Taking of Niagara – review

Dr Anthony Bannon
by Robert Lansdale

TorontoOn May 16, 2018 we held our second meeting in the newly remodelled Burgundy room A at the North York Memorial Hall. We were pleased to have Dr Anthony Bannon retired from the GEM as our guest speaker. Tony spoke of the photographing of Niagara Falls in the early decades of photography. Since its discovery, the Falls has attracted artists and photographers. Over the years we have had other talks on Niagara such as its industry and history by Dr Norman Ball, and dating images by Ken Nelson (dtdfu, or Dead Trees Don’t Fall Up).  

As expected of his education and experience, Tony gave a terrific scholarly talk on the famous falls well illustrated by images he had selected. He managed to include Canadian references when possible which was greatly appreciated by the audience. He began speaking with an historical overview of the falls and arguably the first drawing ever made of the famous falls, by the Belgian explorer, (Franciscan Father) Louis Hennepin. Hennepin is said to have estimated the falls to be about 600 feet in height, possibly an error since an accurate measure today is 183 feet high. Also he grossly exaggerates Goat Island in his drawings. 

Hennepin was sent by his order to France where he joined another Friar named Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, and the following year they took off for the Americas, which they called New France.  Perhaps it was 1676 when the good Father Hennepin first saw Niagara, but that is no certainty, since he and de la Salle were traveling all about the continent.  Upon returning to France, de la Salle published a book called “A New Discovery” in which he discussed his full explorations, and focused some words on Niagara. Hennepin followed in 1697 with his drawing and subsequent print of the Falls.

Tony noted various events and dates specific to the falls. Hennepin’s drawing first appeared in a book around 1697. On Goat Island, the well know Terrapin tower is often used to date photographs as discussed earlier by Ken Nelson. The tower was built in 1837 and had disappeared by 1873. Goat Island was readily reachable from the American side for one very big reason. The water flowing over the American falls was shallow – a few feet at best. The island was known as Goat Island because goats could walk safely there from the mainland!  

Tony described how an Englishman, H L  Pattison likely took the first ever photographs in 1840 of what would become the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Included was Niagara Falls, of course. The photograph was subsequently published by Noel Marie Paymal Larebours in his book, “Excursions Daguerreotypes”, to which Larebours added images between 1841-43 (some even say he started in late 1840).  No matter. It was the first Daguerreotype in Canada and the first at Niagara. Long thought to be lost and destroyed, when Tony and others at GEM heard the originals were housed at the Newcastle University in the UK, they quickly offered to clean and return them if they could make and keep a copy! 

Tony spoke of many bridges spanning the Niagara river including the first railroad bridge. He asked the audience how the river was spanned and was pleased to have the correct answer – a child’s contest on kite flying laid the first line across from the American side to the Canadian. His illustrated talk proceeded smoothly with the interjection of questions by the audience along the way. Tony engaged us in his talk by asking us questions and clarifying and complimenting our answers.

Concluding the formal portion of his talk with the traditional Q&A session. The post talk period was also enjoyed by the audience and added to the information Tony conveyed in his illustrated presentation.

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