Clifton House Hotel, Niagara Falls in 1854

This celebrated hotel, which is kept on the American plan, is a huge white block of building, with three green verandahs round it, and can accommodate about four hundred people. In the summer season it is the abode of almost unparalleled gaiety. Here congregate tourists, merchants, lawyers, officers, senators, wealthy southerners, and sallow down-easters, all flying alike from business and heat. Here meet all ranks, those of the highest character, and those who have no character to lose; those who by some fortunate accident have become possessed of a few dollars, and those whose mine of wealth lies in the gambling-house--all for the time being on terms of perfect equality. Balls, in doors and out of doors, nightly succeed to parties and picnics; the most novel of which are those in the beautiful garden in front of the hotel. This garden has spacious lawns lighted by lamps; and here, as in the 'Midsummer Night's Dream,' the visitors dance on summer evenings to the strains of invisible music. But at the time of my second visit to the Falls all the gaiety was over; the men of business had returned to the cities, the southerners had fled to their sunny homes--part of the house was shut up, and in the great dining- room, with tables for three hundred, we sat down to lunch with about twenty-five persons, most of them Americans and Germans of the most repulsive description. After this meal, eaten in the "five minutes all aboard" style, we started on a sight-seeing expedition. Instead of being allowed to sit quietly on Table Rock, gazing upon the cataract, the visitor, yielding to the demands of a supposed necessity, is dragged a weary round--he must see the Falls from the front, from above, and from below; he must go behind them, and be drenched by them; he must descend spiral staircases at the risk of his limbs, and cross ferries at that of his life; he must visit Bloody Run, the Burning Springs, and Indian curiosity-shops, which have nothing to do with them at all; and when the poor wretch is thoroughly bewildered and wearied by "doing Niagara," he is allowed to steal quietly off to what he really came to see--the mighty Horse-shoe Fall, with all its accompaniments of majesty, sublimity, and terror.

Round the door of the Clifton House were about twenty ragged, vociferous drosky-drivers, of most demoralised appearance, all clamorous for "a fare." "We want to go to Goat Island; how much is it?" "Five dollars." "I'll take you for four dollars and a half." "No, sir, he's a cheat and a blackguard; I'll take you for four." "I'll take you as cheap as any one," shouts a man in rags; "I'll take you for three." "Very well." "I'll take you as cheap as he; he's drunk, and his carriage isn't fit for a lady to step into," shouted the man who at first asked five dollars. After this they commenced a regular _melee_, when blows were given and received, and frequent allusions were made to "the bones of St. Patrick." At last our friend in rags succeeded in driving up to the door, and we found his carriage really unfit for ladies, as the stuffing in most places was quite bare, and the step and splash-boards were only kept in their places by pieces of rope. The shouting and squabbling were accompanied by Niagara, whose deep awful thundering bass drowns all other sounds.

We drove for two miles along the precipice bank of the Niagara river: this precipice is 250 feet high, without a parapet, and the green, deep flood rages below. At the Suspension Bridge they demanded a toll of sixty cents, and contemptuously refused two five-dollar notes offered them by Mr. Walrence, saying they were only waste paper. This extraordinary bridge, over which a train of cars weighing 440 tons has recently passed, has a span of 800 feet, and a double roadway, the upper one being used by the railway. The floor of the bridge is 230 feet above the river, and the depth of the river immediately under it is 250 feet! The view from it is magnificent; to the left the furious river, confined in a narrow space, rushes in rapids to the Whirlpool; and to the right the Horse-shoe Fall pours its torrent of waters into the dark and ever invisible abyss. When we reached the American side we had to declare to a custom-house officer that we were no smugglers; and then by an _awful_ road, partly covered with stumps, and partly full of holes, over the one, and through the other, our half-tipsy driver jolted us, till we wished ourselves a thousand miles from Niagara Falls. "There now, faith, and wasn't I nearly done for myself?" he exclaimed, as a jolt threw him from his seat, nearly over the dash-board.

We passed through the town bearing the names of Niagara Falls and Manchester, an agglomeration of tea-gardens, curiosity-shops, and monster hotels, with domes of shining tin. We drove down a steep hill, and crossed a very insecure-looking wooden bridge to a small wooded island, where a man with a strong nasal twang demanded a toll of twenty-five cents, and anon we crossed a long bridge over the lesser rapids.

The cloudy morning had given place to a glorious day, abounding in varieties of light and shade; a slight shower had fallen, and the sparkling rain-drops hung from every leaf and twig; a rainbow spanned the Niagara river, and the leaves wore the glorious scarlet and crimson tints of the American autumn. Sun and sky were propitious; it was the season and the day in which to see Niagara. Quarrelsome drosky drivers, incongruous mills, and the thousand trumperies of the place, were all forgotten in the perfect beauty of the scene--in the full, the joyous realisation of my ideas of Niagara. Beauty and terror here formed a perfect combination. Around islets covered with fair foliage of trees and vines, and carpeted with moss untrodden by the foot of man, the waters, in wild turmoil, rage and foam: rushing on recklessly beneath the trembling bridge on which we stood to their doomed fall. This place is called "The Hell of Waters," and has been the scene of more than one terrible tragedy.

This bridge took us to Iris Island, so named from the rainbows which perpetually hover round its base. Everything of terrestrial beauty may be found in Iris Island. It stands amid the eternal din of the waters, a barrier between the Canadian and American Falls. It is not more than sixty-two acres in extent, yet it has groves of huge forest trees, and secluded roads underneath them in the deepest shade, far apparently from the busy world, yet thousands from every part of the globe yearly tread its walks of beauty. We stopped at the top of a dizzy pathway, and, leaving the Walrences to purchase some curiosities, I descended it, crossed a trembling foot-bridge, and stood alone on Luna Island, between the Crescent and American Falls. This beauteous and richly-embowered little spot, which is said to tremble, and looks as if any wave might sweep it away, has a view of matchless magnificence. From it can be seen the whole expanse of the American rapids, rolling and struggling down, chafing the sunny islets, as if jealous of their beauty. The Canadian Fall was on my left; away in front stretched the scarlet woods; the incongruities of the place were out of sight; and at my feet the broad sheet of the American Fall tumbled down in terrible majesty. The violence of the rapids cannot be imagined by one who has not seen their resistless force. The turbulent waters are flung upwards, as if infuriated against the sky. The rocks, whose jagged points are seen among them, fling off the hurried and foamy waves, as if with supernatural strength. Nearer and nearer they come to the Fall, becoming every instant more agitated; they seem to recoil as they approach its verge; a momentary calm follows, and then, like all their predecessors, they go down the abyss together. There is something very exciting in this view; one cannot help investing Niagara with feelings of human agony and apprehension; one feels a new sensation, something neither terror, wonder, nor admiration, as one looks at the phenomena which it displays. I have been surprised to see how a visit to the Falls galvanises the most matter-of-fact person into a brief exercise of the imaginative powers.

As the sound of the muffled drum too often accompanies the trumpet, so the beauty of Luna Island must ever remain associated in my mind with a terrible catastrophe which recently occurred there. Niagara was at its gayest, and the summer at its hottest, when a joyous party went to spend the day on Luna Island. It consisted of a Mr. and Mrs. De Forest, their beautiful child "Nettie," a young man of great talent and promise, Mr. Addington, and a few other persons. It was a fair evening in June, when moonlight was struggling for ascendancy with the declining beams of the setting sun. The elders of the party, being tired, repaired to the seats on Iris Island to rest, Mr. De Forest calling to Nettie, "Come here, my child; don't go near the water." "Never mind--let her alone--I'll watch her," said Mr. Addington, for the child was very beautiful and a great favourite, and the youthful members of the party started for Luna Island. Nettie pulled Addington's coat in her glee. "Ah! you rogue, you're caught," said he, catching hold of her; "shall I throw you in?" She sprang forward from his arms, one step too far, and fell into the roaring rapid. "Oh, mercy! save--she's gone!" the young man cried, and sprang into the water. He caught hold of Nettie, and, by one or two vigorous strokes, aided by an eddy, was brought close to the Island; one instant more, and his terrified companions would have been able to lay hold of him; but no-- the hour of both was come; the waves of the rapid hurried them past; one piercing cry came from Mr. Addington's lips, "For Jesus' sake, O save our souls!" and, locked in each other's arms, both were carried over the fatal Falls. The dashing torrent rolled onward, unheeding that bitter despairing cry of human agony, and the bodies of these two, hurried into eternity in the bloom of youth, were not found for some days. Mrs. De Forest did not long survive the fate of her child.