finest view of the Horse Shoe Fall is had. The gorgeous rainbows that are always visible above the Cataract, and which continually shift their position, as the sun declines, are worth looking at for hours. Towards the wane of the evening, a proposition was made, that we should go under the great falling sheet of water to Termination Rock; being two hundred and thirty feet behind the Great Horse Shoe Fall. It was readily assented to by nine of the party, among whom was our young bride, who was all anxiety for the adventure, but yielded to the fears of her female friends. The dresses furnished you by the guide, who has a small house at the head of the staircase, are made of coarse oil cloth, and when fully attired in them, with a coarse towel around your throat, water boots, and a tarpaulin cowl drawn over the head, so as to expose only the face, we looked for all the world like men ” fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.” The guide, however, did not seem to apprehend any danger from brigands of his own making, so cautioning us to see well that our loins were girded, bade us follow him, and we descended the spiral stairway. On reaching the base of the cliff, the guide led the way, and we followed close behind. The path which leads under the Cataract is extremely narrow, and one is constantly reminded that the least variation from the perpendicular will hurl him into the boiling waters below him. Just as you enter under the sheet, you are obliged to pick your way, and cling to the projections in the wall of rock for support.

The next day, after dinner, the boatman again “rowed us o’er the ferry.” The view, after you get in the middle of the river, looking down towards its outlet, is very unique. The banks on either side of you rise abruptly to a great height, and the river presents the appearance of flowing through a deep gorge, which has been caused by some terrible convulsion of nature.

From the landing we drove to the Burning Spring. On our way hither we had an opportunity of observing that the “almighty dollar” had its potency among a people, who are ever filling your ears with Dieu et mon Droit, as well as with 13 of “the States.”  Not far from the edge of the precipice, near Table Rock, stands a pyramidal monument, which, at a little distance, has the appearance of marble; but upon close inspection, is found to be painted wood. The inscription is nearly as follows: “In memory of Miss Martha K. Rug, who lost her life by falling from this bank Aug. 24, 1844”. At the Museum can be obtained a book containing the particulars for a shilling.” This instance of the bathos reminds one very forcibly of an inscription on a beautiful monument in the Pere le Chaise:-” Erected by his disconsolate widow, who still continues the business at the old stand!”

On returning to Table Rock to take our last look of the Horse Shoe Fall, our young bride proved herself a perfect Diana Vernon: a woman, who, if she was not “born insensible to fear,” was at least capable of manifesting very little of it. She threw down the gauntlet, and dared any of the close at his heels, taking care to preserve an upright position, and in a few minutes we were at the goal of our efforts. Holding on with my hands, the next moment the occasional current of air which blows under the terrible tunnel. Dissipated the mist for a minute or so, and I perceived that I was standing on the brink of an immense rocky cauldron, whose waters, some seventy feet below me, were boiling and foaming, and flashing, in terrible agony. Nothing can give anything like even a faint idea of the sight, but Byron’s description of “the hell of waters,” which he alludes to in Childe Harrold when speaking of Phlegethon.  As if a sight too overpowering for human  eyes  long to view, the next minute it was again hid in a shroud of mist. After stumbling and floundering, from the weight of my water filled boots, by the assistance of the guide I regained the entrance, when throwing myself upon the loose lime-stone path, I concurred fully with the assertion of a tourist, that a man after accomplishing the feat, is a most admirable “subject for the Humane Society to resuscitate.”

My advice to all those who visit the Falls, and have no particular penchant for the “Wasser Cur,” is to avoid the adventure personally, and look at an engraving of it.  Underneath Niagara Falls is a splendid place for Hydropathists! A printed certificate, dated Niagara Falls, Canada West, with poetry printed on the reverse, (there is a great deal more of prose than poetry company to descend with her to an enormous rock, which stands amid the beating surge at the base of an immense declivity. The descent to this rock, which is some hundred feet below you, is made over large masses of loose limestone, which are ever crumbling from the wall of rock above, and rolling down the precipice below. This proposition, though very little relished, was accepted by one of the party and the writer, and down she went to the rock, near which, “a Mr. Thompson, of Philadelphia, lost his life in the summer of 1844,” and with the unfailing courage of a Grace Darling, mounted upon its summit.

I have no desire ever to repeat the undertaking. At sunrise the following morning I gave my “last shilling” to a boot-black, kissed my hand to the pretty women, and bid adieu to the Falls.  Perhaps I may never look upon them again; but the impression made upon my mind, a Niagara of years can only wear away.  It is a pleasure to recollect them.  The sight of so much sublimity and so much terror recurs to the fancy till it becomes familiar; and as the fatigue and annoyance of travel fades from the memory, the imagination warms it into a poetic feeling, and we dwell upon it with delight. One of our party remarked, as the cars moved off, that Niagara Falls was the greatest’ watering place” upon earth! ”
– Richmond, 1845.

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