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Saul Davis was an American entrepreneur in the mid-1800s who had a penchant for some unethical business practices, both here and in Canada. But it was in Niagara Falls, Ont., where he gained the most notoriety in the tourist business.

Davis began his questionable operation in Buffalo, where in 1847 he was convicted of receiving goods under false pretenses. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but got out on a technicality after serving just three months.

With that distasteful prison experience behind him, he sought to move his operation to greener pastures and chose the lucrative tourist industry in Niagara Falls, Ont. He built Table Rock House next to the Horseshoe Falls in 1853. This contained several souvenir shops, a bar and stairway down to the bottom of the falls.

This business should have been profitable enough, but Davis could not shake his shady business practices. As in other tourist operations, he paid hack drivers to pick up tourists at the train station and bring them to his establishment. This practice was common enough among tourist operators, but Davis carried it a few steps further.

He would pick on tourists from the United States, believing they would not want to stick around to press any charges or lodge complaints. He would tell them his operation was "free," then slap them with a bill when leaving and have a group of toughs to make sure they paid.

The Hamilton Evening Times decided to practice a little investigative journalism and wrote a series about the activities at the Table Rock House. They began it by writing, "The Cave of the 40 thieves at Niagara Falls, otherwise known by a sign as the Table Rock House and kept by the notorious Saul Davis and his progeny, is a dangerous locality for strangers."

In not too gentle terms, the newspaper accused Davis of extortion and of assaulting his customers, particularly Americans, to get money from them. They called on the government to "adopt some method of effectively exterminating this organization of thieves, which has been the terror of visitors at the falls for many years past."

The feisty Davis took umbrage and immediately instituted a libel suit against the newspaper. The trial was held in St. Catharines in November of 1868. Davis brought in a number of witnesses to testify his operation was pure as the driven snow, while the newspaper produced many complaining tourists, bringing them back from various locations in the United States.

The newspaper brought in two couples from Livingston County, N.Y., who testified they were told the accommodations were free, then were presented a bill on the way out. Davis and his employees stopped them and struggled with them, breaking a window before finally extracting payment.

The jury quickly found that the newspaper had not libeled Davis. Despite this, the practices continued at Table Rock House until the Provincial government set up a special magistrate and added constables to police the tourist areas. Davis continued operating Table Rock House and a museum until the area was taken over by the government for Queen Victoria Park in 1888.

DOUBLE WHAMMY -- The year 1892 marked a devastating experience and a joyous occasion. It was on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, of that year that Gov. Roswell G. Flower signed the city charter bill making Niagara Falls a city. The acrid smell of smoke still hung over the downtown area from a devastating fire the night before.

The Spencer House on Second Street burned down in a spectacular fire on March 16, 1892. The hotel owner was Alva Gluck, who seemed to be unlucky with fires. He also owned the International Hotel, which burned down in January 1918.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com June 28, 2011