Tuesday, November 11, 2008

53. Inventing Niagara

The title: Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies
The author: Ginger Strand
Publication:Simon & Shuster, 2008
Got it from: The library

Whew! I've just finished reading this dense book about Niagara Falls, and it's taking me just about a month. I've been interested in the falls ever since moving practically down the road from them a year ago. It's always exciting when someone comes to visit and I get to show them the sights of Niagara. Although at this point I'm usually more excited by the aviary and Hershey store than the falls themselves. Go figure. By reading this book, I was hoping to find out more information on how Niagara Falls became such a carnival for tacky amusements.

Each chapter chronicles a different epoch in the history of the falls, some of which I found more interesting than others. I learned, for instance, that a suspension bridge at the falls provided a major escape route for black slaves as part of the Underground Railroad, and that Niagara was a major player in the construction of the atomic bomb. My favourite chapter was probably on the long-gone Niagara Falls Museum, a sort of precursor to Ripley's Believe-it-or-Not! Imagine my surprise when I discovered much of the museum's artifacts are stored right here in a warehouse in St. Catharines, including a two-headed calf. Here's the real kicker: scientists scoffed at the authenticity of the "mummies" in the collection, but one was recently discovered to be that of Ramses I. Anyone interested in shrunken heads and deformed animals should probably read this book for that chapter alone.

Other chapters, like the one on Olmstead's vision for a back-to-nature park and parts about the Niagara environment were more slow going. But I have to admire Ginger Strand's relentless research and ability to get interviews out of just about anyone. And there are definitely some great turns of phrase in this book. She described a 19th century publicity stunt where animals were sent over the falls in a boat as "zooicidal" and calls the Canadian Niagara Falls "a shame stick used to smack Americans into better planning" (funny and true!). If you've never been to the falls, the descriptions may leave you feeling baffled. Heck, I've been there half a dozen times and I found it baffling. And there were some things I would have loved for her to talk about in more detail, like Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive the falls in a barrel, and she was 63! Also, I'm fascinated by the story of the falls running dry in 1848 and would have happily devoured a chapter on that, but it's not even mentioned. But I think overall there are more hits than misses. If you've ever wondered why the falls are "turned up" for tourists in the summer (yes they are!) or if engineers could actually turn off the falls if they wanted (heck, yes), this is your cup of tea. B.

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