1800 - Yesterday at Niagara Falls



This is a journal of life at Niagara Falls during the 1800's. Enjoy a journey back into the colorful history and heritage of time.



Two Days at Niagara

by D.W. Clark


part 1



With what rapidity one travels now-a-days! Not many years ago, it is said, if man proposed taking a Northern trip, he first deemed it expedient to have his will prepared and all of his property devised. But now he can go and return before the instrument of writing is ready for his signature. I left this Metropolis the latter part of July, for a Northern tour, and a few days afterwards, about seven o'clock on one of the sweetest evenings in August, found myself on board of the "Lady of the Lake" bound for Lewistown, enroute for Niagara Falls. 

Our fine little steamer lay in the outlet of the Genesee River, in full sight of its Falls, and about seven miles from where its waters mingle with those of the Lake. The scenery all around the landing is very picturesque. There was also on board of the boat a very agreeable company of Southerners, of whom  I made the sixteenth.  The party was composed of a bridegroom, a young and blooming bride, and two other ladies from the broad savannas of Georgia; one middle-aged and chivalric Orleanois, and seven fine looking young Louisianians, "all ardent as a Southern sun could make them;" three gentlemen who were well worthy of the" Monumental City;" and the writer, from Virginia. We had just time enough, after getting on board, to " blow off a little steam" at the agent for demanding portage for our baggage, after having promised to deliver it at the wharf free of charge, when our "skipper," being assured that all of his passengers had "walked the plank," ordered it to be drawn in, and his boat to be hauled out. 

Our boat, owing  to the extreme narrowness of the river below Rochester, was some time in getting around, but after doing so, we went swiftly on our way rejoicing.  Before starting, I could not help contrasting the difference of appearance between our light and airy American boat, and the black looking British Mail Steamer,  "Chief Justice Robinson," which laid just ahead of us.  She had not a streak of white about her to relieve the eye. The banks of the river, as the boat passes out, appear very precipitous. A run of an hour found us ploughing our way through the broad blue waters of Lake Ontario, in the direction of Lewistown, by one of the most gorgeous twilights ever beheld.  

The scene that presented itself on the lake, after old Sol, with his red and fiery face, had sunk down in its vast sheet of water, was truly  enchanting. All around us seemed calm and hushed.  Nought broke the quiet of the night, but the muffled sound of the steamer's wheels as they displaced the water.  So still were the waters of the Lake, and so clear their reflection of the heavens, that we imagined the boat sweeping o'er the surface of some brightly polished mirror, all dotted with stars.  I gazed on the illusive sight until surfeited with its loveliness; and at midnight, after making several snoozy nods to the wheelhouse, near which I sat, by way of assuring it of my attentive consideration, I turned into my birth, and-don't remember any thing else that night.

A little before sunrise the next morning, I was awoke by a rap at my state-room door, and the ebony colored head that thrust itself in. said —" the captain requests me to ask the passengers to point out their baggage." Just before this sudden interruption of my slumbers, I had a dream. During my sleep, I had heard the thunder of Niagara distinctly in my ear. But upon going out upon the promenade deck, the mystery was soon solved. My " thunder" was the roar of the boat's pipe. She was letting off steam. I found the steamer lying at Lewistown, on the American side of Niagara river, opposite Brock's Monument, on the heights of Queenstown.  A little time being occupied in " pointing" out the baggage, we saw our trunks in a “wagon" on their winding way" around a very high hill, which we ascended by means of a flight of steps, numbering some hundred and forty, which lead up to the village. By the time we reached the top, we were fully convinced that Lewistown was "a village set upon a hill." Almost breathless, we were very glad to take seats in some yellow painted vehicles, which were in waiting to convey us to the Falls.  Horses were attached to them, and they were called cars, but looked for all the world more like circus wagons. So impressed was one of our party with the idea that they were built for some equestrian troupe, that he put his head out of the window and very cooly informed the by-standing villagers, that we would " put up bills" when we came back. 

From Lewistown to the Falls is eight of the most interminable miles in the mail routes of the country. Think, good Reader, of one's being almost within hearing of Niagara Falls, and yet having to take it in a horse car at a snail's pace! The railroad, nearly the whole way, is over a kind of shelving road, which runs along at the base of a rocky barrier some forty feet high. This rocky formation on the right, intervenes between the traveler and the river, and prevents him from seeing it, although but a short distance off, until getting within a mile or so of the Falls. The view from the opposite car window is very fine. You look down some two hundred feet below, and in a basin-like valley, see a number of beautiful, though small, rectangular farms in a high state of cultivation. Their luxuriant orchards, together with the grain  which had commenced ripen in good when we passed, made the sight very pleasing to the eye. We were enjoying a laugh at the expense of one of the young Orleanois of our party, who had left his new gold watch behind him in the steamboat, for the second time, when a cry of  "the Falls!" produced  by a glimpse, caught through a sudden opening in the trees, of the spray clouds floating over the Cataract, arrested our attention. In a moment, sixteen heads endeavored to find their way out of a car window, whose construction  would admit of but one. Fifteen minutes more, and we were standing by our baggage, in the middle of the village street, quietly submitting to the inflictions of the porters of the different hotels. 

The English runner from the Clifton House on the Canadian side, was eloquent in the praises of his establishment; whilst a Yankee porter from an American house, standing by, "rather argued," that if we went on the other side, Her Majesty's officers would have the pleasure of taking "a squint" into our trunks. Notwithstanding the protestations of John Bull to the contrary, and his blessings upon Jonathan for giving us this information, the Yankee's argument was conclusive with us, and we went to the Cataract House. The proprietor quartered us in a fine wooden building, some twenty yards from the main house, and connected with it by a platform. This house was occupied by our party exclusively, during our stay at the Falls, and was duly dubbed "SOUTHERN HALL”. 

After descending into the prose of traveling, by disposing of a capital breakfast, and attiring our selves in clothes appropriate for the trip, we  procured the services of a guide, and started for the American Fall. Our young bride manifested more eagerness than any of the party to reach the Rapids, and compelled our guide to keep up a pretty quick pace. The old ones of the party went along soberly under their umbrellas, and the young Louisionians and myself endeavored to take it philosophically. Winding our way through a thickly shaded grove of large trees, we reached the Pagoda. 

This is an Observatory some hundred feet above the Cataract, and three hundred above the bed of the river. From its top, is the finest, first view of the American Fall. Climbing our way up the stairs, from its summit we looked down on the mass of falling water below. We were disappointed.  Can this, thought I, be the realization of my geography dreams; is this the grand original of my map reveries.  But I was just entering the vestibule of Niagara's sublimity. Descending from this eminence, we crossed the bridge over the Rapids, deposited our three "sixpences" a piece with the toll keeper on Bath Island, in whose book we also left our autographs, and then over an additional bridge to Iris Island. From the end of this Island, leaning for safety upon an old dead tree, which projects over the precipice, we looked over the small cascade between us and Luna Island, and had another view of the American sheet. 

Here the guide endeavored to point out to us three profiles, caused by the projections of rock under the Fall; but we were too intent in looking upon the Fall itself, to regard him.  It seemed as if, in the little time we had occupied in walking to this point, the body of water had grown greater; its roar louder; the clouds of spray above it denser; and ourselves more inclined to silence. Retracing our steps up the bank from this place, and taking an opposite direction, we came in sight of a little structure erected upon the  verge of the precipice, resembling very much a sentry-box.  On reaching it, we found it descended some hundred feet to the rocks below, upon which it rested, and contained a spiral stair-case. The guide told us this was the Biddle staircase, so called from Nicholas Biddle's having made an appropriation for its construction. 

Two of the ladies of our party declined descending, but our young feminine married one, with her fearless intrepidity, was already half way down before the guide cautioned us that it was not safe for more than three to descend at a time. Arriving at the base of the stairway, we bent our course along a narrow ledge at the base of the cliff, until we reached the Central Fall, underneath which is the "Cave of the Winds."  Here the scene was grand. Our young bride could not get enough of it, though being every moment more thoroughly drenched by the falling spray.  The Orleanois gave vent to their admiration in sentences alternately French and English, and I endeavored, whenever the wind blew away the mist, and exposed the mouth of the Cave, to utter some adjective. 

Niagara was growing upon us. The next sight, which bewildered our imaginations, and made us feel how great is God and how small is man, was the British, or Horse Shoe Fall; which, though not so high as that of the American, inspires more awe. Far up as the eye can reach, from Prospect Tower, in the direction of Lake Erie, you see the waters, which have but a short time left its placid bosom, now plunging on over the rocks like sweated racers, unconscious of the fearful goal which awaits them. Looking down into the terrible vortex below, you are made dizzy, and cling to the railing of the Tower for support. From the brow of the Cataract ascends a hooked cloud of spray, which seems to link this vast enigma of Nature to the throne of the Invisible. We were surfeited with the sight. Some descended from the tower and returned by the narrow bridge to the Island; the young Orleanois gazed on the scene as if petrified, and were speechless; whilst others engaged themselves in carving their initials on the railing, to show that they had been where should "speak the voice of God alone and man be dumb." I had the honor myself of carving for one of our fair friends", Macon, Georgia. “Admiration," remarks a great tourist, "is the most exhausting thing in the world."

We experienced all the truth of this observation, and were very glad to have our painfully distended thoughts relaxed by the guide, who took us around the Island and related some most marvellous stories about a certain Hermit, (whether Goldsmith's or not, I don't know,) who it appears used to inhabit it; bathe in the rapids, and read books in a log cabin, which standing dilapidated, is pointed out to the traveler as his former residence.

The legends, and a little book with a yellow cover, for which you’ll pay a “ shilling,” say that he was drowned whilst bathing in the river below the Falls. 

At 3 o'clock we sat down to a splendid dinner. People have to eat at Niagara Falls as well as at other places. Sublimity bewilders the brain; but fills not the stomach. After dining, we prepared to start for the British Fall. The descent to the ferry is made by means of a stairway, which is laid in a deep excavation of solid rock. It is entirely housed in, and in going down its dark avenue, one experiences the same feelings which would be felt in going through Thames' tunnel. Arriving at the bottom, we found a boat awaiting us, and seating the ladies in the stern, and raising umbrellas to protect them from the drenching spray, which is blown at all times from the Falls in dense clouds, when you are below them, we shoved off into the boiling waves. When we had got a little distance from the shore, our boat, large as it was, commenced reeling and plunging like a drunken man on the vastness of the waters, and it required all the strength of our athletic ferry men for her to make any progress. As some tourist has remarked, she was as a mere "egg-shell," and a very slight alteration of position in her, would cause you to be engulfed in the awful cauldron. The next adventure to going under the Falls, I conceive this of crossing the ferry in an open boat, the most hazardous. Arrived opposite the center of the vast line of Falls, all thoughts of fear are gone, the mind is otherwise filled. 

You may have heard of Niagara, possessed engravings of Niagara, or read of Niagara; but you will never have seen it until now. The sensation which fills the soul is overwhelmingly sublime. Each moment that you look upwards at the vast volume of descending water, it appears to grow higher and higher, until it seems as if poured by the hand of omnipotence from the clouds. Another minute and our boat shot into an eddy caused by a large projecting rock, and ran up on her ways. Then followed a scene that fully assured me that from "the sublime to the ridiculous" is but a very short distance.  We had scarcely time to disembark, before our party was besieged by a number of Canadian Caleche drivers, who seize the opportunity of the presence of travelers, to get up a general melee, derogate vehicles, interchange choice epithets, and give each other a conventional cursing. One fellow, seizing me by the arm, said, "Mr. McDonald, get into my coach with your party," so in eight of us went into his omnibus, and the rest got into another. By way of quizzing, I asked the owner of the vehicle, who was riding on the steps behind, how his lad, our driver, knew my name was "McDonald!" so well!" 

"Oh," said he," that's one of the smartest boys in Canada-he knows every  gentleman's name, whether he has seen him before or not!" Strange subjects, thought I, her Brittanic Majesty must have in her American possessions.  But I was on British ground, so I said to myself, " Honi soit qui mal y pense."  From the landing you are driven up a steep, rocky road, to the summit of a cliff. Looking down from here renders you dizzy. The boat in which you came over appears made upon him, when, by the "trembling  moonbeam's misty light," he saw the stalwart frame of our Scott mounted on horseback, and charging up the lane at the head of his men.  Every spot of interest about the ground is pointed to you.  

From here we were driven over a sandy road some two miles to the Battle Ground of Lundy's Lane, where, on the evening and night of the 25th of July, 1814, the Americans fought one of the bloodiest and bravest battles on record.  The feelings produced, by the sight of a spot which was once crimsoned by so much patriotic blood; and the recollection, that it was here the laurels of our own Scott were won, are of no ordinary character.

An old British soldier, who was in the engagement, and who yet lives to tell the "battles, sieges, fortunes" he has passed, is the guide to the ground. Accompanied by him, you ascend to the top of a wooden observatory, erected for the purpose of viewing the surrounding country, which is ripe with the scenes of the last war. His version of the battle was very impartial.  Though a very illiterate man, his account of the engagement, which had evidently been carefully committed to memory, was, nevertheless, very interesting. One of our party happening to interrupt him in the midst of his narration, he was compelled to commence and go over again.  On the extreme me right, where rested the head of the American lines, now stands a church; and on the spot where the carnage was greatest, and the groan of the dying soldier went out mid the din of battle, is now heard, rising on each returning day of God, the prayer and the hymn. No one can appreciate the difficulties encountered by our troops unless they can see the ground. On the right, and near the head of the lane, is seen a grave yard, in which a small mound marks the resting-place of the officers who fell in the engagement; and who, "unknelled, uncoffined," were thrown into a pit and the earth heaped above them. It was in this yard, where" every turf" beneath your feet is " a soldier's sepulchre," that the gallant and impetuous Scott and his brave comrades, " with the fierce gladness of mountain torrents," precipitated themselves on the British battery. The battle of Preuss Eylau took place in the splendor of a snow storm; that of Lundy's Lane was fought amid the thunders of Niagara.

After visiting the battleground, we drove to the Table Rock, where the finest view of the Horse Shoe Fall is had. The gorgeous rainbows that are always visible above the Cataract, and which continually shift their position, as the sun declines, are worth looking at for hours. Towards the wane of the evening, a proposition was made, that we should go under the great falling sheet of water to Termination Rock; being two hundred and thirty feet behind the Great Horse Shoe Fall. It was readily assented to by nine of the party, among whom was our young bride, who was all anxiety for the adventure, but yielded to the fears of her female friends. The dresses furnished you by the guide, who has a small house at the head of the staircase, are made of coarse oil cloth, and when fully attired in them, with a coarse towel around your throat, water boots, and a tarpaulin cowl drawn over the head, so as to expose only the face, we looked for all the world like men " fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils." The guide, however, did not seem to apprehend any danger from brigands of his own making, so cautioning us to see well that our loins were girded, bade us follow him, and we descended the spiral stairway. On reaching the base of the cliff, the guide led the way, and we followed close behind. The path which leads under the Cataract is extremely narrow, and one is constantly reminded that the least variation from the perpendicular will hurl him into the boiling waters below him. Just as you enter under the sheet, you are obliged to pick your way, and cling to the projections in the wall of rock for support.

When we got here, the guide told us to draw a good " Almost  too small for sight. The murmuring surge, that on the timbered idle pebbles chafes Cannot be heard so high:-I'll look no more; Lest my brain turn, and the efficient sight Topple down headlong." He said he would never forget the impress breath, and follow close after him. We did so; and the next moment found ourselves almost drowned; our eyes and nostrils were filled with water. Some staggered blindly forward, others retreated, and some turned their faces down in the hopes of avoiding it. But all to no purpose.  The dense and ceaseless clouds of spray beat up from under you, and notwithstanding your " water proof" envelope, every portion of your person is penetrated by it.  Fortunately I happened to get hold of the guide's coat, who dragged me forward into a slight vacuum, where drawing a long breath, and snorting the water from my nostrils, I opened my eyes to one of the grandest sights in nature.

The appearance presented, was that of an immense Gothic arch, one half of which was formed by the wall of limestone, which, rising perpendicularly behind you, ends in a tabular projection high above your head; and the other, by the sheet of falling water from where it leaves the verge of the cliff, to where it rolls away in a mass of foam below your feet. But we had not reached the Termination Rock, and the guide, failing to make himself heard to the rest of the party, amid the incessant roar, beckoned to them to come on; but they thinking there was rather too much of the tangible mixed up with the sublimity, chose to remain where they were. Imitating the example of the guide, and letting myself down by my hands upon a lower and slippery shelf of rock, I followed pains. 

The next day, after dinner, the boatman again " rowed us o'er the ferry." The  view, after you get in the middle of the river, looking down towards its outlet, is very unique. The banks on either side of you rise abruptly to a great  height, and the river presents the appearance of flowing through a  deep gorge, which has been caused by some terrible convulsion of nature.  

The waters of Niagara are of a very transparent green; and about a mile below the Falls, covered with streaks of foam, they commence re-flowing with a lazy motion, like exhausted gladiators returning to the  arena of their late conflict. One of our party was twitting our young bride, in the boat, with wearing a green dress; saying it was indicative of excessive verdancy in the wearer. Her reply was, that Niagara was green, and Niagara was sublime, syllogistically, she was sublime! 

From the landing we drove to the Burning Spring. On our way hither we had  an opportunity of observing that the "almighty dollar" had its potency among a people, who are ever filling your ears with Dieu et mon Droit, as well as with 13 of " the States."  Not far from the edge of the precipice, near Table Rock, stands a pyramidal monument, which, at a little distance, has the appearance of marble; but upon close inspection, is found to be painted wood. The inscription is nearly as follows: "In memory of Miss Martha K. Rug, who lost her life by falling from this bank Aug. 24, 1844”. At the Museum can be obtained a book containing the particulars for a shilling." This instance of the bathos reminds one very forcibly of an inscription on a beautiful monument in the Pere le Chaise:-" Erected by his disconsolate widow, who still continues the business at the old stand!"

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. 

On returning to Table Rock to take our last look of the Horse Shoe Fall, our young bride proved herself a perfect Diana Vernon: a woman, who, if she was not "born insensible to fear," was at least capable of manifesting very little of it. She threw down the gauntlet, and dared any of the close at his heels, taking care to preserve an upright position, and in a few minutes we were at the goal of our efforts. Holding on with my hands, the next moment  the occasional current of air which blows under the terrible tunnel. Dissipated the mist for a minute or so, and I perceived that I was standing on the brink of an immense rocky cauldron, whose waters, some seventy feet below me, were boiling and foaming, and flashing, in terrible agony. Nothing can give anything like even a faint idea of the sight, but Byron's description of " the hell of waters," which he alludes to in Childe Harrold when speaking of Phlegethon.  As if a sight too overpowering for human  eyes  long to view, the next minute it was again hid in a shroud of mist. After stumbling and floundering, from the weight of my water filled boots, by the assistance of the guide I regained the entrance, when throwing myself upon the loose lime-stone path, I concurred fully with the assertion of a tourist, that a man after accomplishing the feat, is a most admirable " subject for the Humane Society to resuscitate."

My advice to all those who visit the Falls, and have no particular penchant for the " Wasser Cur," is to avoid the adventure personally, and look at an engraving of it.  Underneath Niagara Falls is a splendid place for Hydropathists! A printed certificate, dated Niagara Falls, Canada West, with poetry printed on the reverse, (there is a great deal more of prose than poetry company to descend with her to an enormous rock, which stands amid the beating surge at the base of an immense declivity. The descent to this rock, which is some hundred feet below you, is made over large masses of loose limestone, which are ever crumbling from the wall of rock above, and rolling down the precipice below. This proposition, though very little relished, was accepted by one of the party and the writer, and down she went to the rock, near which, "a Mr. Thompson, of  Philadelphia, lost his life in the summer of 1844," and with the unfailing courage of a Grace Darling, mounted upon its summit. When we got up to the house again, the guide, who with others had been watching our adventurous heroine from the stairway above, said, that he had been in attendance upon the Falls nearly ten years, but that he had never seen a female upon that rock before. It was agreed by all present, that, after her, it should be called "F____n's Rock;" and the hardy proprietor of the dress-house so entered it in his Register.

As for myself, I cannot. 

"There on the hill he stood, his verdant head amid the clouds, his mighty feet among the rocks. When zephyr dallied with his locks, How soft his sighs and whispered words of love, fought the blast!  Upon his lofty limbs the eagles built their regal nest, and reared their noble young; And there they screamed unto the rising sun, Ere yet the little marsth-wren knew he came. How towered in glory then the Giant Oak, — His dewy leaves bathed in the golden beams, Waving his hailings to the glowing orb, While yet in gloom and silence slept the vale!

For centuries there the Giant Oak had stood: Stars he had seen go out upon the sky, And come not forth again, as from their thrones Fell the rebeling angels into night; Stars he had seen from chaos-wand'rings rise, And join the anthem of the glittering hosts, Like saints from earth to heaven to shine and sing, but I can give a slight idea of the ascent of " the steep" at Table Rock.
I have no desire ever to repeat the undertaking. At sunrise the following morning I gave my "last shilling" to a boot-black, kissed my hand to the pretty women, and bid adieu to the Falls.  Perhaps I may never look upon them again; but the impression made upon my mind, a Niagara of years can only wear away.  It is a pleasure to recollect them.  The sight of so much sublimity and so much terror, recurs to the fancy till it becomes familiar; and as the fatigue and annoyance of travel fades from the memory, the imagination warms it into a poetic feeling, and we dwell upon it with delight.
One of our party remarked, as the cars moved off, that Niagara Falls was the greatest' watering place" upon earth! "

- Richmond, 1845.  


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Date last updated: February 13, 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: