Throngs of cheering and adoring people, each one eager to get closer to the Royal, to draw near enough to see his handsome face and perhaps even say hello, crowded the railway station in Niagara. The Royal waved casually and distractedly to the masses; his attention was focused on the majesty of the thundering waterfall not far away, the likes he had never seen in his 21 years. He marveled at the power of this natural wonder, and excitedly awaited the opportunity to venture behind the falls.
Climbing into a sled that would carry him through the snow-driven streets of town, he waved one more time to the audience. Grand Duke Alexei of Russia now thought only of venturing into the tunnels that would take him behind the veil of raging water.
Over the years, a number of royals have been among the 15 million annual visitors to Niagara Falls. Often times, they sneak in with little fanfare and sneak out almost unnoticed. Other times, the royals arrive with vast fanfare and publicity, temporarily—and sometimes unintentionally—detracting attention away from the Falls and onto themselves. The first royal to visit Niagara Falls was the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, who came in 1791. Since then, almost every member of the royal family have made the pilgrimage to Niagara Falls. It’s almost a royal tradition. A notable exception to this is Queen Victoria; despite living until the age of 93, she never made the trip.
While most of the royals to make the trip to Niagara have been British, one of the most celebrated royal visits in history was that of 21-year old Grand Duke Alexei in 1871.
Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovitch of Russia was the fifth child and youngest son of Czar Alexander II and his wife, Czarina Maria Alexandrovna. Chosen for a naval career, Alexei started his military training at the age of 7. He grew into a tall and handsome young man, and by the age of 20 he had been appointed lieutenant of the Imperial Russian Navy. Alexei had gained a reputation, however, for carousing and partying. In an effort to mature the young man and provide him with official responsibilities, in 1871 he was sent on a goodwill cruise to North America.
The visit was primarily a show of friendship between the United States and Russia, which had provided support to the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War, and a reciprocation of an official visit to Saint Petersburg of an American squadron in 1867.
The Russian flotilla arrived in New York on November 21, 1871, greeted by a fleet of boats with their rails lined with dignitaries, military guards in full ceremonial regalia, and bands playing music. The American public didn’t forget Russia’s support during the Civil War, and everywhere he went in the United States huge crowds lined the streets, waving flags and cheering as he passed by.
On 17 December, Alexei left by train for a brief detour to Canada. The mood was dampened by word that Grand Duke Alexei’s cousin, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and the future King Edward VII of Britain, was very ill. Nonetheless, the Grand Duke first stopped in Montreal, where he had breakfast with the mayor of the city, and then made a brief stop in Lachine. The entourage then visited Ottawa, Toronto, and Hamilton, where Alexei’s mood lifted upon receiving a telegram from Queen Victoria that the Prince of Wales had recovered. Finally, around 2pm on December 22, the royal train chugged into Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls.
Awaiting the arrival of the Grand Duke at the Great Western Railway Depot near the Suspension Bridge were a number of local dignitaries, including the Mayor of Clifton, F.J. Preston, Mayor of Clifton; Hon. Thomas Clark Street, M.P.P. for Welland County and President of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge Company; and Colonel Sidney Barnett, son of Thomas Barnett, proprietor of the famed Niagara Falls. There was a military band, over 100 soldiers in full dress uniform and standing at attention, and a crowd of onlookers eager to catch a glimpse of royalty.
It was a bitterly cold day, so thankfully the address by Mayor Preston was a brief one. The delegation then piled into sleighs and huddled under thick furs as they were driven to the Niagara Falls Museum. There the party donned hooded oil-skinned coats, the kind used by fishermen in the harsh North Atlantic, as they prepared to venture behind the Falls. The New York Times reported that as the Grand Duke and his entourage “seemed more like a group of jolly tourists than aught else.”
Alexei’s trip behind the Falls was immortalized on the front cover of several illustrated newspapers of the time, including Canadian Illustrated News and London’s The Graphic. It became an iconic image, and helped popularize the journey behind the Falls worldwide.
Upon climbing back up the stairs, the Grand Duke’s party took time to peruse the Museum’s widely varied exhibits—everything from Egyptian mummies and dinosaur bones to tribal artifacts from Darkest Africa—before being transported back to the Suspension Bridge. They walked across the bridge, admiring what was then a marvel of engineering and soaking in the spectacular view of the ice-encrusted Niagara Gorge. Once across the bridge and back in the United States, Alexei spent the night at the Spencer House hotel, which had renovated especially for the delegation, and then spent the next day enjoying the sights of Niagara Falls from the American side. Later in afternoon, the Russian party departed for Buffalo to continue their official tour of the United States.
Grand Duke Alexei’s visit to Niagara Falls had been a brief one, but it looms large in the community’s history. When he stepped behind the thundering falls, the young Russian royal walked into Niagara lore.