Niagara: Legends of the Falls

Author chronicles sad, glorious history

By Pamela H. Sacks

When Ginger Strand first heard the roar that fills the air around Niagara Falls she was hooked.

She was surprised by her reaction to the thundering rush of water. She was, after all, a college student who had come to the Falls with her boyfriend to smirk at the tacky surroundings and buy up kitschy souvenirs for her friends.

Yet as Strand explains in her new book, “Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, Lies” (Simon & Schuster, $25), Niagara Falls – and its complicated history – exert a magnetic pull. Years later when Strand was a resident working on a novel at the McDowell Colony in New Hampshire, she would sneak away to the Falls.

“I was talking a lot about Niagara and had made notes about it,” she recalled in a telephone interview from her home in Manhattan. “I was talking to a friend who is a well-known media critic. He said, `Why don’t you do your book about that?’”

The subject was perfect for a writer who is fascinated with the cultural history of nature.

“I don’t think of myself as a nature writer,” Strand said. “I never know what bird I’m looking at, and I’m not that excited about tramping up mountains. I like the city. I do find fascinating our cultural constructions of nature and our relationship to place.”

Strand chronicles the brighter and darker sides of the story of Niagara Falls, starting with its transformation from awe-inspiring natural wonder to artificial hydropower giant. She dissects Indian legends handed down over centuries and examines the unsavory role that town fathers played during the pre-Civil War era.

Strand explains how it was that Niagara was once unrivaled as a honeymoon destination. She describes the famous barrel-riders and tells the story of the French aerialist Blondin, who in 1859 and 1860 traversed the gorge on a tightrope while flipping omelets, performing headstands and twice carrying his manager on his shoulders. Strand also writes about the deadly contamination of Love Canal, the Superfund sites that dot the region and the catastrophic effects of the area’s redevelopment by Robert Moses.

Indeed, Strand’s obsession was fed by all that had gone on at Niagara Falls.

“It was the combination of the human mastery and the natural elements,” she said. “It is complex and fascinating and tells us a lot about ourselves. The Falls are beautiful, natural and completely controlled and a lie. They’re all of those things together, and none of them cancels out the other.”

Strand spent much of her youth on a farm in Michigan. She attended Kalamazoo College and went on to earn a doctorate in English literature at Princeton University. That was followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton’s Behrman Center for the Humanities. She did not pursue an academic career, she said, because she wanted to “write what would be fun to read.”

She took a series of jobs – waitress, corporate consultant, box office manager – as she sought a way to support herself while developing her writing career. Today, Strand writes about culture and the natural world for Harper’s, The Believer and Orion, among other publications.

She said she has from time to time regretted spending all those years pursuing academic credentials. Yet her superb education has paid off. “What I learned was how to do primary research in archives and that has been an essential skill in the cultural criticism I want to do,” she said.

Those skills came in handy when she dove into the historical research for “Inventing Niagara.” She knew she needed to spend time among 19th-century newspapers, guidebooks and other ephemera under the guidance of really smart librarians. So she was delighted when she was awarded a Creative and Performing Artists and Writers fellowship by the American Antiquarian Society. She spent the month of April in 2006 in Worcester.

“I had never been to the Antiquarian Society, and I didn’t know what I was in for,” she recalled. “When I got there, I thought, `Oh man, a month is not going to be enough.’ I would be sitting at my desk toiling away and a librarian would stop by and say, `There’s some interesting children’s literature on the Falls. Here’s a list of the books.’ They have passion for the materials, and they get really excited when you use them.”

Strand will return to Antiquarian Hall next week to talk about her book. She will read from a chapter about the role Niagara Falls played in the Underground Railroad.

Niagara Falls became a second home to Strand as she worked on her book. She noted that the community is a rust belt town, with more industry on the New York side than the Canadian side. Canadians have done more to develop the tourist aspects of the area – but Americans are catching up as they redevelop historic properties and repair some of the urban renewal disasters of the 1960s. The Canadians can boast fancier hotels and entertainment, while Americans can point to beautiful state parks and natural wonders.

Now that her book is completed, will Strand return to the area?

“For three years, I was a part-time resident of Niagara Falls,” she said. “I have my favorite hotels and restaurants. There are wonderful, generous people up there. I miss it.”