The trip behind Niagara Falls in 1854

In America the capabilities of English ladies are very much overrated. It is supposed that they go out in all weathers, invariably walk ten miles a day, and leap five-barred fences on horseback. Yielding to "the inexorable law of a stern necessity," I went to the Rock House, and a very pleasing girl produced a suit of oiled calico. I took off my cloak, bonnet, and dress. "Oh," she said, "you must change everything, _it's so very wet_." As, to save time, I kept demurring to taking off various articles of apparel, I always received the same reply, and finally abandoned myself to a complete change of attire. I looked in the mirror, and beheld as complete a tatterdemallion as one could see begging upon an Irish highway, though there was nothing about the dress which the most lively imagination could have tortured into the picturesque. The externals of this strange equipment consisted of an oiled calico hood, a garment like a carter's frock, a pair of blue worsted stockings, and a pair of India-rubber shoes much too large for me. My appearance was so comic as to excite the laughter of my grave friends, and I had to reflect that numbers of persons had gone out in the same attire before I could make up my mind to run the gauntlet of the loiterers round the door. Here a negro guide of most repulsive appearance awaited me, and I waded through a perfect sea of mud to the shaft by which people go under Table Rock. My friends were evidently ashamed of my appearance, but they met me here to wish me a safe return, and, following the guide, I dived down a spiral staircase, very dark and very much out of repair.

Leaving this staircase, I followed the guide along a narrow path covered with fragments of shale, with Table Rock above and the deep abyss below. A cold, damp wind blew against me, succeeded by a sharp pelting rain, and the path became more slippery and difficult. Still I was not near the sheet of water, and felt not the slightest dizziness. I speedily arrived at the difficult point of my progress: heavy gusts almost blew me away; showers of spray nearly blinded me; I was quite deafened and half-drowned; I wished to retreat, and essayed to use my voice to stop the progress of my guide. I raised it to a scream, but it was lost in the thunder of the cataract. The negro saw my incertitude and extended his hand. I shuddered even there as I took hold of it, not quite free from the juvenile idea that "the black comes off." He seemed at that moment to wear the aspect of a black imp leading me to destruction.

The path is a narrow, slippery ledge of rock. I am blinded with spray, the darkening sheet of water is before me. Shall I go on? The spray beats against my face, driven by the contending gusts of wind which rush into the eyes, nostrils, and mouth, and almost prevent my progress; the narrowing ledge is not more than a foot wide, and the boiling gulf is seventy feet below. Yet thousands have pursued this way before, so why should not I? I grasp tighter hold of the guide's hand, and proceed step by step holding down my head. The water beats against me, the path narrows, and will only hold my two feet abreast. I ask the guide to stop, but my voice is drowned by the "Thunder of Waters." He guesses what I would say, and shrieks in my ear, "_It's worse going back._" I make a desperate attempt: four steps more and I am at the end of the ledge; my breath is taken away, and I can only just stand against the gusts of wind which are driving the water against me. The gulf is but a few inches from me, and, gasping for breath, and drenched to the skin, I become conscious that I have reached _Termination Rock_.

Once arrived at this place, the clouds of driving spray are a little thinner, and, though it is still very difficult either to see or breathe, the magnificence of the temple, which is here formed by the natural bend of the cataract and the backward shelve of the precipice, makes a lasting impression on the mind. The temple seems a fit and awful shrine for Him who "rides on the wings of mighty winds," and, completely shut out from man's puny works, the mind rises naturally in adoring contemplation to Him whose voice is heard in the "thunder of waters." The path was so very narrow that I had to shuffle backwards for a few feet, and then, drenched, shivering, and breathless, my goloshes full of water and slipping off at every step, I fought my way through the blinding clouds of spray, and, climbing up the darkened staircase, again stood on Table Rock, with water dripping from my hair and garments. It is usual for those persons who survive the expedition to take hot brandy and water after changing their dresses; and it was probably from neglecting this precaution that I took such a severe chill as afterwards produced the ague. On the whole, this achievement is pleasanter in the remembrance than in the act. There is nothing whatever to boast of in having accomplished it, and nothing to regret in leaving it undone. I knew the danger and disagreeableness of the exploit before I went, and, had I known that "going behind the sheet" was synonymous with "going to Termination Rock," I should never have gone. No person who has not a very strong head ought to go at all, and it is by every one far better omitted, as the remaining portion of Table Rock may fall at any moment, for which reason some of the most respectable guides decline to take visitors underneath it. I believe that no amateur ever thinks of going a second time. After all, the front view is the only one for Niagara--going behind the sheet is like going behind a picture-frame.

After this we went to the top of a tower, where I had a very good bird's- eye view of the Falls, the Rapids, and the general aspect of the country, and then, refusing to be victimised by burning springs, museums, prisoned eagles, and mangy buffaloes, I left the Walrences, who were tired, to go to the hotel, and walked down to the ferry, and, scrambling out to the rock farthest in the water and nearest to the cataract, I sat down completely undisturbed in view of the mighty fall. I was not distracted by parasitic guides or sandwich-eating visitors; the vile museums, pagodas, and tea-gardens were out of sight: the sublimity of the Falls far exceeded my expectations, and I appreciated them the more perhaps from having been disappointed with the first view. As I sat watching them, a complete oblivion of everything but the falls themselves stole over me. A person may be very learned in statistics--he may tell you that the falls are 160 feet high--that their whole width is nearly four-fifths of a mile--that, according to estimate, ninety million tons of water pass over them every hour--that they are the outlet of several bodies of water covering one hundred and fifty thousand square miles; but unless he has seen Niagara, he cannot form the faintest conception of it. It was so very like what I had expected, and yet so totally different. I sat there watching that sea- green curve against the sky till sunset, and then the crimson rays just fell upon the column of spray above the Canadian Fall, turning it a most beautiful rose-colour. The sun set; a young moon arose, and brilliant stars shone through the light veil of mist, and in the darkness the cataract looked like drifted snow. I rose at length, perfectly unconscious that I had been watching the Falls for nearly four hours, and that my clothes were saturated with the damp and mist.

It would be out of place to enter upon the numerous geological speculations which have arisen upon the structure and recession of Niagara. It seems as if the faint light which science has shed upon the abyss of bygone ages were but to show that its depths must remain for ever unlighted by human reason and research.

There was such an air of gloom about the Clifton House that we sat in the balcony till the cold became intense; and as it was too dark to see anything but a white object in front, I could not help regretting the waste (as it seems) of this wonderful display going on, when no eyes can feast upon its sublimity. In the saloon there was a little fair-haired boy of seven years old, with the intellectual faculties largely developed-- indeed, so much so as to be painfully suggestive of water on the brain. His father called him into the middle of the room, and he repeated a long oration of Daniel Webster's without once halting for a word, giving to it the action and emphasis of the orator. This was a fair specimen of the frequent undue development of the minds of American children.

At Niagara I finally took leave of the Walrences, as I had many visits to pay, and near midnight left for Hamilton, under the escort of a very kind, but very Grandisonian Scotch gentleman. I was intensely tired and sleepy, and it was a very cheerless thing to leave a warm room at midnight for an omnibus-drive of two miles along a bad, unlighted road. There did not appear to be any waiting-room at the bustling station at the suspension bridge, for, alas! the hollow scream of the locomotive is heard even above the thunder of Niagara. I slept in the cars for an hour before we started, and never woke till the conductor demanded payment of my fare in no very gentle tones. We reached Hamilton shortly after two in the morning, in the midst of a high wind and pouring rain; and in company with a dozen very dirty emigrants we entered a lumber waggon with a canvas top, drawn by one miserable horse. The curtains very imperfectly kept out the rain, and we were in continual fear of an upset. At last the vehicle went down on one side, and all the Irish emigrants tumbled over each other and us, with a profusion of "Ochs," "murders," and "spalpeens." The driver composedly shouted to us to alight; the hole was only deep enough to sink the vehicle to the axletree. We got out into a very capacious lake of mud, and in again, in very ill humour. At last the horse fell down in a hole, and my Scotch friend and I got out and walked in the rain for some distance to a very comfortable hotel, the City Arms. The sun had scarcely warmed the world into waking life before I was startled from my sleep by the cry, "Six o'clock; all aboard for the 'bus at half-past, them as goes by the _Passport_ and _Highlander_:" but it was half-past, and I had barely time to dress before the disagreeable shout of "All aboard!" echoed through the house, and I hurried down stairs into an omnibus, which held twenty-two persons inside, commodiously seated in arm-chairs. I went down Lake Ontario in the _Highlander_; Mr. Forrest met me on the wharf, and in a few hours I was again warmly welcomed at his hospitable house.

My relics of my visit to Niagara consisted of a few Indian curiosities, and a printed certificate filled up with my name, [Footnote: "Niagara Falls, C. W.: Register Office, Table Rock.--This is to certify, that Miss ---- has passed behind the Great Falling Sheet of Water to Termination Rook, being 230 feet behind the Great Horse-shoe Fall.--Given under my hand this 13th day of ----, 1854.--THOMAS BARNETT."] stating that I had walked for 230 feet behind the great fall, which statement, I was assured by an American fellow-traveller, was "a sell right entirely, an almighty all-fired big flam."