Excerpt: 'Inventing Niagara'

Inventing Niagara Book Cover

More Recommendations

See all of Maureen Corrigan's nonfiction suggestions.

Inventing Niagara
By Ginger Strand
Hardcover, 352 pages
List Price: $25.00

Down the Memory Hole

I went to Niagara because I wanted to laugh at it. I was a college student, and I considered the Falls no more than a kitschy spectacle, a chance to soak in a heart-shaped Jacuzzi and get some really awful souvenirs for my irony-adoring pals. My college boyfriend and I pulled into the parking lot of the tackiest motel we could find and prepared our world-weary smirks. We had quarters for the vibrating bed, a cheap camera to document our glee. And then we got out of the car. To this day, I remember the stationary blast of sound that filled the air, even though the Falls were nowhere in sight. In spite of myself, I was impressed.

Years later, I went back. I had moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, moved on from the college boyfriend and cycled through a series of jobs — proofreader, box-office manager, teacher, copywriter — to see which might leave me time to finish the novel that was slinking around in my head. I found myself with two weeks open in my calendar, and I suggested to my boyfriend, Bob, that we rent a car and take a road trip around New York looking at hydroinfrastructure.

I love hydroinfrastructure — water tunnels, reservoirs, canals, sewers, aqueducts — I find all of it inspiring, a testament to humanity's ability to come together in the interest of higher ideals like cold drinks and hot showers. Luckily, Bob doesn't mind indulging my arcane obsessions — he's a bit of a hydrogeek himself, so off we went, using a road map to pinpoint hydro hotspots. We started off in the Catskills, visiting New York City's water supply. Then we drove north to the Erie Canal — still, I am happy to report, open for business,though it's largely tourist cruises and pleasure boats today. Following the Erie Canal, we wound up, as did its earliest passengers, at Niagara Falls. And there we visited the Adam Beck Power Plant, on the Canadian side. The Beck plant offers a tour. They take you inside through a tunnel that smells of ozone and let you look through glass windows at giant, whirring generators while the guide unfurls the mysteries of turbines and transformers for the rapt crowd. It was on this tour that I first heard about the waterfall's hours of operation — it gets turned up during the days in summer for the tourists, and turned down at night so it can generate more power. Go at 7 a.m., the guide suggested, and watch the water being dialed up. In other words, Niagara Falls, if not turned off and on like a faucet, is turned up and down like a fancy massaging showerhead. I was taking notes — I always take notes on vacation; otherwise, how do you remember stuff? — but at that point I stopped scribbling and just grinned like a maniacal toddler.

Every American feels something for Niagara Falls, but from that point on, I was obsessed. I began to visit Niagara whenever I had an opportunity. I stayed in hotels on both sides, from Ontario's shiny new Radisson to New York's decrepit Travelodge. I got up on cold mornings to run along the riverfront and stayed up on warm nights to lose at blackjack. I interviewed local historians and park workers and engineers. I got the phone number of a Canadian Mountie. I traced the path of the explorer La Salle as he and his band of idiots toiled up the Niagara Escarpment and built the first European ship on the upper Great Lakes, guarding the work site at night because angry Indians were trying to burn "the big canoe." I bought gas and cigarettes from Smokin Joes Trading Post on the Tuscarora Reservation. I don't smoke, but they were a dollar a pack.

I hung around the public library bugging the librarians, until, exasperated, they left me locked in for the evening. I stayed in a trailer campground in Canada and tromped all over Brock's Monument, searching for the cenotaph of the war hero's horse. I was self-appointed inspector of wax museums, halls of fame, haunted houses, historical societies, scenic tunnels, and the Evel Knievel Museum and Pawn Shop, surveyor of aquariums, water parks and boat rides. And of course, I spent hours gazing at falling water, following the sheets of liquid that hold their shape and then disintegrate, the hypnotic contortions of the mist, the bubbling, gymnastic upper rapids and the frothy race of the lower, all of it creating a fuzzy, wraithlike picture, because Niagara, like Mount Everest or the Mississippi River, is one of those places with so many meanings layered onto it, it's almost hard to see. The Greeks had a god named Proteus, who, if you grabbed him, started endlessly changing shape — a serpent, an eagle, a lion — in the hope you would startle and let go. That's Niagara, always in motion, always transforming, and never just what it seems. A seal. A salmon. A buffalo. A two-headed calf, a two-legged dog. A baby with three ears.

Case in point: Niagara Falls. Three entities go by that name. Two are towns, one in New York State, one in Ontario. Niagara Falls, New York, is by general agreement a mess. The river above the Falls is lined with factories, many of them shuttered. Almost half the population and more than half the jobs have decamped since 1950, and it shows. Housing stock is crumbling, and the center city is a study in urban decay: empty lots, boarded-up businesses, foreclosure signs. The roads are potholed, the sidewalks cracked. Someone's usually pushing a shopping cart down the street. The area around the Falls is a jumble of failed attempts at urban renewal — a bankrupt mall, a foreclosed Native American museum, a shoddy row of cheap attractions, handmade signs and pushcarts selling samosas and souvenir sweatshirts. If you can figure out which way the riverfront is, you'll notice the view is blocked by a giant parking ramp and a smattering of hotels, not fancy ones, but the kind that try to temper their bland mediocrity with the word "inn." Days Inn. Comfort Inn. Quality Inn.

The vast majority of American tourists, faced with this national embarrassment, head straight for the border. Things are different in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Along their riverfront, the Canadians have made parkland: a strip of violently landscaped formal gardens offering access to Canada's classic panoramas and regularly spaced snack stands. Above the park, perched on a steep ridge, is an area about ten blocks square, packed solid with hotels, casinos, souvenir shops, observation towers and franchise restaurants. There, on Clifton Hill — "Niagara's street of FUN!" — you're hit with a loud, lurid onslaught of over forty attractions. You have the IMAX Theatre, the Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, the Movieland Wax Museum, the Niagara SkyWheel, Dinosaur Park Mini Putt Golf and Ghostblasters, a haunted house merged with a laser tag game. The ghosts spook you and you shoot them.

The two Niagaras wink at one another across the gorge, the contrapuntal faces of globalism: on the Canadian side, the monotony of our worldwide monoculture, the proliferation of malls and brands and franchises proclaiming globalism's intent to make every town look the same, from Benares to Boise. The soul-sapping boredom of it all is reflected in its urgent spawning of ever-more-extreme cheap thrills. Meanwhile, across the river in America, you see globalism's economic underbelly: crumbling row houses, unemployment offices, and defunct factories parked on EPA-designated brownfields, the sediment of a century's toxic runoff. Rising up from the desolation is the one shiny thing on the New York side's skyline, the new Seneca Niagara Casino, a hopeful mirage where grannies, suburbanites and cash-strapped locals — two-thirds of whom subsist on public assistance — unload lives of quiet desperation, quarter by quarter, into the slots.

Poised between these two worlds, oblivious, inexorable, is the third Niagara Falls: the waterfall. Hundreds of millions of gallons plunge every minute over a 176-foot ledge, as Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie — one-fifth of the world's freshwater — drain into Lake Ontario and out to sea. It roars, day in, day out, untouchable and untouched by the incursions around it. Nothing — not the tacky plastic fun park of Canada's family heaven nor the hard-at-the-heels squalor of New York's economic hell — can ruin one of the world's prime natural wonders. Or so we're told.

Guidebooks today are quick to deride Niagaras one and two, but they are unanimous in declaring the waterfall splendid. "Nearly everyone who sees Niagara Falls is struck by the wonder of it," proclaims Fodor's. The authors describe the tawdry surroundings, but assure the reader that "the astounding beauty of the Falls remains undiminished, and unending." Undiminished indeed: the waterfall is diminished by anywhere from one-half to three-quarters, depending on the season and time of day. Some guidebooks admit this, but they tell you not to worry. The Lonely Planet guide cites the stats on diversion, but assures us "the falls themselves are amazing." Nature, it seems, can't be harmed by a few miles of kitsch, or the diversion of a little water.

This situation is not new. A hundred and fifty years ago, guidebooks also assured visitors that the tacky tourist carnival flanking the Falls did not impinge on their glory. The great wonder, it's true, was surrounded by Chinese pagodas, dancing pavilions, camera obscuras, Indian bazaars, and sideshows featuring counting pigs and a man named Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. This carnival, every guidebook assured you, would ruin your experience of the Falls. But if you ignored it, if you went instead to the correct places and gave yourself up to the contemplation of canonized vistas, your experience of Niagara would be sublime. Writers, artists and intellectuals joined guidebook authors in directing visitors' steps and sentiments away from the tacky and toward the transcendent. Ever since its debut as America's tourist icon, Niagara has built a reputation that depends on separating its natural wonder from the artificial accretions around it.

But here's what I learned at Niagara: the distinction is false. Niagara Falls as a natural wonder does not exist anymore. Manicured, repaired, landscaped and artificially lit, dangerous overhangs dynamited off and water flow managed to suit the tourist schedule, the Falls are more a monument to man's meddling than to nature's strength. In fact, they are a study in self-delusion: we visit them to encounter something real, then observe them through fake Indian tales, audio tours and IMAX films. We consider them a symbol of American manifest destiny, yet we share them politely with Canada. We hold them up as an example of unconquerable nature even as we applaud the daredevils and power-brokers who conquer them. And we congratulate ourselves for preserving nature's beauty in an ecosystem that, beneath its shimmering emerald surface, reflects our own ugly ability to destroy. On every level, Niagara Falls is 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.

My purpose in going to Niagara was to think about nature, and I ended up obsessed with human things. The suicide hotline phones dotting the rapids. The senior housing complex with views of Love Canal. The diner across from the public library called The Why. The wax museum with a room dedicated to the three women who embody the ideal feminine: Mother Teresa, Princess Di and Julia Roberts. The Cave of the Winds — not a cave, but a tunnel blasted out of the rock and a boardwalk taking you into the waterfall's spray. The giant power tunnel intakes, gleaming like outsized radiators, guarding the underwater voids where two scuba divers were sucked to the grating by water entering the tunnels and held there until they drowned.

And the landfills. Niagara's landfills are spectacular: mountains of made land, rising out of the earth, gently breathing their methane, almost beautiful in their grassy silence. One of them is so large it looms in the distance from the highway exit, and as you drive from Wal-Mart to the outlet mall, the landfill hulks along in the background, a constant companion. The people of Niagara Falls must unconsciously look for it, the way the Swiss glance up at the Matterhorn, or the citizens of Portland, Oregon, locate Mount Hood: Where's the mountain? There it is. I'm home.

There's a standard set of stories about Niagara, recounted in tourist guidebooks and scholarly tomes, and trotted out every few years in an educational documentary that begins and ends with sweeping helicopter shots of falling water. Meanwhile, much of the real story of America's best-known landscape goes untold, and as I began to trace it, I often felt like I was entering Bizzaro World. From a French fur trader with an iron hand to the Army Corps of Engineers reshaping the riverbed, Indian casinos built on brownfields to 280,000 radioactive mice buried at the Falls, many of Niagara's stories are like the drums secreted in its landfills: shoved out of sight, covered over to look presentable, and driven by with glazed eyes, a quick flick of the radio volume. Oh that — just drive around it. Once, when I was asking too many unanswerable questions in the Local History section of the Niagara Falls Public Library, librarian Maureen Fennie held up a hand to stop me. "They've put it all down the memory hole," she told me, "and they're not letting it out."

This book documents an obsession. An obsession with the things Niagara has been made to mean throughout the relatively short time it has lived with people — nature, America, power, beauty, death. An obsession with the ways in which the history of Niagara Falls is a history of falsification, prevarication and omission. An obsession with going down the memory hole and retrieving what's buried there.

Why did I become obsessed with Niagara Falls? People ask me that all the time. Niagara has a lot to tell us about nature, but while I care deeply about the environment, I have never been what you call a nature-lover. I never know what kind of tree or bird I'm looking at, woods and their denizens make me nervous, and I don't like being cold, damp, tired or too far from a person with a cocktail shaker. Given a choice between an exhibit of German Expressionist paintings and a hike up some soul-stirring hill, I'll take the thick brush strokes and green faces every time. My college boyfriend — the same one who took me to Niagara — once refused to speak to me for a full day because I declined to hike in the Rockies with him and instead read a Russian novel in the car. "There are things you can't read in books," he fumed, and I remember really meaning it when I said, "Like what?"

But I learned a lot at Niagara, about the natural world and about that human-made idea, "nature." My interest was piqued at first, I think, because I grew up in Michigan, another once-storied, now-shabby corner of the Rust Belt where nature was both monarch and slave. Since 1999, I have lived in Lower Manhattan, and that resonates with Niagara too; often as I walk from my home to the nearest bookstore in search of some account of canal building or the fur trade, I pass the carnivalesque strip of souvenir stands, camera-toting tourists and information booths along the edge of what they now call Ground Zero and I think about how meaning gets layered onto a place.

Mostly I became obsessed with Niagara because I am an American, and although it sits mainly in Canada, Niagara Falls has a lot to tell us about America. Its story is a primer of American history — Indian treaties, conflicts with Britain, the Civil War, the industrial age, the ad age, two world wars, one cold war, environmentalism, globalism. For many years, Niagara was nature, and America was nature's nation. And then the Falls came to stand for power, just as America began discovering its own. It was industry during the rise of industrial America and capital of kitsch when American culture doubled over on itself and turned pop quotation into art. It was America to the European, freedom to the enslaved, opportunity to the impoverished and downfall to the ambitious and proud. Niagara is constantly reinvented, and if nations can be said to have national talents, America's is self-invention. It's what makes people like W.E.B. DuBois and Marilyn Monroe — two Niagara fans — possible, and it's also what gave us slavery, the Bomb and Love Canal — all things that unfolded, in part, at the Falls. It's all too easy, history reminds us, for self-invention to slip into self-delusion. Put on an act for long enough and it's hard to remember what's real.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. When General Leslie Groves, manager of the Manhattan Project, witnessed the explosion of the world's first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, he thought of Blondin crossing the Falls on a tightrope. Why did he think of America's most famous natural wonder as he experienced humanity's violent mastery of nature? Niagara overflows with meaning. The waterfall is the landscape. But the waterfall is also the Bomb. The waterfall is Marilyn, both siren and machine. The waterfall is the light, but at the Cave of the Winds, to see it you pass through darkness. The memory hole feels like a dark cavern, but light that makes us close our eyes is darkness to us. I went into the waterfall and the spray made me blind. I went to the waterfall because I wished, deliberately, to see.

Excerpted from Inventing Niagara by Ginger Strand, Copyright © 2008 by Ginger Strand. Reprinted by permission of the publisher Simon & Schuster.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.