Legend has it that the original burning springs were discovered in the Niagara Peninsula by early Native Americans. The burning springs were the object of fire worship. It was believed that they were ignited by lightning or by a chance spark created from two pieces of flint stone.
In 1794, Benjamin Canby and John McGill were granted a lease from Governor Simcoe. The area was a mill site upriver from Burch’s Mills. This is where the water of the Niagara River entered what is currently known as Dufferin Islands. From here, Canby and McGill built a saw and grist mill along the side of the high bank overlooking Dufferin Islands. The area became known as Bridgewater Mills, and later on a small settlement was developed.
Following the death of John Burch in March of 1797, Samuel Street and Thomas Clark purchased his mills and property. In 1786, John Burch had built the first mill in Niagara Falls along the banks of the Niagara River; it is now the current site of the Toronto Power Station building.
Bridgewater Mills, the largest industry in Niagara, existed from the 1790’s until July 1814, when retreating American troops burned the mills. Following the War of 1812, the Bridgewater Mills were rebuilt, however on a much smaller scale and continued to exist for another 50 years.
During excavation of the original Bridgewater Mills, workmen uncovered a spring that was emitting an inflammable gas. A natural gas spring had been discovered at the base of the moraine along the shoreline. The amount of natural gas bubbling to the surface through the water was small, smelt like sulphur, and could only be ignited if a quantity was collected.
Samuel Street and Thomas Clark saw the importance the discovery as well, they understood the tourist potential it possessed. In order to capture this discovery, they built a wooden shelter over the spring. Inside they placed a barrel over the top with a pipe protruding from the top. The end of the pipe was corked to prevent the gas from escaping so it can build up in the confines of the barrel. From this the legendary burning springs was born and it became the first attraction in Niagara Falls and began to compete with the Niagara Falls themselves.
The burning springs were advertised in various guide books from the 1830’s through to the 1850’s. In Steele’s Guide Book of 1834, it was described as “One mile above the Falls near the rapids on the Canadian side is the burning spring. It is enclosed in a barrel which collects the gas and lets it out through a tube inserted at the top.”
The keeper of the spring, Mr. M. J. Conklin, expected a small fee from visitors for the opportunity to view the burning spring which amounted to 12 cents per person.
Old maps of 1853, 1862 and 1876, show the burning spring located on the left side of Old Portage Road at the rivers edge at the bottom of the hill. This put the location of the original burning spring in the vicinity of the current bathing area at Dufferin Islands at the foot of Burning Springs Hill north of Portage Road.
After paying an admission price, tourists were led into the wooden shelter covering the “Burning Spring”. The attendant removed the cork from the pipe, the gas ignited and burned brightly for a brief moment to the amazement of all its viewers. Once the gas supply inside the barrel was adequately depleted, the fire went out. The pipe was corked closed until enough time passed to allow the gas to refill the barrel again.
Thomas Clark Street inherited the Burning Spring from his father and continued to charge visitors. By 1879, Sutherland Macklem inherited all of the property owned and held by his uncle Thomas Clark Street.
Macklem made major improvements to access routes to Cynthia Islands and Cedar Island. In 1879 footbridges leading to Cedar Island were torn down and replaced with two carriage bridges.
Construction of suspension bridges to connect the Cynthia Islands began in the winter of 1878. There were only two islands at the base of Clark Hill totalling approximately 11 acres. These improvements cost Macklem $18,962 dollars. The suspension bridges at Cynthia Islands were called “Bridge Castor” and “Bridge Pollux” respectively. They were of wooden floor and truss construction hung with steel cables. A brick office was built at the north end of Bridge Castor. Macklem spent $454 dollars fixing up the Burning Springs building.
Business for Macklem began in the summer of 1879. Gatekeepers, paid $30 per month for year-round service, were placed at each end of Cedar Island and at Burning Springs. Sutherland Macklem became the sole proprietor of the “Burning Springs” attraction. Upon this acquisition he immediately raised the admission cost to 50 cents per person. At this new price each visitor had a full day access to all of Macklem’s properties including Cynthia Islands, Cedar Island and the Burning Springs.
Macklem reported that he earned a yearly income of $56,378.79 dollars over a seven year period from tourists and visitors.
Near the end of the life of the Burning Springs, Macklem was employing only two gatekeepers for only four and a half months during the summer period. The rest of the time, members of the public had free access.
Evidence given by Sutherland Macklem at the Arbitration Hearings during April of 1886 revealed the following statistics:
Burning Springs ticket sales:
June 1884 – 3,527 tickets sold
July 1884 – 5,913 tickets sold
August 1884 – 9,282 tickets sold
September 1884 – 5,529 tickets sold
The famous “Burning Springs” attraction continued in operation for more than sixty years. In the early 1880’s, the “Burning Springs” attraction came to an end when its gas supply was depleted. The burning springs would remain closed until the supply pressure had built up sufficiently to open again. According to Macklem at the arbitration hearings, the gas supply to the springs had stopped flowing since the beginning of 1885.
Macklem claimed he quit advertising the Burning Springs as a feasible attraction but admitted that he had paid cabmen 25¢ for each person they brought to the attraction.
In 1886, the newly formed Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission began a lengthy legal battle to take the property of Sutherland Macklem. This property included a section adjacent to the Niagara River, Cedar Island, and Clark Hill Islands. An arbitration hearing was held in 1886 in order to determine a fair compensation for Sutherland Macklem when the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission took over the lands. It was reported that Macklem had been charging tourists to see the “Burning Spring” even though it had been dried up for the previous 18 months.
In 1888, the Queen Victoria Niagara Parks was officially opened and Cynthia Islands were taken as part of the park development. The Parks Commission decided they would no longer promote nor allow people to visit the “Burning Springs”.
The arbitrator ruled that the Burning Spring and the house were valued at $2,600. Contrary to the value, the Parks Commission paid Macklem $4,200 for property as well as an additional $2,700 for Cynthia Islands. Along with the profits Macklem made from this expropriation, he was granted a $2,000 pension per year for the remainder of his life.
In an effort to try to resurrect the “Burning Spring” attraction, a private company under the direction of John Colbath erected a new building on the high bank overlooking the site of the original attraction. The company piped natural gas to the building and opened a new “Burning Springs” attraction. This attraction, however, never lived up to the magic and excitement generated by the original attraction.
The artificial gas fed Burning Springs attraction was moved to the Falls View area, in order to be closer to the tourist center. Patricia Clark operated the Burning Springs for several years on property located between Portage Road and Stanley Avenue (current location of the Marriott on the Falls Hotel).
In late 1924, Bryant Langmuir and William Laughlin took over the business and built a new building on the opposite side of the road along the edge of the Falls View moraine (the current location of the Marriott Fallsview Hotel). The new building housed a restaurant, a souvenir store and a burning spring attraction. It was known as the Falls View Observation Tower and Old Burning Spring. Mr. Langmiur lived in a large house at the end of Robinson Street at the Jolley Cut.
Mr. Langmiur operated the Burning Spring business until his death in 1947. His widow, Alice Langmuir ran the business until 1962 when she sold the business to Malcolm Howe and Arthur White. On June 5th 1969, the Burning Springs Museum was destroyed by fire and was never rebuilt.