Niagara has a strange talent for burying, tearing down, or otherwise losing its history. There may be magic in the mist, but there seems to be a memory hole in town. Here are some of the things that disappeared down it. Got something to add? Email it to me.
The Great Gorge Railroad
Beginning in 1899, tourists could ride the Great Gorge Railroad, an electric trolley that descended the gorge cliffs from the city of Niagara Falls, NY and traveled along the river to Lewiston. The route was spectacular, but frequently endangered by rockslides. A huge one in 1934 put an end to the gorge route, and the tracks were torn up. Today, hikers can still find evidence of the old roadbed, but most traces of the railroad have disappeared. However, Thomas Edison made one of his earliest short films from the trolley, which is what you see above (click it to play again).
Table Rock and the Niagara Falls Museum
The Niagara Falls Museum was begun by Thomas Barnett on the Canadian side around 1830, making it the oldest museum in Canada and one of the oldest in North America. This engraved view shows the museum at right, and at left, Table Rock, a jutting piece of rock that has also disappeared. Natural rockfalls eliminated most of it, and dynamite completed the job.
The Niagara Falls Museum in Niagara Falls, NY
The Canadian provincial government bought the museum in 1888 and tore it down to build their park. The museum's second owner, Saul Davis, moved the collection to the American side, building this beautiful building to house it on the Riverway. In 1958, that building was bought by the New York State Parks authority, who razed it to build a parking lot.
Built in 1833, according to guidebooks from the period, Terrapin Tower was loved by some visitors and hated by others—but for nearly half a century it was an iconic Niagara sight. The walkway led out to the tower from Goat Island. The tower was destroyed in 1872. According to some chroniclers, it was unsafe; others claim it was demolished because it was competing with a newer observation tower.
Clifton House in Canada
Clifton House, built in 1833, was for many years the Canadian side's most prestigious and grand hotel. Its famous porches offered a perfect view of both waterfalls. Appleton's Illustrated Hand-book of American Travel of 1861 called it “the only house at Niagara where a traveller, on his second visit, would be content to live.” Destroyed by fire in 1898, it was rebuilt, then burned down again in 1932. Today, its spot is occupied by the Sheraton on the Falls.
Cataract House in NY
Built on the site of a previous hotel in 1835, the Cataract House was for decades Niagara's largest hotel, and the favorite on the American side. Near the lower rapids, the hotel was just a short walk from Goat Island. It even had a small diversion flume providing hydropower from the rapids to its building. It burned down in 1945.
The Suspension Bridge
Designed by John Augustus Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Railway Suspension Bridge was completed in 1855. It quickly became an important crossing point not only for people on the actual railways, but for fugitives on the Underground Railroad as well. Harriet Tubman led dozens of fleeing slaves over it, taking them aboard trains, in carts by bribing toll collectors on the carriage route, or, if desperate, walking across the railroad tracks at night.
The Lewiston Ferry Landing
Many fugitive slaves crossed the Niagara River to Canada at Lewiston, braving dangerous currents and lurking slavecatchers in the quest for freedom. One fellow even tried to row a gate across, ending up 12 miles out to sea on Lake Ontario. Luckily, a Canadian steamship picked him up. At Lewiston, a ferry crossed the Niagara River to Queenston, Ontario. On the no longer extant Lewiston Landing, slave-owner David Castleman awaited the return of fugitive Solomon Moseby, whose arrest in Niagara-on-the-Lake provoked Canada's first race riot.
Tugby's International Bazaar was located right at the Goat Island Bridge. A huge souvenir emporium hawking Indian beadwork, china, “Niagara spar” jewelry (made from gypsum described as “petrified Niagara mist”), stereoviews and a cataract of other Niagara novelties, it was considered a crass commercial blight by Olmsted and the highbrow gentlemen of “Free Niagara.” The state of New York purchased it in 1885 and tore it down to make way for the Niagara Reservation.
The International Hotel
On Falls Street at the river's edge, the International was not only considered Niagara Falls New York's finest hotel, but in the words of one guidebook writer, it was “par excellence THE HOTEL of the World of Hostelry.” With its 300 rooms, its 600-seat dining room, its rolling lawns and staff of 150, it was, he declared, “a town in itself.” The four-dollar-a-day rate was considered highly expensive, but worth it.
McKim, Mead & White Powerhouses (partially lost)
Of the three buildings originally designed by blue-chip architects McKim, Mean & White for the Niagara Falls Power Company, only one remains in Niagara Falls, NY. The powerhouses were demolished, but the abandoned transformer building is parked at one end of the wastewater treatment plant on Buffalo Avenue. It would make a lovely museum of Niagara power, though the sewage pool outside means the property can be a bit rank.
The model town, Echota (partially lost)
Another piece of Niagara history that remains in partially ruined form is the model “workers' town,” Echota. Built by the Niagara Falls Power Company to help lure laborers to town, it was designed by star architect Stanford White as an exemplary working class community. The streets were beautiful, the plumbing modern, the houses electric lit and equipped with the latest appliances. Echota included a school, a community center, a store and a public bath. Today, at the corner of Buffalo Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard, it sits in the middle of the factory district and adjacent to a capped landfill. Many of the homes are abandoned. But you can still glean a glimmer of their former grandeur, evoking the utopian dreams of electricity's power brokers.
The Shredded Wheat Factory
Another utopian dreamer was Henry Perky, inventor of Shredded Wheat. Perky's bright, ultra-modern factory, opened in Niagara Falls in 1901, was meant to serve as exemplar of the healthful lifestyle promoted by its product. 100,000 tourists a year traipsed through to admire its hygienic operations, its employee showers and reading rooms, and its white- bonneted, mostly female staff. The workers even had a theater, a choral society, and—shades of Google—a cafeteria where the women were fed free lunches. One of the most famous buildings in the nation, the Shredded Wheat factory was demolished in the 1950s. Its site, on Buffalo Avenue, is now an empty lot.
Falls Street, Niagara Falls, NY
Downtown Niagara Falls was once a bustling small city, as shown in this postcard of Falls Street. The town's 1965 urban renewal plan changed all that. The small restaurants, bustling theaters and mom-and-pop stores were bulldozed, replaced by a convention center, a series of ill- conceived urban planning developments, and, thanks to Robert Moses, a four-lane highway that separated the downtown from its waterfalls. Since then, the city center has languished. Today, city planners forge on in an attempt to undo the damage.