Niagara Falls: The Grandest Sight Imaginable


August 17, 2015
by Janet Wedge Also by this Author


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Niagara Falls, known to Indians, explorers, missionaries, and fur traders in the seventeenth century, became a waystop in the eighteenth century for settlers and government officials as Upper Canada was developed, as well as a familiar landmark to loyalist refugees who migrated to the area from the warring colonies. American travelers were drawn to this spectacle as were Europeans of a scientific bent, interested in natural history and geology. Several recorded their observations and impressions of the “Cataract” in diaries or journals. Reading what these various observers wrote gives a sense of the wonder and awe with which this extraordinary phenomenon of nature was viewed and goes far in explaining why the Falls became a popular tourist destination in the nineteenth century.

Ralph Izard (1741-1804) is generally remembered as an American diplomat, a member of the Continental Congress from South Carolina, a staunch Federalist, and a senator from his state in the newly formed government of 1789. Born in South Carolina and educated in England, Izard returned to the colonies in 1764 and in the next year, at the age of twenty-four, made a pilgrimage to Niagara Falls. A journal of his experiences and impressions during that trip was published by his granddaughter Anna Izard Deal in 1846.

On June 24, Izard, with three companions, sailed up the Hudson River to Albany in a sloop. He was not impressed with what he termed “a dirty, ill-built Dutch town, of about three hundred houses.” Making their way to Fort Schlosser, the trio went to see the Falls.

[They] … are two amazing cataracts, divided by an island in the river. We were inclined to go down a steep rock and view the Falls from the bottom, but having no rope with us to fasten to a tree above, the dangerous appearance of the precipice deterred us.

A few days after, we crossed the river from Niagara Fort and rode to the Falls, which appeared much higher and more beautiful than from the opposite side. …

We should have been … disappointed of the pleasure of seeing the Falls from the bottom had we not resolved to go down at all events without a rope. Before this resolution could be executed, it was necessary to find out a proper place from which we might make an attempt with some probability of success.

This was no easy matter; and we examined the banks of the river for at least an hour and a half before any such place could be found. Nothing but the bare face of a rock was to be seen. At last an opening appeared between some trees and bushes, which, though dangerous to go down, seemed the most likely place for our purpose. … We all seemed pretty well agreed, that if any one of us would jump down a smooth perpendicular rock, about twenty feet in height, when he got to the bottom it was likely he might find a place where we might descend lower with ease. Nothing was now wanting but a mouse hardy enough to tie the bell about the cat’s neck. At last one of the company after having made one or two fruitless attempts, fixed a forked pole to the branch of a tree that hung over the rock, and by that means let himself down to the bottom. The fork of the pole broke as he was going down, and I think it is a wonder he did not break his neck.

After looking about him some time, he found some notched logs … that served as a ladder. … We then scrambled down, holding by stumps and roots, and tufts of grass, to the bottom, and a terrible piece of work we had before we got there. Our labor, however, was in a great measure recompensed by the sight of the Falls, which appear much higher and much more beautiful than from above, on either side. We went so near, as to be wet through with the spray. After getting to the bottom of the precipice, our anxiety to be near the Falls was so great, that we forgot to mark the place where we came down; and so, after our curiosity was satisfied with looking, we were obliged to wander up and down for three hours, and scramble over many dangerous places, before we could find our way. The night approaching, gave us a comfortable prospect of staying there till morning; and the appearance of wolves’ tracks in many places added much to our pleasant situation. We were informed that those animals frequently traveled about that place, in companies of about twenty or thirty at a time, and were so fierce as to attack men even in the middle of the day. As we had nothing with us to defend ourselves, nor flint and steel to make a fire, I think the odds were above five to four that no part of us except our bones would have ever got to the top of the hill, undigested, if we had not luckily found our way.

Upon the whole, our jaunt was difficult and dangerous, and although a sight of the Falls from below affords great pleasure, yet it is not adequate to the trouble and hazard necessary to the obtaining it.

The falls of Niagara … are extremely grand, and are well worth seeing.[1]

In 1767, Ralph Izard married Alice De Lancey, a member of the loyalist De Lanceys of New York. The pair relocated to London in 1771, but removed to Paris in 1776 in the hope that Ralph could be of service to the rebelling colonies. Izard and his family returned to America in 1780.

niagara falls 1793Hannah Lawrence (1758-1838), an intelligent and strong-willed young woman with patriot sympathies, met Jacob Schieffelin, a Philadelphia-born merchant and loyalist serving with the British during the occupation of New York, and succumbed to his charms. Despite her father’s objections, her general dislike of the “unwelcome invaders,” and the disapproval of her Quaker Meeting, Hannah secretly married Schieffelin in 1780. Shortly after their wedding, the pair sailed for Quebec, then journeyed to Detroit where Schieffelin had been appointed government secretary in the Indian Department. Hannah and her husband set out in April 1781, to see the “wonderful Fall which has so long been pronounced by those who have beheld it, the greatest effort of Nature in the terrible sublime. I am conscious that every pen must fail in the attempt to convey any Idea of it… .”

I … contemplated the native wilderness of the scene through which we passed, till my ears were struck with the approaching sound of the falling torrent, and a sudden shower gave us to know that it could not be far distant, while innumberable isicles shook from the trees, on our heads, at every breath of wind, and were as quickly replaced by the constant succession of vapours condensing on the branches. A considerable River first appeared, rolling down a gradual descent, and forming with the rapidity of its motion over the broken rocks, as we approached nearer the bank which had been worn away to an amazing depth, we were struck with motionless astonishment at the stupendous object that met our veiw [sic], neither our surprize nor the deafening noise we heard, would admit of exclamation, we therefore stood gazing in silent awe and admiration. The whole River rushing abruptly down a terrific precipice, and rebounding in shattered particles, from the violence of its fall on said rocks, to nearly the height from whence it had precipitated itself. The earth seemed to tremble at the shock, and our sinking hearts corresponded with the idea… .

We prepared to descend [the path] to a level with the River … this with great difficulty, caution and the assistance of poles to prevent slipping we effected. … one of the gentlemen … then led me to a point of the rock that projected out in front of the Fall, from whence I could see the River descend as it were from the clouds, and with my eye follow its course, from its first rushing over the top, till it reached the margin of the stream below … I grew giddy at the veiw… .[2]

Unlike some loyalists, the Schieffelins did not sever all relations with family in the United States. After the Revolution, Jacob and Hannah returned to New York City where Jacob established himself in trade and real estate. Schieffelin, with his brothers-in-law, was a developer of the planned village of Manhattanville in the vicinity of what is today West 125th Street and Broadway. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church — the first church not to assess a charge for pews — was built there; near the front door of the present structure is the vault wherein Jacob and Hannah lie.

Ann Powell (1769-1792) was a Bostonian by birth. Of distinguished lineage, her well-to-do family left Boston at the start of the American Revolution. When her older brother, William Dummer Powell, was appointed superior court judge in Detroit, one of the forts still in British possession in 1789, Ann made the journey from Montreal to Detroit with him and his family. She kept a journal recounting her experience, to which she added and amended from memory.

We left Montreal on the 11th of May, 1789 … [and] went to our boats; one was fitted up with an awning to protect us from the weather, and held the family and bedding. It was well filled, eighteen persons in all, so you may suppose we had not much room; as it happened that was of no consequence, it was cold on the water, and we were glad to sit close.

This mode of traveling is very tedious; we are obliged to keep along shore and go on very slowly. … This part of the country has been settled since the Peace, and it was granted to the troops raised in America during the war. We went from a Colonel to a Captain, and from a Captain to a Major. They have most of them built good houses, and with the assistance of their half pay, live very comfortably.

[At the landing, eight miles from Fort Erie] the Niagara river becomes impassable, and all the luggage was drawn up a steep hill in a cradle, a machine I never saw before… .

After dinner we went on … to Fort Schlosher. … All our party collected half a mile above the Falls, and walked down to them. I was in raptures all the way. The Falls I had heard of forever, but no one had mentioned the Rapids!

For half a mile the river comes foaming down immense rocks, some of them forming cascades 30 or 40 feet high! The banks are covered with woods, as are a number of Islands. … One in the centre of the river, runs out into a point, and seems to divide the Falls, which would otherwise be quite across the river, into the form of a crescent.

I believe no mind can form an idea of the immensity of the body of water, or the rapidity with which it hurries down. The height is 180 feet, and long before it reaches the bottom, it loses all appearance of a liquid. The spray rises like light summer clouds. …

I was never before sensible of the power of scenery, nor did I suppose the eye could carry to the mind such strange emotions of pleasure, wonder and solemnity.

For a time every other impression was erased from my memory! Had I been left to myself, I am convinced I should not have thought of moving whilst there was light to distinguish objects.

With reluctance I at length attended to the proposal of going, determining in my own mind, that when I returned, I would be mistress of my own time, and stay a day or two at least. …[3]

Sadly, Ann Powell had a short life. She married Isaac Winslow Clark, a fellow loyalist who had also fled Boston — his family firm had owned the tea that was thrown into Boston Harbor in 1773 — and moved to Montreal where she died in childbirth in 1792.

George Ashby (1724-1808), an English clergyman, a graduate of Eton and Cambridge, was an inveterate traveler and antiquarian. Between the years 1770 and 1790 he kept a commonplace book in which he recorded his observations and opinions on a variety of subjects including Niagara Falls which he compared with another such phenomena, the cataracts of the Nile: “These are not comparable with the fall of Niagara either with regard to the volume of water or height of the precipice.”

The Fall of Niagara is abt 17 miles from the Fort of Niagara. The River is very large discharging a prodigious quantity of water into Lake Ontario. … this immense volume of Water tumbles headlong down an astonishing Precipice, the Idea form’d even by the imagination is terribly pleasing. … the Rocks which form the Fall cross it in a circular form So that the Cataract forms the appearance of a Horseshoe. Above the Fall is an Island in the middle of the River … resembling in some measure a wedge, with the narrow end facing the Stream, & the other terminating at the fall; so that the water when it rushes down the precipice is divided into streams. The River above this Island is not rapid but glides along with an even pace, but when the water approaches the Island, it becomes the most rapid stream in the world, every wave seeming to pass forward to overtake another, flying along like an arrow out of an Indian bow … till it reaches the edge of the Precipice, when it tumbles down in a manner that words cannot expresss. … When this prodigious Volume of Water reaches the bottom of the Fall, it jumps back again to a very gt height in the Air, & forms a most amazing prospect; the surface being cover’d with foam, & the whole River for a gt distance below the Fall, resembling a boiling Cauldron. The Vapour also ascending from the Fall is prodigious, & at a gt distance resembles a frightfull column of Smoak; but as You approach it, the prospect becomes more pleasing, & you are agreeably surpris’d, when in a proper situation, to see a beautiful Rainbow painted on this cloud of vapours, having all the brilliant colours of that which adorns the Concavity of the Sky… .[4]

In the next entry in his commonplace book Ashby discusses the origin of the “parachute hat,” and the entry following is devoted to the custom of “drinking health” to a person. Clearly, Ashby was a man of many interests.

niagara fallsElizabeth Posthuma Guillim (1762-1850), an English heiress, married John Graves Simcoe when she was sixteen and he was thirty. When Simcoe, who had served the British in the American Revolution, was named lieutenant governor of Upper, or western, Canada in 1790, he sailed to take up his post, accompanied by his wife and the two youngest of their six children. Adventurous and curious about people, places, and things, Mrs. Simcoe relished the strangeness of her new environment. In her diary, she recorded details of the flora and fauna she encountered. A gifted artist, never without her watercolors and pens, she also produced numerous drawings and paintings.

The Simcoes arrived at the garrison of Niagara on July 26, 1792. One of the first sights they went to see was the Falls.

M[on]. 30th … . We had a delightful drive thro woods on the bank of the River which is excessively high the whole way… . we ascended an exceeding steep road to the top of the Mountain, which commands a fine view of the Country. … From hence the road is entirely flat to the Falls, of which I did not hear the sound until within a mile of them. … The fall is said to be but 170 feet in height. The River previously rushes in the most rapid manner on a declivity for 3 miles & those rapids are a very fine sight. The fall itself is the grandest sight imaginable from the immense width of waters & the circular form of the grand fall; to the left of which is an Island. … A few rocks separate this from Ft. Schlosser Fall, which passing over a straight ledge of rock, has not the beauty of the circular form or its green color, the whole center of the circular fall being of the brightest green & below it is frequently seen a Rainbow.

I descended an exceeding steep hill to get to the table Rock from whence the view of the Falls is tremendously fine… . The prodigious Spray which arises from the foam at the bottom of the fall adds grandeur to the scene… .

I suffered exquisite pain all the day from a Musquito bite which the extreme heat increased & at night my sleeve was obliged to be cut open. I did not see any Rattle Snakes tho many Ladies are afraid to go to the table rock as it is said there are many of these Snakes near it.

On August 24, 1795, Mrs. Simcoe and her party “set out … determined to make our way to the bottom of the Rocks below the Falls.”

We … descended the hill which I found much easier than had been represented. … I rested half way & sketched the Rock & Ladder above me. The view from the margin of the water is infinitely finer than from the Table Rock. We were near a mile distant from it. … the path over the Rocks was bad & not one picturesque scene to be gained by it I did not attempt going but sat endeavouring to sketch the scene till my paper was quite wet by the spray… .

I came home by moon light after a most pleasant day. … the time … has been filled up with seeing the most delightful scenery & nothing to interrupt the pleasure of dwelling on the sights.[5]

After Governor Simcoe’s tour of duty was over the family returned to Wolford Lodge, their home in Devonshire, England. Mrs. Simcoe’s husband died in 1806, but she lived an additional 44 years as a widow.

Isaac Weld, Jr. (1774-1856), an Irish writer, explorer, and artist, set out from Dublin in 1795 to visit the United States and Canada. He met both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at their respective homes in Virginia., and then wended his way north in September with the intention of seeing the famous Falls. Moved by the spirit of adventure, he was also on the lookout for suitable places to which the Irish might emigrate. In addition to recording his observations he made several drawings.

At the distance of eighteen miles from the town of Niagara … are those remarkable Falls … which may justly be ranked amongst the greatest natural curiosities in the known world… .

It was at an early hour of the day that we left the town … accompanied by the attorney general and an officer of the British engineers, in order to visit these stupendous Falls. Every step that we advanced toward them, our expectations rose to a higher pitch. …

On that part of the road … which draws nearest to the falls, there is a small village … here we alighted … [and] crossed over some fields towards a deep hollow place surrounded with large trees, from the bottom of which issued thick volumes of whitish mist, that had much the appearance of smoke rising from large heaps of burning weeds. … we descended a steep bank of about fifty yards, and … at last came to the Table Rock. … This rock is situated a little to the front of the great fall, above the top of which it is elevated about forty feet. The view from it is truly sublime; but before I attempt to give any idea of the nature of this view, it will be necessary to take a more general survey of the river and falls.

Niagara River issues from the eastern extremity of Lake Erie, and after a course of thirty-six miles discharges itself into Lake Ontario. … about three miles above the falls … it … becomes rocky, and the waters are violently agitated … passing down successive rapids . … With such astonishing impetuosity do the waves break on the rocks in these rapids, that the mere sight of them from the top of the banks is sufficient to make you shudder. …

The river forces its way amidst the rocks with redoubled impetuosity, as it approaches towards the falls; at last coming to the brink of the tremendous precipice, it tumbles to the bottom, without meeting with any interruption from rocks in its descent. Just at the precipice the river takes a considerable bend to the right, and the line of the falls, instead of extending from bank to bank in the shortest direction, runs obliquely across. … the annexed plan will enable you to form a better idea of their position than any written description. …

On looking it over you will see that the river … is divided by islands into three distinct collateral falls. The most stupendous of these is that on the north western or British side of the river, commonly called the Great, or Horse-shoe Fall, from it bearing some resemblance to the shape of a horse-shoe. … It is from the center of the Horse-shoe Fall that arises that prodigious cloud of mist which may be seen so far off. … The quantity of water carried down the falls … will be found to amount to 670,255 tons per minute … which ought to be correct, as coming from an experienced commander of one of the King’s ships on Lake Erie. …

To return now to the Table Rock, situated on the British side of the river, and on the verge of the Horse-shoe Fall. Here the spectator has an unobstructed view of the tremendous rapids … and of the frightful gulph beneath, into which, if he has but courage to approach to the exposed edge of the rock, he may look down perpendicularly. … It is impossible for the eye to embrace the whole of it at once; it must gradually make itself acquainted, in the first place, with the component parts of the scene, each one of which is in itself an object of wonder; and such a length of time does this operation require, that many of those who have had an opportunity of contemplating the scene at their leisure, for years together, have thought that every time they beheld it, each part has appeared more wonderful and more sublime, and that it has only been at the time of their last visit that they have been able to discover all the grandeur of the cataract. …

The next spot from which we surveyed the falls, was from the part of the cliff nearly opposite to that end of the Fort Schloper Fall. … The officer who so politely directed our movements on this occasion … had finished several different drawings of the cataract; one of … which exhibited a view … in the depth of winter, when in a most curious and wonderful state. The ice at this season of the year accumulates at the bottom of the cataract in immense mounds, and huge icicles, like the pillars of a massy building, hang pendant in many places from the top of the precipice, reaching nearly to the bottom.

Having left this place, we … directed our course … to a part of the cliff where it is possible to descend to the bottom of the cataract … where large masses of earth and rocks have crumbled down, and ladders have been placed from one break to another, for the accommodation of passengers. These ladders … consist simply of long pine trees, with notches cut in their sides, for the passenger to rest his feet on. … We … proceeded to … Mrs. Simcoe’s Ladder … originally placed there for the accommodation of the lady of the late governor. … To descend over the rugged rocks … the whole way down to the bottom of the cliff is certainly no trifling undertaking. …

On arriving at the bottom of the cliff, you find yourself in the midst of huge piles of misshapen rocks, with great masses of earth and rocks projecting from the side of the cliff, and overgrown with pines and cedars hanging over your head. … Many of the large trees grow with their heads downwards, being suspended by their roots, which had taken such a firm hold in the ground at the top of the cliff, that when part of it gave way the trees did not fall altogether. …

Having reached the margin of the river, we proceeded towards the Great Fall, along the strand … where great piles of stone have fallen from the sides of the cliff. … Here great numbers of the bodies of fishes, squirrels, foxes, and various other animals, that unable to stem the current of the river above the falls, have been carried down them, and consequently killed, are washed up. … A dreadful stench arises from the quantity of putrid matter lying on the shore, and numberless birds of prey, attracted by it, are always seen hovering about the place. …

There is nothing whatsoever to prevent you from passing to the very foot of the Great Fall; and you might even proceed behind the prodigious sheet of water that comes pouring down from the top of the precipice, for the water falls from the edge of the projecting rock; and, moreover, caverns of a very considerable size have been hollowed out of the rocks at the bottom of the precipice. … I advanced within about six yards of the edge of the sheet of water, just far enough to peep into the caverns behind it; but here my breath was nearly taken away by the violent whirlwind that always rages at the bottom of the cataract. … I confess I had no inclination at the time … to explore the dreary confines of these caverns, where death seemed to await him that should be daring enough to enter their threatening jaws. No words can convey an adequate idea of the awful grandeur of the scene at this place. Your senses are appalled by the sight of the immense body of water that comes pouring down so closely to you from the top of the stupendous precipice, and by the thundering sound of the billows dashing against the rocky sides of the caverns below; you tremble with reverential fear, when you consider that a blast of the whirlwind might sweep you from off the slippery rocks on which you stand, and precipitate you into the dreadful gulph beneath, from whence all the power of man could not extricate you; you feel what an insignificant being you are in the creation, and your mind is forcibly impressed with an awful idea of the power of that mighty Being who commanded the waters to flow. …

At the bottom of the Horse-shoe Fall is found a kind of white concrete substance … called spray… . This concrete substance has precisely the appearance of petrified froth. …

Just as we left the foot of the great fall the sun broke through the clouds, and one of the most beautiful and perfect rainbows that ever I beheld was exhibited in the spray that arose from the fall. … [6]

Isaac Weld returned to Ireland in 1797.

Reading the above accounts, one must marvel at the curiosity that motivated those who ventured to see the great falls at Niagara, and admire the courage and endurance with which they faced the innumerable hardships and dangers that attended their quest. In the preface to Ralph Izard’s Journey to Niagara, Montreal and Quebec in 1765 his granddaughter notes quite correctly: “While some, no doubt, will rejoice in being able to obtain so grand a sight at so small a cost of time and trouble, others (perhaps many) will regret that the facilities afforded to travelers in these days should have deprived the enterprise of all its romance, and wish that they too had lived when indeed it was something to have seen the Falls of Niagara.”[7]


[1] Ralph Izard, An Account of a Journey to Niagara, Montreal and Quebec in 1765; or, “’Tis Eighty Years Since,” (New York: William Osborn, 1846), pages 5-6, 8, 10-13, accessed online at;view=1up;seq=7.

[2] Louise V. North, Janet M. Wedge, and Landa M. Freeman, In the Words of Women — The Revolutionary War and the Birth of the Nation, 1765-1799 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011), 263; from the Schieffelin Family Papers, Box 7, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, NN.

[3] Ann Powell, Journal of Miss Powell of a Tour from Montreal to Detroit, ed. Eliza Susan Quincy (New York, NY: A.S Barnes & Company, 1880), 39, 42, 43. Source online at also In the Words of Women, 266, 267.

[4] George Ashby, Commonplace Book. James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 86-92. Ashby’s “ye” has been replaced by “the”; other superscript letters have been eliminated as well. Thanks to Elizabeth Frengel of the Beinecke library staff for locating and making a copy of Ashby’s remarks for me. To my knowledge, they have never been published.

[5] Mrs. Simcoe’s Diary, ed. Mary Quale Innis (Toronto: Macmillan, 1965), 19, 125, 127-28, 162. Illustration between pages 92 and 93.

[6] Isaac Weld. Junior, Travels Through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada During the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797 (London: Printed for John Stockdale, 1800), Letter XXXI, 108, 112, 114-25, 127-29, 131-32. Source online at:

[7] Izard, Preface, 3.

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