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    A time when Niagara Falls was ‘honeymoon capital’ & more

    A friend of mine took a trip a few months ago to Niagara Falls. I believe it was her first time there, and though she enjoyed going, she didn’t seem too impressed with the falls. That’s understandable, given our access these days to much more exciting and exotic places to vacation.

    Her aunt, though, now in her 70s, had more pleasant memories of the falls. That’s where she and her husband and millions of other couples spent their first married days together in what was called the “Honeymoon Capital of the World.” Newly married couples took the trip to see the three falls cascade into the Niagara River – many of them having arrived there in cars that in the 1950s had become affordable to more people.

    I thought about their two memories of Niagara Falls recently when I came across a photo of a couple from the early 20th century who were pictured with the falls as a backdrop. There were two black and white photos of them in their Sunday best, sitting on a boulder, surrounded by large rocks as two different views of the falls splashed behind them. Their photo appeared to have been placed on top of a photo of the waters.

    Niagara Falls

    A couple in a posed photo with Niagara Falls as a backdrop.

    These types of photos were available around the turn of the 20th century. Companies photographed couples – and families – and placed the portraits against stock backgrounds of the falls at points that they could not visit. These auction photos were captured by the photography department of the Niagara River Elevator Co.

    Niagara Falls became known as the honeymoon capital in the early 19th century after some famous people vacationed there. The daughter of the country’s then-vice president Aaron Burr spent her honeymoon at the falls in 1801. Three years later, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother is said to have journeyed there with his new wife.

    The area didn’t earn its name as such until the words began appearing on promotional materials in the 1900s. And the invention of the automobile after World War I helped make it even popular as a honeymoon destination. The movie “Niagara” with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton was also said to have helped boost tourism after its release in 1953.

    Its popularity among honeymooners lasted until around the 1950s. More than 50,000 couples still go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, according to one site, and the tourism board still gives out honeymoon certificates signed by the mayor, a practice that began in 1949.

    Niagara Falls

    The same couple with a different backdrop of Niagara Falls.

    The falls attracts more than just honeymooners – just like my friend. More than 8 million people a year on the U.S. side – a figure that some dispute – go for the view and to take a ride on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes visitors along the Niagara River into the falls. A major travel magazine in 2011 named the falls among the top 5 tourist attractions. The Canadian side reported more than 12 million visitors yearly.

    The Maid of the Mist tour boat has been around since 1846. Before then, folks were transported across the river and below the falls in rowboats. Sensing that they could make more money with a larger boat, some businessmen decided to build a bigger boat that could carry more people and more stuff, including a stagecoach and horses.

    Niagara Falls straddle both the United States (at New York state) and Canada (at Ontario). It consists of three falls: the American Falls, Horseshoe Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, and the water comes from the upper Great Lakes. The falls were first observed in the mid-17th century.

    Niagara Falls honeymoons

    Part of a panorama of three photos of rapids on the Niagara River from the platform of the Niagara River Elevator Co. Photo from Library of Congress.

    The falls has been around for nearly 12,000 years, its named derived from Native Americans. It has figured in early explorations, several wars and the Underground Railroad. It was a natural crossing for enslaved Africans seeking escape from slavery to freedom during the early 19th century.

    Some remained in the area where they worked at local hotels, while others crossed over into Canada. Many came via the Underground Railroad, guided by Harriet Tubman, and still others ran away when they accompanied their Southern owners on vacation. In at least one instance in 1856, Tubman crossed the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge by train into Ontario with four enslaved Africans.

    Because of its obvious strength, Niagara Falls has seen its share of challengers wanting to best it. Many have tried – and some failed – to go over it. The first successful was a 63-year-old school teacher in 1901; she went over the falls in a barrel and survived. Tightrope walkers, too, have tried balancing themselves over the falls.


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