Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Niagara Falls from Philip's Encyclopedia

Waterfalls on the Niagara River on the border of the USA (W New York) and Canada (SE Ontario); divided into the Horseshoe, or Canadian, Falls, and the American Falls. The Canadian Falls are 48m (158ft) high and 792m (2,600ft), wide; the American Falls are 51m (167ft) high and 305m (1,000ft) wide.

Summary Article: Niagara Falls
from Encyclopedia of American Studies

Niagara Falls is a 165-foot waterfall on the Niagara River, which flows along the border of the United States and Canada. It is divided by Goat Island into two parts: the American Falls and the more spectacular Horseshoe or Canadian Falls. The waters of Lake Erie empty over the Falls into Lake Ontario.

Europeans first encountered Niagara Falls in the late seventeenth century, but it remained remote until the construction of the Erie Canal. The opening of the canal in 1825 helped stimulate the beginnings of tourism in the United States and Niagara quickly became the most celebrated sight on the American “Grand Tour,” a route that began in New York City, ran up the Hudson River, west to Niagara Falls, east along the St. Lawrence River, and south through the White Mountains and the Connecticut Valley. Niagara became America's most popular tourist attraction, a destination for Romantic “pilgrims” in search of the sublime and, especially after the Civil War, for honeymooners.

The emergence of tourism as a cultural activity in America in the 1820s corresponded with the effort of artists and writers to create a national culture. Niagara Falls fit perfectly into this endeavor. The Falls seemed a fitting symbol of the seemingly inexhaustible resources of the new nation, it had no counterpart in Europe, and it perfectly embodied the Romantic concept of the sublime. Antebellum tourists steeped in the rhetoric of the sublime by descriptions of the Falls in guidebooks and other accounts, expected the immensity, force, and infinite duration of the Falls to provide an intense emotional experience and bring them into the presence of God. Paintings and engravings that emphasized Niagara's grandeur heightened and reinforced these expectations. Niagara was the most popular subject for nineteenth-century American landscape painters and their paintings, most notably Frederic Church's panoramic Niagara of 1857, reinforced the image of the Falls as a national shrine.

Though often depicted by artists in a pristine state, souvenir shops, amusements, and mills intruded on the landscape soon after the Falls became a tourist destination and, by the time of the Civil War, seriously impaired the experience of the Falls. In response, a group of leading citizens, including Church and Frederic Law Olmsted, persuaded the New York State legislature to establish the New York State Niagara Falls Reservation in 1883. Olmsted designed a natural, parklike landscape on Goat Island and on a stretch of the American shore, and visitors gained free access to the Falls. The creation of the Niagara Falls Reservation was one of the first successful efforts to protect landscapes.

The establishment of the Niagara Falls Reservation did not end the ongoing tension between awesome beauty and the urge to put all that mighty force to use. Olmsted's park pushed back the surrounding commercial and industrial activity but set the stage for a “New Niagara” that transformed the Falls into a symbol of the technological sublime. The completion of John A. Roebling's Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge in 1855—the first clear-span railroad suspension bridge in the world—had already provided Niagara Falls with an engineering marvel, which itself became a prominent tourist attraction. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Niagara became the first major site in America for the production of hydroelectric power and a symbol of the emerging “electricity age.” The harnessing of the water flowing over the Falls seemed to promise a utopian era of cheap, clean, efficient power for factories and homes and a life of greater prosperity and convenience. This image of the Falls as an icon of progress based on technology reached its peak in 1901 when electric power generated by Niagara illuminated the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, New York, and the exposition's Electric Tower beamed its enormous searchlight toward the Falls. The vision of harmony between nature and industrialization promoted by the champions of this “new” Niagara soon fell apart and by the end of the twentieth century, industrial pollution at Niagara's Love Canal made the area a symbol of the degradation of the American environment.

Niagara has also been a favorite site for stunt performers, such as the celebrated jumper Sam Patch, and daredevils who went over in barrels. Although no longer as important culturally as in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Niagara continues to attract American and foreign tourists and to play a role in popular culture—as in the Marilyn Monroe movie, Niagara (1953) and Superman II (1980).

General view of Niagara Falls from Hennepin Point, summer. c.1914. Panoramic Photographs, Library of Congress.

Bobby Leach and the barrel in which he went over Niagara Falls. c.1911. Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress.

Niagara Falls from the American Side. Hand-colored aquatint. 1840. William James Bennett after John Robert Murray. National Gallery of Art.

  • Irwin, William, The New Niagara: Tourism, Technology, and the Landscape of Niagara Falls, 1776-1917 (Penn. State Univ. Press 1996) [account of Niagara's second birth as first major source of hydroelectric power and an expression of the technological sublime].
  • McKinsey, Elizabeth R., Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime (Cambridge 1985) [history of the Falls as epitome of the sublime and the subject of landscape painters].
  • Revie, Linda L., The Niagara Companion: Explorers, Artists, and Writers at the Falls, from Discovery through the Twentieth Century (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press 2003).
  • Sears, John F., Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (1989 Oxford; Univ. of Mass. Press 1998) [Niagara in context of development of tourism and a national culture in first seven decades of the nineteenth century].
  • Strand, Ginger, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies (Simon & Schuster 2008).
  • John F. Sears
    Copyright 2018 The American Studies Association

    Related Articles

    Full text Article NIAGARA FALLS
    France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

    The complex geological phenomenon on the Niagara River between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario is the second-widest cataract in the world. The falls...

    Full text Article Niagara Falls
    Eye Witness Travel Guide: Where To Go When: The Americas

    Canada/USA Dos and don’ts Try Niagara icewine: a rich, honey-sweet way to end a meal. Don’t drive on the busy streets near the...

    Full text Article Niagara Falls
    Merriam-Webster's Geographical Dictionary

    1 Great falls of the Niagara River, on U.S.-Canada boundary, divided by Goat I. into Horseshoe (or Canadian) Falls, 158 ft. (48 m.)...

    See more from Credo