By Brandon M. Stickney
NIAGARA FALLS, NY – Unlike some other cities, there isn’t one place in Niagara Falls where one might post a plaque that says, “On this spot in 1925, nothing happened.”
Businesspeople, inventors, industrialists, developers, entertainers, and life-risking daredevils were just some of the subjects discussed at a recent meeting of tour guide students of the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Society at the stately Tatler Mansion on 4th Street.
Most of us remember when Nik Wallenda walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls in 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pK_oW62-zrc
Instructors included society president Georgia Robinson-Bradberry, society secretary Marge Gillies, National Heritage Area executive director Sara Beilein Capen, and Falls history expert Jason Buckley.
Georgia said new “docents” or Falls tour guides have an important role in enhancing interest in the area’s “rich history, culture, and environment” not only from worldwide visitors but also from residents. She explained that the society seeks grants and financial resources, networks with related organizations, and advocates preservation of local history, important biographical figures, and smart economic development.
Tourism is the largest economic driver at the Falls, with an estimated $831 million in revenue on the American side of the river and $2 billion on the Canadian side.
During the training, Marge Gillies described the Tatler Mansion’s construction and ongoing refurbishment. She mentioned the tough part of preservation when discussing another home, a couple blocks from the Tatler, a one-time mansion now showing significant deterioration. Marge explained that the current owner has little interest in the mansion’s origins or residents. “He may have the structure demolished,” she said, a horrifying thought to anyone interested or passionate about the city, its people, history, and its future.
The lesson? Even docents are part of the mission to save the Falls from the march of “progress.” The Niagara Arts & Cultural Center (NACC) has sponsored tour guide training for three new docents among the Tatler group of 15—appropriate, since some local folks talked of razing the old Niagara Falls High School building, in favor of a new box store or other business with a parking lot. That was before the old school became the NACC’s thriving galleries, theaters, and studios to more than 200 local artists, musicians, actors, and other creatives—preserving a corner of the city for the community’s intellectual enjoyment, enrichment, and beautification.
Sara Capen detailed how the National Heritage Area legislation was approved for 62 places in the U.S. by the House and Senate in 2022, and signed into law by President Biden this year. Referred to once by President Reagan as “a new kind of national park,” heritage areas are places where historic, cultural, and natural resources “combine to form nationally important landscapes.” Locally, the area includes the Falls itself, the Niagara River, “lived in places” like the city, and diverse cultures.
Sara said the Falls’ story includes heroes of the Underground Railroad, inventor Nikola Tesla harvesting river power, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who urged preservation, and artist Polly King, who amassed 10,000 pieces of original art at her home.
Then there’s the curious and cautionary, like daredevil Annie Edison Taylor, who survived going over the Falls in a barrel to “fund her retirement.” But the barrel was later stolen, and she died a pauper. Taylor was just one of many who have tested human limits at the thundering waterway, where those who have failed greatly outnumber those who lived to tell the tale.
History is also challenging, Sara said, touching on the notorious chemical industry, Love Canal, and the statistic of Niagara’s 57% loss of population in the post-industrial age.
“These are all parts of our story, which includes urban renewal where some bad decisions were made,” said Capen, such as the demolition of the Shredded Wheat building, “the second most visited place” in the city.
Speaker Jason Buckley offered slides of how the Falls developed over time and the geology of the Niagara Escarpment, noting this formation is “a plain with a drop off” that goes from the Falls area, under lakes Ontario, Huron, and Michigan, all the way to Wisconsin.
In early times, traders in fur and other commerce “needed a way to get around the Falls,” which became Portage Road. Hats made of beaver felt, from animals that grew as large as a round dining table, were popular in trade until silk hats came along, Buckley said.
Marge Gillies then discussed the Whitney Mansion, neighboring the Tatler, along with the world’s first A.C. power plant, and Henry Perky’s windowed “crystal palace” Shredded Wheat building. Hoping to make customers “feel better” with his cereal product, Perky prided himself on the “cleanest, finest, most hygienic food company in the world.”
With the promise of more to share about Niagara’s legacy, the future docents were invited for six more Saturday morning classes at the Tatler. Because on this spot in the last 131 years, everything happened.
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