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That time when Toronto was in love with Niagara Falls

Posted by Derek Flack / April 11, 2014

Niagara Falls History TorontoFlying into Toronto from the south, you might get lucky and see Niagara Falls. You need a west-facing seat, of course. And you best hope the Ativan has thinned in your bloodstream enough to allow your sagging eyes to recognize what amounts to a bit of mist. But if you know where and when to look, you can't miss the Queen of the Cataracts, rumbling away just 50 kilometres from the CN Tower -- two wonders of the world separated by half a lake.

Today we tend to look at Niagara with disdain. Tourist trap. Motel wasteland. Kitsch paradise. This is a place where the various wax museums seem to spill out into the streets and claim the town in suspended animation. The heart-shaped jacuzzi tubs are mostly empty now, residual metaphors of a place down on its luck. These days you go to Niagara to gamble, to revive old love in a falls-view suite. And you always come back broke.

Charles BlondinIt wasn't always the case. Toronto has had its eye on the Falls from the very beginning. 50 kilometres and two million litres a second will do that. While the tourist trade in Niagara didn't explode until after the second world war, the city proved a major draw as far back as the mid 19th century. There were less than 10 hotels on the Canadian side at the time, but Charles Blondin still popped eyes by crossing the gorge in shackles, on a bike and blindfolded. Wealthy Torontonians made sure to take in the theatrics.

Niagara has always been about pomp. And failure.

2014411-westpow.jpgAt the turn of the century, Toronto investors helped usher in a modest increase of hotels at the Falls, but the big money was in power. Two million kilowatts of electricity are produced by the Niagara River today, the roots of which lie in the industrial boom the area experienced when someone realized that this natural wonder was a natural moneymaker. As of 1906 The Toronto Electric Light Company had an outlet tunnel under the Falls that ultimately powered Toronto's transition from gas lights to plug-in electricity.

In 1967, 75 per cent of the North American population resided within 500 miles of Niagara Falls. It was the domestic vacation spot of choice for both Americans and Canadians, but the city's reputation as the place to honeymoon wasn't solidified until after the Depression sent it into crisis in the 1930s. Mass unemployment in the industrial sector during this period solidified the tourist industry even as the war years would eventually restore factory/power jobs. If Niagara previously had an identity crisis, the tension was mostly resolved by the 1950s.

Niagara steamboatWell before any of this, the Falls were already the place to go for rich Torontonians. At the turn of the century, the Niagara Navigation Company was making six trips a day to Niagara-on-the-Lake from Toronto, from which you could make your way to the main attraction in about an hour. The Chippewa and the Cayuga were about as grand as Lake Ontario steamboats got, and you knew you had made it when you could take in the lake-breeze from the deck of one of these stately ships.

Cadillac Motel Niagara FallsFast forward 40 years and the less-monied were taking the bus to Niagara Falls. This was the period when motels went boom. In 1945 there were exactly zero motels in Niagara Falls. By 1955, there were almost 80. 10 years later there were 115. Less than a quarter of these places remain, but modern Niagara Falls was born during this period, and its remains are still on display in the form of (amongst others) The Cadillac Motel (magnificent but dead neon sign), The White Rose Motel (yes, that red car has been parked there for 10 years), and the A-1 (triangle-tipped architecture).

Cristal Club Niagara FallsIf you drive far enough along Lundy's Lane, you pass the QEW and things get progressively more sketchy. This is where the strip clubs are. The Sundowner. Cristal Club. Here you rent rooms by the month. This is the residue of the motel boom. In February it's dead enough that many places just close up shop. But it almost works in the middle of summer. The yellow-hued office lights still glow on a hot night in July, attracting those who've come for the Falls or the casino but can't afford The Embassy Suites and a $52 steak at The Keg.

What is it about Niagara Falls that still attracts us?

It'd be easy to say that Toronto has turned its back on the place, but the numbers tell a different story. The Niagara honeymoon might be dead, but we still make the 128 kilometre journey around the lake with surprising frequency. The parking lot at the Knight's Inn is full on a Saturday in the summer. Both of them. Ontario licence plates proliferate. Some of this can be explained by the casino, but the Falls themselves still exert a pull so many years later. Is there a better place to take a selfie?

Niagara FallsWhen I was 20, a friend of mine would randomly suggest driving to the Falls late at night. We'd pile into his Hyundai hatchback at 1am and make the hour and half trip just to stand before the waterfall for a few minutes. Then we'd eat breakfast at Denny's and go home. 10 minutes at the Falls. Three hours of driving.

It was never a disappointment.

The allure of Niagara Falls as a tourist destination has certainly waned over the years. Now one should have a healthy understanding of irony to appreciate the place fully. But the Falls are still sublime (even at night when they run at half flow), and the city remains a place of profound interest for those who don't mind a bit of kitsch and a lot of history.

Special thanks to Karen Dubinky, author of The Second Greatest Disappointment: Honeymooning and Tourism at Niagara Falls, a book which was instrumental in putting together this post.

Discussion

20 Comments

Todd Toronto / April 11, 2014 at 10:49 am
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Great article. It's still amazing to me how Toronto takes its proximity to Niagara Falls for granted. Sure it's kitchy and tacky and all that, but it's NIAGARA FALLS and it's really close.

It's probably the most famous waterfall in the world, which many people would be lucky to see once in their lives, and anyone with a car could make a half-day trip of it.

Artzila.com / April 11, 2014 at 11:03 am
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We love Niagara Falls. Yes, its a tourist trap but its always fun and Niagara on the Lake is nice.
Dan I. Mimico / April 11, 2014 at 11:05 am
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Derek, your story just gave me a flash back. Almost 20 years ago when the first casino opened up over there, we would drive down there just to stare at the falls for a couple minutes. After that we would stop by the casino just for a beer and we would be on our way back home.
Mr. Memory / April 11, 2014 at 11:18 am
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That time when blogTO was good.
Fig / April 11, 2014 at 12:01 pm
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There's something about the Falls that draws me like a magnet every year. I usually stay in N-O-T-L or outside of the Falls but I also really enjoy the Sterling Inn - steps from Clifton Hill. Last year, I was there for the July 1st fireworks extravaganza. Still magical after all these years. A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Butterfly conservatory - it's rainforest-like setting was a little piece of heaven after this long winter. Take a tour of the power plant too - there are dozens of things to do other than wax museums.
Ryan / April 11, 2014 at 12:08 pm
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Went to the Rainforest Cafe in Niagara a few years ago. The waiter was rude, and we were on mushrooms. The burger was passable.

3/5 stars.
Sawyer Paul / April 11, 2014 at 12:18 pm
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Growing up, Niagara Falls was always the entranceway to America for me. It's where the US sorta bleeds into Canada. And I grew up in Calgary. As a kid, I thought of America as equal parts chinsy, lame, tiring, and amazingly grand. That's definitely Niagara Falls.
Gabriella / April 11, 2014 at 12:26 pm
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I didn't realize we didn't love NF anymore. Yes it's tacky but like the others said, it hasn't lost its magic. It'll always be that enormous mass of water hurtling over a cliff, and when you're standing meters away from that point, it's still amazing.
cheapbus / April 11, 2014 at 12:29 pm
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http://www.safewaytours.net/lag_en/fallsview.htm

only $7 bus trip to the falls if you have the players card
Ryan replying to a comment from cheapbus / April 11, 2014 at 01:10 pm
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The guy who got decapitated was on a Safeway Tour Bus on the way to a Casino.

He dreamed of riches, but instead he got decapitated.
RIP
Jason Kucherawy / April 11, 2014 at 01:40 pm
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I don't think tourism at Niagara Falls has waned. It still draws millions of people every year, and the attractions around the falls are packed during the summer. In the off season it's pretty dead, but I think that's the best time for Torontonians to visit. Support the small B&Bs, the emerging craft beer scene, the wineries, and the other local businesses! There's a lot to do in Niagara apart from seeing the falls and the wax museums and haunted houses on Clifton Hill. It's an awesome weekend getaway.
Jackpot / April 11, 2014 at 02:28 pm
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So the casino coach went up to $7 now? It was always $5. That's what I paid 2 months ago.
Moaz Ahmad / April 11, 2014 at 03:14 pm
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I have been visiting Niagara Falls since I was a kid. I didn't see the tourist trap areas until I was in university and the "downtown" area until last year. There was enough to do around the Falls and Queen Victoria Park (along with the obligatory drive/cycle ride north along the Niagara Falls Parkway to Niagara-on-the-Lake) to keep me excited and entertained. The nice thing about Niagara Falls is that it can be different things to different people. What they need to do now is get people to live in the "city" and create jobs and better connections to the rest of Niagara region.
Alex replying to a comment from Ryan / April 11, 2014 at 04:27 pm
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Remind me what decapitation you are referring to? A man named Tim riding a Greyhound bus in Manitoba? I can't recall hearing of a decapitation on a Safeway bus.
Adam Sobolak / April 11, 2014 at 08:56 pm
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If one is to focus upon the Lundy's Lane motelaganza aspect, you have to admit that the day-trippy quickness of the journey to and from Niagara Falls negates the need to actually *stay* there for the night--and maybe always has; maybe even in the 50s/60s (and certainly by the 70s/80s), I suspect a lot of the Lundy's Lane motels were already serving a euphemistic purpose to a greater or lesser degree. And believe it or not, were likely out of sight, out of mind, to most Toronto visitors (especially "families") who simply barreled straight down the QEW to the Falls, to the Clifton Hill honky-tonk, and not much deeper than that.

But that was also a past era when the common tourist impulse in Niagara was quite profoundly concentrated upon the Falls--by comparison, if there's any significant non-illicit/non-casino overnight or even "honeymoon" tourism from Toronto happening in Niagara these days, it's within Niagara Region in general, most particularly in connection with Wine Country and NOTL: a more "gentrified" creature entirely...
seanm / April 12, 2014 at 12:07 am
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The history of the area is one of my favourite parts. There are lots of beautiful relics from its industrial heyday still lying around. Not only that, but the surrounding area is full of interesting towns, geography, wineries and so on. It's fun to just wander around and take in the scenery between Hamilton and the border. An interesting mixture of post-industrial landscapes and towns juxtaposed against the escarpment geography and idyllic vineyards.

The best part really is the falls itself though. There's not much else in Ontario like standing a couple metres from the roar of 2400 cubic metres/second roaring over a 51 metre cliff.
Love 'em / April 12, 2014 at 10:34 am
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How could anyone be so jaded as to look at the Falls with "disdain"? They are one of the natural wonders of the world and absolutely breathtaking.
ted mclean / April 15, 2014 at 07:45 am
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I always trip down to the falls for a weekend and i get great deals from this daily deal site www.grabjab.com and there is tons of things to do & see.

Yes, its known as a tourist trap but truly we pay to dine out in Toronto just as much...I've stayed in NOTL but BORING ...you need to stay in Niagara Falls thats the buzz!
j-rock / April 22, 2014 at 08:32 pm
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Niagara Falls the town, and the falls themselves are two completely different things. I never get tired of watching them. It's nature at it's most impressive.
Lock / April 29, 2014 at 03:46 pm
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Some folks in Toronto might still pine for earlier daze:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontario_Hydro
[quote]The notion of generating electric power on the Niagara River was first entertained in 1888, when the Niagara Parks Commission solicited proposals for the construction of an electric scenic railway from Queenston to Chippawa. The Niagara Falls Park & River Railway was granted the privilege in 1892, and by 1900 it was using a dynamo of 200 horsepower (150 kW) which was the largest in Canada. Starting in 1899, several private syndicates sought privileges from the commission for generating power for sale, including:
the Canadian Niagara Power Company, backed by British investors, the Ontario Power Company, backed by American investors, the Electrical Development Company, backed by the Toronto Street Railway and the Toronto Electric Light Company (controlled by William Mackenzie, Frederic Thomas Nicholls and Henry Mill Pellatt)[/quote]

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