In Search of Niagara

Kees Lokman (MDesS)

Project Overview

The historic development of the Niagara Region plays a critical role in understanding American culture and mankind’s complicated relationship with nature. Once a powerful image of the sublime, the invention and transmission of Niagara’s hydroelectric power signifies the subjugation of arguably the greatest natural force in North America to the service of man, which enabled the rapid urbanization and industrialization of North America from the 19th to the mid-20th century.

Today, water flows are mechanically manipulated, while ongoing environmental degradation, decentralization and deindustrialization have obscured the legibility of the Niagara Region. Within this context the question becomes, what is the identity (or identities) of the Niagara Region? Which particular individuals, events and developments have shaped these identities (both physical and cultural) of the Niagara Region? And how can the discipline of landscape architecture help to decode, describe and visualize the hybrid landscape exemplified by the region?

Project Information

“We have many monuments of past ages; we have the palaces and pyramids, the temples of the Greek and the cathedrals of Christendom. In them is exemplified the power of men, the greatness of nations, the love of art and religious devotion. But the monument at Niagara has something of its own, more in accord with our present thoughts and tendencies. It is a monument worthy of our scientific age, a true monument of enlightenment and of peace. It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering” (Nikola Tesla 1897).

Like the water that is flowing over the Falls and though its territory, Niagara is a fluid term; constantly changing, both in form and in meaning. As a cultural icon and quintessential natural landscape, Niagara was at the forefront of national consciousness from the mid-nineteenth century until the World War I. Destined to fulfill future visions of progress, infrastructure became the interface between nature and technology.

Within this context, November 17th 1896 marks a significant moment in the history of Niagara. The opening of the Adams Power Plant—the first large-scale, hydro-electric power plant in the world—enabled the transmission of power over a twenty-six-mile course from Niagara to Buffalo. The project combined age old knowledge of converting the energy of falling water into a useful forms of power with Nikola Tesla’s invention of the alternating current induction motor and the polyphase system for the generation, transmission, and distribution of electrical power. Based on a plan by engineer Thomas Evershed a decade earlier, the harnessing of Niagara Falls utilized a hydraulic canal and a 7,500 feet brick-lined tunnel under the City of Niagara Falls for the generation of 50,000 horsepower (37 MW) of electricity.

The New York Times reported that the development of hydroelectric power was accomplished “without the marring of a single feature of its wild and grand beauty, without the destruction of a single spot transformed by the fingers of nature into a fairyland of beauty and enchantment, comes the blending of the useful and the beautiful.” It was Niagara as an engineering marvel and symbol of progress, rather than solely “pristine” nature that captivated the imagination of Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. The unification of beauty and utility marked the emergence of the technological sublime, which in the following half century would come to define many of the New Deal Public Works projects.

The strategic geographic location and seemingly unlimited power potential of the Falls also stimulated utopian visions foretelling Niagara’s transformation into a metropolis. The availability of cheap power positioned Niagara as a frontier for industries in which electricity constitutes a high proportion of total manufacturing cost, such as the production of steel, pulp and paper, electro-metallurgical elements, abrasives, chemicals and nickel refining. However, the rapid expansion of heavy industry along the Niagara River also drastically transformed the material and mental perception of Niagara. Adding a new chapter to environmentalism, the Love Canal made visible how the underlying capitalist behaviors of urbanization have marginalized and oversimplified ecological processes. With a focus on short term economic gains instead of long-term environmental and social responsibilities the conflicts surrounding the Love Canal led the United States Congress to sign The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund) in 1980. This landmark enactment holds polluters accountable for cleanup of uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment.

As part of a series of events related to water diversion in the Great Lakes Basin the consumption of the Falls as a source of power also played an important role in creating legislation between Canada and the United States. In the early 1900s, as a result of rapid industrialization and hydroelectric power generating projects significant amounts of water were diverted from the Niagara River. Beyond the visible decrease of water flowing over the Falls, waste was also directly dumped into the river causing pollution downstream from Niagara. The magnitude of conflicts occurring across the Great Lakes Region eventually resulted in The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, a milestone enactment that formed the foundation for the inception of the International Joint Commission (IJC). The IJC oversees that the United States and Canada, together, approve projects that affect the levels and flows of waters along their common boundary. Today, the IJC precisely controls the volume and distribution of flow for hydroelectric power production and over the Falls. A summer time visitor to Niagara Falls now sees only half of the natural volume of the river passing over the Falls. During the winter and night the flow is even reduced to only one quarter of the natural volume.

The initial transmission of hydroelectric power from the Falls is but one of many events that forged the complex accumulation of layers and ever shifting perception of Niagara, both literally and figuratively. So what does Niagara tell us about the remaking of the human condition? Especially as it relates to concepts of landscape and nature? Here it might be helpful to quote Robert Park, a prominent figure of the Chicago School of Sociology, who wrote: “The city is man’s most consistent and on the whole his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city, man has remade himself” (Park 1967, 3).

While not a city in the way Park would have formulated it, Niagara plays a critical role in understanding the historic development of the North American landscape and American culture at large. Once a powerful image of the American sublime, the invention and transmission of Niagara’s hydroelectric power signifies the subjugation of arguably the greatest natural force in North America to the service of man. In transforming Niagara, we simultaneously destroyed and recreated nature. Following from Sebastien Marot, who proposed: “if nature does not exist anymore, the task will be to invent it—initially by probing and describing the spoils left behind” (Marot 1999, 48), this research aims to trace the ongoing creation of Niagara as a result of powerful cultural, ecological and economic forces.

Over time, Niagara’s mental and physical inscriptions have been reaffirmed, supplemented, transformed, and erased. By revealing the complicated dynamics between ideology, geography, technology and capital, this research aims to provide a reading of the territory that continuously shifts between Niagara as an object and as a region.


Prof. Charles Waldheim

Prof. Pierre Bélanger

Prof. John R. Stilgoe

Contact Information

[email protected]


  1. Edward Dean Adams, Niagara Power; History of the Niagara Falls Power Company, 1886-1918; Evolution of its Central Power Station and Alternating Current System (Niagara Falls, N. Y.; printed for the Niagara Falls Power Co.; 1927).
    2. Nikolas Tesla, “On Electricity”, A Speech on the occasion of the Commemoration of the Introduction of Niagara Falls Power In Buffalo At the Ellicot Club, January 12, 1897. Published in the Electrical Review, January 27, 1897. See Twenty First Century Books: Last accessed on March 25, 2012.
    3. Robert E. Park, On Social Control and Collective Behavior(Chicago: Chicago University Press:1967).
    4. Sebastien Marot, Sub-Urbanism and the Art of Memory (AA Publications; 2003).
    5. “Niagara’s Power to be Used,” The New York Times, Published: November 15, 1896