Part II:
A Cycle of Land Use

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Part II: Conservation
A Cycle of Land Use

Beauty or the Industrial Beast?

The beauty of Niagara Falls captured the eye of explorer, painter, entrepreneur, and huckster. Throughout recorded history, tensions existed between those seeking to protect the natural beauty of the area and those who sought to harness the energy of the swift, cascading waters. The interplay among industrial dominance, vigorous preservation efforts, tawdry tourism, legislative protection and international agreements continues to the present day.

The Falls of Niagara
  d. 1697

Considered to be the first published illustration of Niagara Falls, this print is based on the romanticized description of the Falls as seen by Father Louis Hennepin while accompanying LaSalle's expedition in 1678.

The Entrepreneurs

The banks of the cataract and river were lined with mills and manufacturing buildings by the 1880s. Niagara provided power to spur economic well being throughout the area. The desire to control this source of power led to risky plans to build a canal that would take water from the river above the Falls. These plans ended in financial ruin.

Village Shore Just Above American Falls
George Barker
Reproduction of albumin print
d. 1879

Collection of Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

This photograph appeared in Report of the New York State Survey for the Year 1879, The Niagara Reservation.

Diverting the power of the river before it reached the Falls was the central idea in the plans of many enterprising men. A hydraulic canal could be blasted through the rock to divert river waters to a reservoir to feed the millraces at the manufacturing sites. Effective, efficient , mechanical water power, not the generation of electricity, was the goal.

Upper Falls of Niagara River
Artist Unknown, date unknown
Oil on canvas
Collection of Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society

The Free Niagara Issue is not whether Niagara is more valuable as factory power or as beauty and sublimity, but how it shall best serve both use and beauty.

James B. Harrison, spokesman for Free Niagara Movement

The Free Niagara Movement

The voices for preservation of the Niagara River and Falls came from well known figures of the time including Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, Frederick Church, H. H. Richardson, Charles Norton, and Robert Underwood. They sought to unify the forces of tourism, industry, and lovers of nature. In 1879, a State survey report was commissioned to create a State Reservation at Niagara.

Niagara River and Buffalo
Hamilton Hamilton
Oil on Canvas ca.1875
Collection of Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society

Niagara Falls, Terrapin Point
Ferdinand Reichardt
Oil on Canvas d. 1856
Collection of Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society

Niagara Falls (Maid of the Mist tourboat at Horsehoe Falls)
Joseph Konopka
Acrylic on linen d. 1995
Collection of Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society

The first Maid of the Mist was steam-powered and launched in May 1846. This boat ride continues to thrill passengers today, over one hundred and fifty years later.

Horseshoe Falls and Niagara Gorge
Raphael Beck
oil on canvas date unknown
Collection of Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society

Niagara-Whirlpool Rapids
Artist Unknown
oil on canvas ca. 1900
Collection of Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society

In 1878, Lord Dufferin, the governor general of Canada, visited Niagara Falls. The scenic decay caused him great concern. He contacted Governor Lucius Robinson of New York and suggested a joint effort by the governments of New York and Ontario to restore and preserve the cataract as an international park. On January 9, 1879, Governor Robinson delivered his last annual message to the New York legislature and pleaded for the protection of Niagara Falls.

At Governor Robinson's request the legislature instructed the topographical engineers of the state to survey and report on the condition of the cataract. James T. Gardner, the director of the survey commission, and Frederick Law Olmsted completed the investigation in May 1879. They submitted their report to the legislature on March 22, 1880.

The Gardner Report

Delivered in 1880, this document dramatically tilted the scales in favor of preservation. Its words and photographs documented the abuses of commercial and industrial ventures. The report advocated State purchase of Goat Island, the eastern shore of the rapids, and the bluff overlooking the Falls. Then, the area around the cataract would be restored to nature and made accessible to the public free of charge.

From the head of the Rapids to the Falls, the shore is already defaced by walls, platforms, and buildings. Not a foot of it retains a natural character.

From the 1879 Gardner Report

Report of the New York State Survey for the Year 1879, The Niagara Reservation
James T. Gardner

Collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

The Niagara Reservation

The election of Grover Cleveland as Governor of New York secured the preservationists’ plan. In 1883, Cleveland signed a bill authorizing the selection, location, and appropriation of lands for the reservation, as recommended by a board of commissioners. After the Legislature appropriated funds to acquire the recommended lands, the Niagara Reservation officially opened to the public in 1885.

  General Plan for the Improvement of the Niagara Reservation,   Niagara Falls
  Reproduced from original
  d. 1887

  Collection of Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society




Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, a fellow landscape architect, presented a plan for the Niagara Reservation. The plan emphasized the subtle beauty not the obvious spectacle of the Falls. Olmsted and Vaux agreed that nothing of an "artificial character" be retained. Olmsted presented the report in September 1887. Soon after, New York State park officials demolished the mills, shacks, stables, hotels, and other eyesores that detracted from Niagara's natural beauty. Statues, monuments, floral arrangements, and other man-made objects were also excluded from the Reservation.

The Canadian government created a unique solution to the conservation issue. Three United States companies located on the Canadian side paid a surcharge to the Canadian government that was used to maintain Queen Victoria Park.

Short-lived Protection

The creation of the Niagara Reservation did not safeguard the natural beauty of the area. The increasing use of water to generate electricity diminished the flow over the Falls. The Burton Bill of 1906 limited the amount of diverted water. The United States and Canada agreed in 1950 to reduce nighttime flow fifty percent to slow erosion and provide for power needs.

Enter Robert Moses and the New York Power Authority

Further changes in the landscape were made under Robert Moses. A power plant with thirteen main generators and a reservoir were constructed on land taken from the Tuscarora Reservation. In addition, a parkway was built along the river from the North Grand Island Bridge to the Falls cutting off public access and destroying parts of the Niagara Reservation and Whirlpool State Park.

Robert Moses Power Plant, New York Power Authority

Collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society




The seizure of Tuscarora Reservation land was very controversial. Promises made to the Tuscarora were broken, farmlands were flooded, and public access to the natural beauty of the area lost.



The Future?

Tensions among conservation, business and industry, and tourism interests continue.

  • What are the pros and cons of hydroelectric power?
  • Who is affected as more land and water are taken for power generation?
  • What happens to wild and marine life when the major use of a river is devoted to power production?
  • What impact does power plant construction and operation have on the local economy?