Niagara Falls
Historic

"The BURNING SPRINGS"

a history

 

An 1844 map of Niagara Falls - showing location of Buring Springs

an 1844 map of Niagara Falls showing location of the Burning Springs

 

Centuries ago, man noticed that lightning ignited natural gas seeping from the ground and created a "burning spring." The most famous legend about natural gas originated on Mount Parnassus in Greece approximately 1,000 B.C. A goat herdsman discovered a burning spring on the mountain. A temple was built on that spot and the priestess, Oracle of Delphi, spoke of prophecies inspired by the burning spring.

Burning springs of natural gas were prominent in religious practices of ancient Persia and India, where temples were constructed around these "eternal flames." The Greeks, Persians, and Indians did not recognize the energy value or potential usefulness of natural gas. Ancient Chinese realized that natural gas could work for them. About 500 B.C., they used natural gas to make potable water by piping it from shallow wells through bamboo poles to evaporate salt from sea water.

As early as 1626, French missionaries had recorded that Indians ignited gases in the shallows of Lake Erie and in streams flowing into the lake.

Britain commercialized the natural gas industry around 1785.

 

 

The Burning Spring at Niagara Falls

the Burning Springs

 

"...Arrived at the Spring, the attendant closed the door of the house to exclude the light, and then we were treated to 
a very fine illumination from the burning of the inflammable gas, which rises to the surface with a slight cracking
noise, and readily becomes ignited by a lighted match being placed in it. The faces of those standing near
looked like the "weird sisters" of Macbeth around the cauldron of Hecate..." - 1845 by D.W. Clark

"...Passing  up on the Canadian side some mile and a half above the Falls, we come to "the burning springs." 
The water of this spring is surcharged with sulphureted hydrogen gas. A rough building now covers it,
and the water is confined in a fountain. Placing a barrel over it the gas is collected and escapes through
a tube in the upper end. Apply to this a lighted torch and it burns with a brilliant flame till extinguished.
The taste of the  water was strongly sulphurous..." 
- 1856 author unknown


 

The Old Falls View Burning Springs Building

the Old Burning Springs Building & Observation Tower at Falls View
circa 1924

 

 

 

Legend has it that the original burning springs were discovered by the early Indians in the Niagara Peninsula. The burning springs were the object of fire worship and were said to have been ignited by lightning or a chance spark from two pieces of flint stone.

In 1794, Benjamin Canby and John McGill were granted a lease from Governor Simcoe on a mill site upriver from Burch's Mills where the water of the Niagara River entered the embayment currently known as Dufferin Islands. Here, Canby and McGill built a saw and grist mill along the south side of the high bank overlooking the islands (Dufferin Islands) below. This area became known as Bridgewater Mills and a small settlement was developed around these mills. The Bridgewater mills took away much of John Burch's business.

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 (current site of the Toronto Power Station building).

Bridgewater Mills existed from the 1790's until July 1814, when retreating American troops burned the mills. At the time of their destruction, Bridgewater Mills were the largest industry in the Niagara Peninsula. Following the War of 1812, Bridgewater Mills was rebuilt but on a much smaller scale. They 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 embankment (moraine) along the shoreline near the mouth of the embayment. The amount of natural gas bubbling to the surface through the water was small and could only be ignited if collected in volume. The gas had an odor of sulfur.

Samuel Street and Thomas Clark saw the importance of such a discovery and the tourist potential that it possessed. Hence, 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 and to build up in the confines of the barrel. The legendary burning springs was born. It would become the first attraction at Niagara Falls.

The burning springs were advertised and soon became an important tourist attraction rivaling the Falls of Niagara.

The burning springs were advertised in various guide books during the 1830's, 1840's and 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. The fee 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". Here the attendant removed the cork from the pipe and the gas lighted. The gas ignited and burned brightly for a brief moment to the delight and amazement of everyone. Once the gas supply inside the collection barrel was burned off and depleted sufficiently, the fire went out. The pipe was corked closed until sufficient time passed to allow the gas to refill the barrel again.

Thomas Clark Street inherited the Burning Spring from his father Samuel Clark. He continued to charge visitors to the spring. By 1879, Sutherland Macklem inherited all of the property owned and held by his uncle Thomas Clark Street. The property included Clark Hill (with the mansion built upon it), Clark/Cynthia Islands (Dufferin Islands), all the shoreline property between Cynthia Islands and Cedar Island. His inheritance also included Cedar Island and the Cedar Island pagoda (known as Street's Pagoda"). 

Macklem made major improvements to access routes to Cynthia Islands and Cedar Island. In 1879 footbridges (circa 1877) leading to Cedar Island were torn down and replaced with two carriage bridges. The old footbridge had extended from Table Rock to Cedar Island and was situated only 30 feet (9m) from the brink of the Horseshoe Falls.

Construction of suspension bridges in connection with Cynthia Islands began in the winter of 1878. In addition a wooden truss bridge was built to cross a manmade stream that dissected Cynthia Islands. There were only two islands at the base of Clark Hill (with artificial streams there were five islands) totaling 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. He placed gatekeepers at each end of Cedar Island and at Burning Springs. The gatekeeper at Burning Springs was paid $30 per month all year round.

Sutherland Macklem became the proprietor of the "Burning Springs" attraction. Macklem immediately raised the admission cost to 50 cents per person. For this price each visitor had all 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. By 1884, the gas supply at the burning springs had started to run out requiring the closing of this attraction on many occasions. 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 viable attraction but admitted that he had paid cabmen 25 for each person they brought to the attraction before and didn't stop doing so. 

In 1886, the newly formed Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission began a lengthy legal battle to expropriate the holdings of Sutherland Macklem. This property included a section of property adjacent to the Niagara River that included Cedar Island and Clark Hill Islands (now Dufferin Islands). An arbitration hearing was held 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. Cynthia Islands (Dufferin Islands) were expropriated as part of the park development. The Parks Commission decided they would no longer sanction the "Burning Springs" on their acquired property. The arbitrator ruled that the Burning Spring and the house was appraised at $2,600 dollars however the Parks Commission paid Macklem $4,200 for the Burning Spring Property and $2,700 dollars for Cynthia Islands. In addition to profits Macklem made from this expropriation , he was granted a $2,000 dollar annuity per year for the remainder of his life.

In the early 1900's, the Ontario Power Company took over the water entrance to Dufferin Islands in order to build a weir to channel water to their power station gatehouse. This construction altered the flow of water through Dufferin Islands. No longer would the water rush through the embayment in such volume and force that created small rapids.

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. Here, 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. Prior to 1920, this building burned to the ground.

The artificially gas fed Burning Springs attraction was moved to the Falls View area 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 site of the Sheraton Fallsview 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 (current site of the Marriott 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. Laughlin was an American who owned and operated the old Whirlpool Rapids Elevator Company for many years. 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. It was never rebuilt. 

The Burning Spring and its legend is firmly entrenched in the heritage and history of Niagara Falls.  

 

 
Advertisement of the Old Burning Spring

 

 

"...the most remarkable of these is the Burning Spring above Niagara; its waters are black, hot and bubbling, and emit, during the summer, a gas that burns with a pure bright flame; this sulphureted hydrogen is used to
light a neighboring mill..." - George Warburton, 1850.

 




 

 

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Date last updated: February 20, 2012
 

 

 

The preceding locations and facts about them are but a few of many famous sites & attractions to be found in Niagara Falls. The best of it is FREE to see...so think of Niagara Falls when planning your next vacation. If you have questions of a current or historical nature about the Niagara Falls area or suggestions feel free to e-mail Rick at:
niagarahistory@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

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NIAGARA FALLS - THE BURNING SPRINGS
a history


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