Monday, 25 July 2011

Niagara: A History of the Falls

Pierre Berton's book Niagara:  A History of the Falls is an excellent read for both Canadians and Americans.  Mr. Berton's book is a history, geography, environmental, business and art lesson all rolled into one.  The reader learns how the Falls came into being and how it has slowly receded over the course of thousands of years.  We hear about the first European to explore the area, Samuel de Champlain.  We learn about the early entrepreneurs who set up shop in the town, some honest and many dishonest, taking advantage of their naive customers.  Niagara talks about the daredevils who were attracted to the Falls including Blondin who crossed the swirling waters several times on a tightrope, once even with a man on his back and once with a table and chair.  We hear about the schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor, aged 60 or more, who successfully plunged over the Falls in a barrel.  Pierre Berton also mentions Frederic Church who painted beautiful scenes of Niagara Falls, the artist who also created Sunset over the Ice.  Niagara also describes the natural ice bridge that used to form over the Niagara River belong the Falls every winter over which many people crossed.  Power generation schemes presented by inventors like Nikola Tesla (a proponent of the Alternating Current system) are also included.  Mr. Berton devotes a section to Red Hill, a daredevil and later rescuer of many victims of the Falls and the whirpool.  Red saved the crew of a barge that was headed over the brink and then got caught on a small island, its rusty remains still visible today. (On a Grade 8 tour, I was told that the men had to wait until daylight to be rescued and while the sky turned black, their hair turned white.)  Finally, the reader is given a thorough history of Love Canal, the toxic waste site on which new homes were built and whose residents later became deathly ill.  Pierre Berton manages to touch on so many different subjects and yet in such a cohesive manner.  We will never lose our fascination with the Falls.

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