Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies by Ginger Strand
(Simon & Schuster, May 2008)
Encountered, Made, Remade
Writers hear it all the time: “Oh, if you’re working on a project like that, you NEED to read so-and-so.” And then we order the book, check the mail over and over, and finally get the package and enjoy totally geeking out on our topic page after page, combing through the brains of those who have found documents we hadn’t known about, or put what we already know into a new arrangement that makes previously hidden aspects surface. But, often, we’re not sure if we like certain books—particularly nonfiction books—because they’re truly great books, thoroughly researched and written in artful ways, or because they just give us the perfect information for our projects; it can be a hazy line. Every so often, though, we’re so sure a book is really, truly amazing—across the board, not dependent upon what people think their interests are—that we’re willing to go out on a limb. We talk about the book with people every chance we get. In class, at work, at bus stops, in elevators.
Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara came to me this way: it started with my own writing project about high wire walkers in Niagara Falls. During the setup of Nik Wallenda’s wire for his 2012 walk over the falls, the head engineer had mentioned to me that Niagara was “a highly engineered river from beginning to end,” with the water volume being turned down at night for greater power production within a system involving huge tunnels running underneath the cities on both sides of the river. Then came a recommendation of this book from my mentor. I went through the waiting process detailed above. And then I couldn’t put the book down. And all I could think was, How did I miss this? Somehow it wasn’t on my radar in 2008, but with everything happening now, in 2012 (Nik Wallenda walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls, another high wire walker named Jay Cochrane doing a walk in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and NPR’s October story about Niagara Falls, NY, being only 100 people away from losing its status as a city and becoming the Town of Niagara Falls, without the federal funding it had received before), there couldn’t be a more relevant book for the region and regions like it across the country. This book—a blend of Strand’s own research and personal travel narrative with engaging historical narrative in which Strand is not present as a writer—will not be for every reader, but for those who love a writer who excels at conveying a deep, nuanced sense of place while giving the reader permission to indulge his or her inner environment/history/geography nerd, it will absolutely captivate.
Strand starts right from the beginning with Niagara Falls. Not the beginning of the geological creation of the falls, she emphasizes, or even with the discovery of the falls by Native Americans, but with Europeans’ first contact with it, starting with a priest named Louis Hennepin describing the “horrid noise” of the terrifying falls upon seeing it with explorer La Salle in 1678. And, really, that’s much of what this book is about—the ways in which humans have held up the falls as an example of the fact that humans will never be able to control nature. All the while, of course, doing everything they possibly can to do just that: control the falls, harnessing the power for industry and the beauty for tourism. Strand writes,
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.
Strand covers the expected aspects of the falls: its geography and islands (complete with the story of the Army Corps of Engineers turning the American Falls off in 1969 to test and stabilize its rock structure), its history as a honeymoon capital (with a section on the evolution and commodification of marriage starting in the 1920s with a more frank acknowledgement of women’s liberation and sexuality), its tourism and campiness (with Strand detailing the beginning of the Maid of the Mist boat ride, as well as narrating visits to museums: wax, oddity, natural history, and daredevil), its significant industrial history (with factories for textiles, paper, and other goods), its landscaping and development by figures like Frederick Law Olmsted and the villainous Robert Moses. Perhaps readers even expect her discussions of Native American history and tensions over control and use of the region’s land, which had been extraordinarily important to the Iroquois before the arrival of the Europeans. Or sections about the French and Indian War, and the War of 1812. Readers might even expect her ruminations—she’s a self-proclaimed hydroinfrastructure geek—of the way the falls generate power. Or her discussion of daredevils going over the falls in a barrel or, like Blondin and the Great Farini, walking tightropes over the gorge.
What readers will not expect, though, are the connections drawn by Strand between the Niagara region and the Underground Railroad, in which Strand highlights parallels between the dangerous and dramatic Underground Railroad route across the Niagara River into Canada and events like high-wire walks by Blondin, who once walked his wire with his manager on his back. (A political cartoon in the book shows Lincoln with a slave on his back, out on a high wire over Niagara.) According to Strand’s research, many previous histories of Niagara Falls have left out its complicated history in relation to slavery and abolition. On one hand, Harriet Tubman and many free African Americans living in Niagara Falls and Lockport were leading escaped slaves across the border, sometimes directly across the suspension bridge over the gorge, while the area also experienced an influx of slavecatchers. Strand writes,
You really can’t prettify the story if, as in Niagara, the slavecatcher happens to be one of your local founding fathers. Not one single historian mentions it—or even seems aware of it—but the go-to guy for slavecatchers in the Niagara region was none other than Peter B. Porter, War of 1812 hero, alleged protector of Goat Island, connoisseur of war feasts and fine tableware.
By the time Peter Porter makes his appearance as slavecatcher, the reader has already seen the Porter family in multiple places, in sections about development, industry, and tourism in particular, including a section in which the Porters stage a spectacle in which a schooner called the Michigan is sent over the falls, as a sort of perverse Noah’s Ark, with a cargo of wild animals. As with everything else regarding Niagara, the paradoxes are difficult to unwind.
Finally, as the chronology of the book advances into the mid 1900s, Strand pulls the camera back to reveal—rather than the horror of the falls’ crashing water—the horrors of World War II and political corruption. Strand tells the well-known story of Love Canal (a canal that was never finished and instead used to bury chemical waste and, eventually, be purchased by Niagara Falls as land for a school and playground) and the lesser-known story of Niagara’s nuclear history as part of the Manhattan Project, involving factory workers who were never told that they were handling toxic nuclear materials. From here on, the remainder of the book continues in this direction, with discussions of area landfills and local chemical plants, as well as several tales of government mismanagement and failed urban development that, as local residents well know, has continued through the 2008 publication date of Strand’s book.
Inventing Niagara is impeccably researched, with much of its charm stemming from the placement of local historians, librarians, and even hydroengineers side-by-side with historical figures. The inclusion of personal narrative feels justified and satisfying to read, with Strand’s voice being smart but not pretentious, and witty without being snarky, always returning to sincerity. She claims in her introduction that “I went to Niagara because I wanted to laugh at it.” “It” meaning the kitschy, campy spectacle she expected to find. And, while she certainly found “it” in large doses, she finally lands in a realm of serious, layered understanding.
In the end, this book is about Niagara Falls in a way that’s similar (aside from D’Agata’s liberties with fact, which is highly different from Strand’s technique) to the manner in which John D’Agata’s About a Mountain is about Las Vegas—it’s about the city itself, and its pocket of glitz in the landscape, but it’s also about all that swirls around it, about the complicated past it carries, the ways in which it’s been so deliberately formed, and the characters associated with it in both the most central and tangential sorts of ways. It’s the dark underbelly, the odd stories that make me want to visit the city and the falls, over and over, all the while recoiling from the soil itself, and the stories it holds.
Nikki Carroll is a nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, working on a collection of essays about safety, risk, control, and rationality in the lives of wire walkers, pitbulls and zombies, refugees and allergy patients, shelter residents and, yes, even the dead. Nikki has previously reviewed The Witness House by Christiane Kohl.