Niagara Falls: America's Most Unnatural Wonder

The first European to see Niagara falls didn't enjoy it. "When one stands near the Fall," wrote Father Louis Hennepin (who did so in 1678), "and looks down into this most dreadful Gulph, one is seized with Horror." If you've ever been there, you may know the feeling. Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon may also inspire that sense of mingled awe, terror and human insignificance the Romantics called the sublime. But unlike those places, Niagara Falls is unceasing, deafening, destructive motion—one of these centuries, in fact, it will destroy itself.

Assuming, to be sure, that humans would let nature take its course. But of all the world's natural wonders, Niagara Falls may be the most artificial. Upriver, technicians turn up the falls for the tourist season, by diverting less water for hydropower. From April through mid-September, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., they let 100,000 cubic feet per second go over the falls—double the usual 50,000, but still only half the natural volume. Starting as early as the 1830s, the topography has been tweaked, even rebuilt. The falls straddle the border between New York state and Ontario province near Buffalo: the American Falls on the U.S. side, the Horseshoe Falls in Canada, with the smaller Bridal Veil (also in the United States) between them. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has blasted and excavated, filled and graded; it has added eight acres to Goat Island, between the Bridal Veil and Horseshoe Falls, implanted sensors to detect rocks coming loose and reshaped the Horseshoe's American edge; the Canadian falls is now 400 feet narrower than it used to be. And, as every tourist knows, colored lights tart up the enfeebled falls by night.

Ginger Strand, who writes for Harper's and The Believer, is obsessed with this strange and contradictory place—so badly, she says, that her boyfriend "did a search for Niagara Falls on the Internet Movie Database and banned any resulting films from our Netflix queue." In her new book, "Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies," she admits that she first considered the falls "no more than a kitschy spectacle, a chance to soak in a heart-shaped Jacuzzi"—the falls long predates the Poconos as a honeymoon destination—"and get some really awful souvenirs for my irony-adoring pals." She now sees Niagara as "a monument to the ways America falsifies its relationship to nature, reshaping its contours, redirecting its force, claiming to submit to its will while imposing our own upon it." Strand sometimes sounds like an environmental scold—spending time in the city of Niagara Falls with its 10 active Superfund sites can do that to you—but she's actually a hybrid of cultural historian and indefatigable roving reporter, who can't help taking quirky pleasure sometimes in what ought to be an utterly grim story.

Even in the early 1800s, entrepreneurs recognized Niagara Falls' potential for providing cheap power and for drawing tourists—and the latter enterprise was tacky from the first. In 1827, hotelkeepers sent an old schooner called the Michigan over the falls, with two bears, a buffalo, two foxes, a raccoon, an eagle, a dog and 15 geese onboard, along with a human crew in effigy, flying an American flag, a Union Jack and a Jolly Roger. (One goose survived, along with a bear who'd jumped ship above the falls.) The Maid of the Mist boat tours began in 1846—below the falls, thankfully—though not until 1996 did the recorded audio stop telling the fabricated myth of an Indian woman sent over the brink as a human sacrifice. In 1859 and 1860, the French aerialist Blondin made trips across the gorge on a tightrope—on which he did headstands, drank champagne, even cooked omelets; twice, he carried his manager on his shoulders. Later came the barrel riders—the first to succeed was a 63-year-old woman, in 1901—and the promotion of the Niagara Falls honeymoon as an almost obligatory American tradition, which has persisted in popular culture from "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" (from the 1933 film "42nd Street") through the 1952 movie "Niagara," which made Marilyn Monroe a star, all the way to—as Strand is not alone in suspecting—the vigorously evocative trade name for the virility drug sildenafil citrate.

After the Civil War, a movement called Free Niagara—guided by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted—sought to get rid of the falls' honky-tonk attractions in favor of a re-engineered nature both picturesque and spiritually elevating. Strand grants his sincerity, but calls him a snob for whom "the aristocrat's taste was the right taste, and ought to be taught to the common man." The movement, she says, misdirected the public's gaze away from the industrialization of the area. Olmsted's artificial nature played into the tycoons' hands "by helping to create the division of purpose—over here is nature, over there, behind that hedge, is industry—that enabled the full industrial exploitation of the Falls to begin."

We know how that story ends—with failing companies leaving behind unemployed workers and such environmental disasters as Love Canal, where 82 different chemicals contaminated the area: residents began getting sick, and there was an increase in miscarriages and birth defects. "A baby was born with two rows of teeth," Strand writes, "another with three ears." You have to be impressed by the scale and variety of the contamination: not just from chemicals with sci-fi names (dodecyl mercaptan, hexachloroethane) but also radiation from former nuclear-weapons plants. The Army Corps of Engineers has identified "seven radioactively contaminated sites within ten miles of America's waterfall." And Strand is frankly awed by the giant mound that's the city of Niagara Falls' other most visible landmark: "It takes twenty minutes just to circumnavigate this beast … It covers 385 acres and includes one operating landfill, ten closed landfills, a wastewater treatment facility and container storage … It hulks there, green and gargantuan—in winter, white as a ski slope—as if humans had tried to outdo the Falls in reshaping the landscape." When she brings a video-artist friend there, he calls it "the most beautiful earthwork I have ever seen."

Of course this take seems as out of keeping as Hennepin's reaction to the falls: isn't "horror" the proper response here? I suppose that someone will accuse Strand, or at least her friend, of estheticizing human misery: how many people died from the toxins in this earthwork? But after a certain point, what else is a writer to do? That's the job description. Strand doesn't try to hide devastation behind a hedge, she's done more than her share of raking the chemical-infused muck and she's drawn from her story appropriately solemn (if vague) lessons about the relationship between humanity and nature. "Environmentalism is a way of seeing. It's time to look the world squarely in the face and try to understand our role in it … We are [nature] and it is us … We must consider the natural world not as merely waiting to be of service or to be saved, but must respect it as an equal partner in shaping the future of our planet."

But writing, too, is a way of seeing, and Strand can't help seeing gratuitous marvels in her ruined and dying landscape: electrical transmission towers resembling "broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, metal linebackers striding across the Mohawk Valley," two abandoned shopping carts "stuck together as if mating," a squirrel in a brownfield "with two racing stripes of mange down its back." Unlike the Olmsteds of the world, she doesn't confuse beauty with prettying-up, and finds in nature no inherent moral or spiritual uplift: "What does the waterfall say? The world stands for nothing. The waterfall says just that: water, falling. Water, falling." Coleridge said it in his 1802 "Dejection" ode: "In our life alone does nature live." That is, we humans bring the beauty, whether to the waterfall or the transmission tower; nature just brings the nature. On the other hand, in nature alone can we live. And as the planet heats up, Niagara Falls, where both man and nature are about to go over the edge, is Everywhere.