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Falling Through the Centuries: Descriptions,
Observations, and Odes to Niagara Falls

By Ryan Wolf

Though Niagara Falls itself defies description and cannot be contained by the words of even the most gifted of writers, many have attempted to capture the glory of the Falls in language. In the following quotes, presented in rough chronological order, visitors to Niagara Falls throughout history voice their own singular perspectives to an ever-flowing force that will outlast us all.

1. Father Louis Hennepin brought European attention to Niagara Falls in 1678 with his description of the natural wonder: “Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprizing and astonishing manner, insomuch that the universe does not afford its parallel.”

2. In one of her poems about “Niagara,” Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865), rhapsodized, “Flow on forever, in thy glorious robe / Of terror and of beauty. Yea, flow on / Unfathomed and resistless. God hath set / His rainbow on thy forehead; and the cloud / Mantled around thy feet.
And He doth give / Thy voice of thunder power to speak of Him / Eternally, bidding the lip of man / Keep silence, and upon thine altar pour / Incense of awe-struck praise.”

3. Maria Gowen Brooks (1794-1845) gave the Falls a heavenly blessing in “To Niagara” when she wrote, “Niagara! wonder of this western world / And half the world beside! hail, beauteous queen / Of cataracts!” An angel who had been / O'er heaven and earth, spoke thus, his bright wings furled / And knelt to Nature first, on the wild cliff unseen.”

4. In 1842, the great Charles Dickens wrote in his “American Notes,” “We were at the foot of the American Fall. I could see an immense torrent of water tearing headlong down from some great height, but had no idea of shape, or situation, or anything but vague immensity. “When we were seated in the little ferry-boat, and were crossing the swollen river immediately before both cataracts, I began to feel what it was: but I was in a manner stunned, and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene. It was not until I came on Table Rock, and looked — Great Heaven, on what a fall of bright-green water! — that it came upon me in its full might and majesty.”

5. James K. Liston’s 1843 ode to the Falls, “Niagara Falls: A Poem in Three Cantos” features powerful descriptions of Niagara’s ethereal appeal. It opens with the thundering lines:
“NIAGARA FALLS! stupendous, beautiful / Enduring monument of Power Divine! / Thy white- foam pillars ever moving stand, / And ever standing move harmoniously / To the rough music of the dashing spray, / And roaring tumult of thy boiling base. / How long has tuned this mystic minstrelsy?”

6. When visiting between 1858 and 1861, English novelist Anthony Trollope hauntingly wrote, “To realize Niagara you must sit there till you see nothing else than that which you have come to see. You will hear nothing else and see nothing else. At length you will be at one with the tumbling river before you. You will find yourself among the waters as though you belong to them. The cool liquid green will run through your veins and the voice of the cataract will be the expression of your own heart. You will fall as the bright waters fall, rushing down into your new world with no hesitation and with no dismay: and you will rise again as the spray rises, bright, beautiful and pure. Then you will flow away in your course to the uncompassed, distant and eternal ocean...”

7. Ever the critic, Irish writer Oscar Wilde stands as one of the few to insult the beauty of the Falls, commenting in 1893, "When I first saw Niagara Falls I was disappointed in the outline. The design, it seemed to me, was wanting in grandeur and variety of line, but the colors were beautiful… Niagara will survive any criticism of mine. I must say, however, that it is the first great disappointment in the married life of Americans, who spend their honeymoons there…Niagara is a melancholy place filled with melancholy people who wander about trying to get that feeling of sublimity, which the guide-books assure them they can do without extra charge…”

8. Mark Twain, who once lived in the region and considered it in his literature to be a Garden of Eden, wrote in “Following the Equator” (1897), “I had to visit Niagara fifteen times before I succeeded in getting my imaginary Falls gauged to the actuality and could begin to sanely and wholesomely wonder at them for what they were, not what I had expected them to be. When I first approached them it was with my face lifted toward the sky, for I thought I was going to see an Atlantic ocean pouring down thence over cloud-vexed Himalayan heights, a sea-green wall of water sixty miles front and six miles high, and so, when the toy reality came suddenly into view- -that beruffled little wet apron hanging out to dry--the shock was too much for me, and I fell with a dull thud.
“Yet slowly, surely, steadily, in the course of my fifteen visits, the proportions adjusted themselves to the facts, and I came at last to realize that a waterfall a hundred and sixty-five feet high and a quarter of a mile wide was an impressive thing. It was not a dipperful to my vanished great vision, but it would answer.”

9. When Nikola Tesla announced the 1897 opening of the world’s very first hydroelectric power plant, housed in Niagara Falls, he declared, "We have many a monument of past ages; we have the palaces and pyramids, the temples of the Greek and the cathedrals of Christendom. In them is exemplified the power of men, the greatness of nations, the love of art and religious devotion. But the monument at Niagara has something of its own, more in accord with our present thoughts and tendencies. It is a monument worthy of our scientific age, a true monument of enlightenment and of peace. It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering"

10. Citing the musical term for “very loud,” Austrian composer Gustave Mahler (1860-1911) simply exclaimed when viewing the Falls, “At last, fortissimo!”

11. Poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay juxtaposed the passé materialism of Buffalo with the immortal allure of Niagara when in 1922 he wrote, “The eyes of Death, in Buffalo. / And only twenty miles away / Are starlit rocks and healing spray: / Niagara, Niagara.”

12. In their screenplay to the 1953 film Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton, writers Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen made the character George Loomis cynically observe, “Why should the Falls drag me down here at 5 o'clock in the morning? To show me how big they are and how small I am? To remind me they can get along without any help? All right, so they've proved it. But why not? They've had ten thousand years to get independent. What's so wonderful about that?”

13. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) visited Niagara Falls in 1848, 12 years before he became president. Some fragmentary notes about Niagara Falls were found among his papers after his death which he apparently never saw fit to publish. “Niagara-Falls!...It calls up the indefinite past. When Columbus first sought this continent---when Christ suffered on the cross ---when Moses led Israel through the Red-Sea--… then as now, Niagara was roaring here.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Jan 15 , 2013