The Photographic Historical Society of Canada

Niagara Falls: A Story of Crazies, Improbabilities and Photographers
Dr Norman Ball
Program date: February 16, 2011

Dr Norman Ball
Ball by Lansdale

Watching the falls
Tourists watching

the other Niagara Falls
The other Niagara

Maid of the Mist
Horseshoe Falls

Map of Niagara
Map of Niagara

Typical water exit
Old water exit


mountains for the falls...


How to navigate the falls
The Pirate

Terrapin Tower
Terrapin Tower

New Suspension Bridge
Suspension Bridge

Suspension Bridge entrance
Suspension Bridge

Falls view - and a tight rope walker
Falls view


Book on the great Farini

Washer man
Washing machine

Velocipede crossing

Ice Mountain postcard
Ice Mountain

on the Ice Bridge
Ice Bridge

General View drawing
General view

concerns about industry take over
If industry prevails

Canadian niagara Power Company
Power book

Power construction

working below the surface
Work below

what if the water is diverted?
What if?

another illustration of industry diverting the falls
What if two?

Spanish Aero Car 1916

Spanish Aero Car today

Promoter and Engineer at Niagara
Promoter, Engineer

Talking with Norman Ball you feel his enthusiasm for the history of Niagara Falls. His varied career has included work as an archivist, museum curator, and magazine columnist, as well as 21 years as an engineering professor at the University of Waterloo where he was Director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values. Dr Ball has written six books, most recently, The Canadian Niagara Power Company Story which deals with the history of the company that built and operated the first large-scale hydroelectric power generating company on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. This book was the beginning of nearly a decade of continuing research work on Niagara Falls.

Robert Wilson, who provided many of the stereo images used to illustrate tonight's talk, introduced Dr Ball who quickly demonstrated his skills as a captivating and engaging speaker.  His talk addressed several questions such as what makes Niagara Falls such a peculiar place and what has photography done to help create the image and reputation of the Falls.

Norman teased the audience by describing Niagara Falls "as a place Torontonians visit only when entertaining out-of-towners". He proposed that since 1678 when Niagara were first discovered by Europeans, people haven't had a clue what to make of, or do with, Niagara Falls. However; it has always been associated with exaggeration, confusion and unrealistic expectations. The city of Niagara Falls has a dual personality: the seemingly scary view from the foot of the famous natural wonder is safer than standing at Bloor and Yonge in Toronto; a few hundred metres back from the Falls, Clifton Hill is full of scary places and fast food.   

The Falls is a moving phenomena. It slowly creeps up river from the edge of the escarpment (shown in grren on the map) as the massive flow of water erodes the rock face. The Falls originated at Queenston near Brock's monument. Here visitors can see the geological strata, just as they can anywhere along the Niagara Gorge. There are also industrial remains if you know what to look for. The Niagara has a history of interesting bridges but their beauty is somewhat hidden by second and third generation growth of untended trees that mar historic views and sight lines.

Father Hennepin was the first European to discover and write about Niagara.  He is considered to be either the "patron saint of Niagara Falls tourism or its first great liar" Dr. Ball sees the explorers La Salle, Enrico de Tonti (an infamous brawler with a lethal prosthetic fist of iron) and Father Hennepin as the first of the Niagara Falls crazies. LaSalle gave all his worldly goods to his brothers when he joined the Jesuits. Later, when he realized he wasn't meant for the life of a Jesuit, his brothers refused to give anything back. Out of a job and out of money he turned to his connections at the court of Louis 14th to launch a career as an explorer. With tongue-in-cheek Dr. Ball used modern business jargon to describe the efforts of the French explorers to profit from their discoveries. He spoke jokingly of La Salle's arrangement with Louis 14th as a Public-Private Partnership and LaSalle, de Tonti and Hennepin as a management team of crazies.  

In his journal entry for December 6, 1678 Hennepin wrote his impressions of his first view of the Falls. He was struck by its sound, height and volume (the big deal for Niagara is the volume of water, not the height it drops). In 1683 a French widow in Paris published Hennepin's account of his explorations and travels. The book includes the first description of Niagara Falls for Europeans and it became a best seller in various languages.

Then in 1697 the first illustrated edition was published. The first illustrations of Niagara Falls were wildly inaccurate. The Falls were not split as depicted and the artist added mountains in the background as the source of the water. In Ball's view the age of misinformation and unrealistic expectations about Niagara Falls was underway before the end of the 1600s. To further emphasize the confusion and misinformation that existed about Niagara Falls right from the early years, Ball showed a cut from 1715 map by Herman Moll. It depicts beavers making a dam near Niagara Falls. The artist obviously had never seen either the Falls or a beaver. A few look vaguely like somewhat deranged lions gnawing at trees, another is standing on two legs and carries logs over its shoulder. Others are walking erect on two feet and dragging stones on their tails. The artist seems to feel that stones are necessary to make a dam. At that time estimated heights for the Falls ranged from 600 to 7,920 feet. The actual height is less than 200 feet.

As an early tourist destination, the Falls was hard to get to and just getting there was almost enough. The bottom of the Falls "stunk to high heaven" in those days.  And what today might be a twenty minute walk could be an arduous "six or seven hour slog" in the early 1800s. Even then visitors complained about the heavy growth of trees blocking the view of the Falls. But once the transportation improved, then what? Niagara Falls became a place that needed attractions or something to do besides contemplating nature.    

One diversion took place on 8 September 1837. The heavily advertised, so-called pirate ship Michigan was to plunge over the Falls with a cargo of exotic fierce animals. In truth, there were no pirates; the Michigan was a beat up old vessel sold by a New Yorker to local hotel owners explicitly for this event. Moreover, it was unclear what animals were onboard. Nothing seemed to go right. The Michigan ran aground on the rocks, some of the animals escaped, finally when the ship tore loose it went over the Falls backwards. Ball asked the question "Was the whole thing a failure?" and answered with a resounding "absolutely not." After all it attracted 20,000 people, created what might be the first of almost 175 years of Niagara Falls traffic jams and the pubs and hotels were sold out of everything by mid afternoon; they had made a fortune. Ball called this episode "pure Niagara Falls."

Norman suggested photography might help remove the errors in describing the Falls and then he projected an image showing a steamship belching black smoke while poised at the brink of the Falls. It was obviously a faked composite photo. However, photos often did a good job of showing the Falls and its attractions. In describing the drive to provide attractions for visitors who quickly grew tired of viewing nature, Ball showed photos of many structures built solely to attract tourists. He started with the 40 foot tall Terrapin Tower built in 1829 to provide an exciting view of the Falls. Terrapin Tower was blown up in 1872 by a developer who promised to build a bigger and better one but never did. Other talller and more elaborate structures followed including stylish Pagodas. The Morse Tower built in 1888 gave a wonderful view from a height of 250 feet and even had elevators. This elaborate Victorian structure had one failing that caused it to be dismantled and moved to St. Louis in 1904 for the Louisiana Exhibition. In Niagara Falls it accumulated massive loads of ice and snow on its upper levels only to drop them onto and through the roof of the adjacent museum.

The Niagara River has a glorious history of bridge crossings but the earliest suspension bridge was a short-lived rickety affair soon followed by stronger and more durable structures. Ball pointed out that even bridges could support the great Niagara Falls preoccupation with making money from the views. One could pay to cross or just stand on the bridge and then pay extra to climb the viewing tower built around the suspension bridge towers.

In 1859 another chapter opened in the saga of what to do with the Niagara River Gorge: you string a rope across and walk, run or even drive a velocipede across. Dr Ball introduced that era with a photograph featuring a tight rope walker crossing the vastness of the Falls area. "It is the immensity that is so impressive", he said. It is not the height.

Blondin, a high wire artist from France was the first to make the walk. However, his first walk attracted little interest because people thought it would be a hoax. One trip across changed all that; soon Blondin was a big paying attraction Ball pointed out that Blondin and others carried a large balance pole. It was critical to shift the pole from side to side to maintain balance (tilting the pole to balance was the way to certain death). To keep the crowds coming back the funambulists, as they were called, had to come up with ever more daring acts. On one trip Blondin carried his manager on his back and on another rode a velocipede.

The stakes and risks were raised even higher in 1860 when the "Great Farini" appeared on the scene at a better site closer to the Falls. Ball recommended the book titled The Great Farini: The High-Wire Life of William Hunt by Shane Peacock as the best book on the wire walkers and it is available for around $10 on Ebay. "Farini" was raised in Eastern Ontario, showed great athletic skill and balance at an early age. He was part way through his training to become an MD when he decided to join the circus and become a tight rope walker. Not only an accomplished daredevil, he was an amazing business entrepreneur and promoter as well as a major factor in improving safety standards for circuses and road shows.

Farini's arrival on the scene brought out the real battle of the daredevils. Blondin took a portable stove out on the wire to do a little cooking. Farini went one better. Advertising himself as an Irish Washerwoman Farini walked to the centre of the cable with a washing machine on his back, somehow took it off and proceeded to wash handkerchiefs he had gathered from lady friends.

Ball introduced other wire walkers including the only woman—Maria Spelterini who crossed wearing peach baskets on her shoes,--and Toronto photographer/inventor Thomas Dixon. However, not all who crossed on the wire were courting danger equally. When Professor Jenkins crossed on a so-called velocipede in August 1869 that had been made so that it could not fall off or even tip. As Ball put it, "the only way Jenkins could have plummeted to the river was if he had jumped." During the Question and Answer period Lorne Shields, a noted collector of bicycle material, added that he had stereos of Professor Jenkins as well as one showing the velocipede and a caption that says it was used in the construction of the Suspension Bridge. (NOTE: Norman has since seen the stereos and is trying to find out more about the velocipede as well as Professor Jenkins.)

While only a select few crossed the river on a high wire, thousands went out each winter to cross on the massive formations below the Falls. These "ice bridges" were formed by chunks of ice that originated in Lake Erie and flowed over the Falls where some stuck together at the base of the Falls. These very unstable mountains of ice were high enough to attract climbers. Taverns were added right on the ice catering to the masses of tourists who arrived for this holiday event. The attraction persisted until February 4, 1912 when a sudden collapse killed three people. Had the collapse occurred later in the day there could have been many more deaths.

River ice was also deadly for one bridge. In 1938 unusual wind and ice conditions drove ice levels in the Niagara gorge to frighteningly high levels. So high that on January 27, 1938 the Falls View Bridge collapsed after the heavy ice load pushed it off its foundations. That event was much photographed.

In 1916 another attraction opened much loved by photographers and tourists. The Spanish Aero Car (now called the Niagara Whirlpool Aero Car) was designed by Spanish engineer/inventor Leonardo Torres Y Quevedo, whose grandson Dr. Ball had the privilege of meeting. A photograph of the promoter and the engineer prompted Ball to ask why such photos always show the engineer in back. The Aero Car ran on cables spanning the Niagara Whirlpool at a bend in the river that allowed both terminals to be on Canadian soil while appearing to have one in the USA. This encouraged scoundrels to dupe people wanting to sneak across the border into paying extra for the right to hop off the car on the other side. This feat of Spanish engineering is still in operation.

Industry has also played an important role in shaping life and scenery at the Falls. In the early years people talked of Niagara's power potential. While only large scale hydroelectric generation would unleash the tremendous water power potential at the Falls, some water was channelled from above the Falls to mills and turbines and then discharged down river, often with an inefficiently shallow head. The rapid progress of industry quickly began destroying the beauty of the Falls area. 

Photographs taken in the 1870s helped create a movement for government-owned park land along the river. Moreover, Niagara Falls was becoming famous for lawlessness and growing violence against tourists. Visitors were allowed into attractions for free but were forced to pay so they could leave. They either paid up or received a beating. Sadly the judiciary and police of the day were in cahoots with the thugs. People who complained saw their day in court remanded again and again forcing repeated costly trips back to Niagara Falls. An 1873 Ontario Royal Commission investigated the situation but did not publish its findings.

There was international outrage at the deplorable scenery such as the approach to Goat Island. The rip-offs and shabbiness of the area (the Canadian side was a "ratty looking place") caused much unfavourable publicity. Influential Americans added pressure to creating park lands on the Ontario as well as the New York side of the river to protect the natural beauty of the area.   

Since the 1890s large scale generation of hydro electric power has done much to reduce the unsightliness of the area. Mechanical power or early Direct Current (DC) electric power could not be transmitted long distances and as a consequence factories had to cluster about the Falls. However; Alternating Current (AC) could be transmitted over long distances and this allowed factories to be located away from generating sites such as Niagara Falls. Drawing on photos from his book The Canadian Niagara Power Company Story Ball showed how the Rankine generating station was built. The company was aware it was making history and made sure it was properly documented in numerous photographs, many of which have survived. The earliest generating stations were private - including the first three built on the Canadian side of the river. 

In his research Ball found that while generating stations proved to reduce the unsightliness of the area they raised a new concern. Now that the water could be harnessed almost without limit what would be left for tourists to look at? Some cartoons of the time pictured a nearly dry river bed filled with factories and cheap amusements. It was a major concern and Dr Ball noted that one of the great improbabilities in Niagara history was the resulting Canada--USA agreement on water usage: How it defined water usage and the fact that it was and still is enforced. 

Earlier nineteenth century grants and charters had allotted rights to more water than the total amount flowing down the river! The flow over the Falls is about 220,000 cubic feet per second (cf/s). The present agreement states how much water has to stay in the river flow and the rest can go to other purposes.  To keep the Falls attractive for tourists this agreement preserves 100,000 cf/s over the Falls from 8 am to 11 pm during the summer, and half of that amount at night and in the winter. This ruling gives rise to dramatic daily shifts in water level. For example, Dr Ball described the shift near the old Rankine generating station. Before eight in the morning he noted the depth on nearby rocks. As the time approached eight, the water level rose quickly with the change exceeding the height of an individual. This sudden change makes the river very dangerous. 

During his talk Dr. Ball showed how photography and influential people managed to force the creation of a beautiful parks system and balance the demands of tourism and industry. He now sees one of the greatest challenges as what to do with the pioneering generating stations that are no longer used, replaced by more efficient stations that use a higher head of water. Only one of the original three remains with its equipment intact, namely the Rankine station. Once it had the largest generators in the world. It produced power reliably for a century using its original turbines and generators. Rankine began as a private American owned station then ownership shifted first to joint American - Canadian and finally to wholly Canadian. There are many reasons why this nearly completely intact station should be the focal point of preservations efforts. However; it appears that there is greater political interest in a slightly newer and showier station that although completely gutted and in a very dangerous condition was once owned by a government agency.

Falls View Bridges and collapses from ice flows
All fall down
collpsed bridge from river ice damage
Ice damage
shortly before sinking
Bridge sinking
at the brink of Niagara Falls
on the brink
Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls
Even in Paris Niagara Falls means love
Means love

When asked about reusing the old buildings during the Q&A session, Dr Ball said establishing new museums is currently out of fashion and that reuse would take many millions of dollars worth of work before any serious attempt at repurposing. He expressed his fears that although Niagara Falls has faced many crises in the past it might now be facing one that will not be handled at all well. Perhaps we no longer have the ability to make any sense of the Falls and the area is heading for a serious crash.

In response to another question Dr. Ball pointed out that some areas are riddled with unmapped tunnels. Modern day "urban explorers" have investigated many of them along with some of the buildings like the Toronto Power Company building. Many of these tunnels and buildings are unstable and extremely dangerous to enter. Some tunnels are known officially, others only to the urban explorers and still others remain lost and unknown to everyone.   

Norman closed with an illustration of how the world still views Niagara Falls as the romantic place for lovers. During a visit to Paris he and his wife found a posed postcard photo of a young couple walking beside two barges. One was named "Niagara", the other "Ça Va Bien" (things are going well). And he hopes that sentiment applies to Niagara Falls too.

My sincere thanks to Dr Ball for taking time to expand some items in this review. This page was designed in Dreamweaver CS5 on an iMac running OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). Two images are from Google and copyright free ("Tourists watching", thanks, Siqbel) or under Creative Commons ("Aero Car today", thanks, Hans-Peter Scholz). Unless otherwise noted, images on this page were taken from the screen with a Sony NEX-5 digital still camera and subsequently adjusted in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V3.3 and Photoshop CS5. Presentation images are ©2011 by Dr Norman Ball and may used only with his permission. Contents and all other images are ©2011 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Copies of photographs displayed during this presentation may not be used without the copyright holder's permission. Contact PHSC at if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Bob Carter

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