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Part II: Conservation
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 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.
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.
James B. Harrison, spokesman for 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.
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.
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.
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 1879 Gardner Report
Report of the New York State Survey for the Year 1879, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tensions among conservation, business and industry, and tourism interests continue.