It was 1854. One of Niagara Falls’s distinguished visitors that year was Isabella Lucy Bird. She was a well-known British traveller and author who came to Niagara as part of an extensive tour of eastern North America. Her experiences and observations were recorded in a book published two years later entitled “The English Woman in America.”

While at Niagara Falls, Lucy and her travelling companions stayed at the Clifton House Hotel, which she described as a “huge white block of a building with three green verandahs around it. It can accommodate nearly 400 people and in the summer season it is the abode of almost unparalleled gaiety.”

Apparently it could also be the abode of almost unparalleled turmoil, at least at the entrance. Isabella describes how they were met at the hotel by “about 20 ragged, vociferous carriage drivers of the most demoralized appearance, all clamorous for a fare.” The drivers were continuously insulting and undercutting each other as they competed for business. One of them yelled at Isabella, “I’ll take you as cheap as him; he’s drunk and his carriage isn’t fit for a lady to step into.” At this point a fistfight broke out among a number of the drivers. Such might be your welcome at the Clifton House.

Once inside, however, it was a different story since the Clifton House, which stood where Oakes Garden Theatre is now located at the foot of Clifton Hill, was unquestionably not only the most famous but also the largest and most elegant hotel in nineteenth century Niagara Falls.

The Clifton House was the creation of Harmanus Crysler, a local businessman. Construction began in 1833. The location was superb. Not only did the site offer a marvelous view of the falls, but it was also just across from the road that lead to and from the ferry landing. This would now be the road that goes down the side of the Niagara River gorge to the Hornblower dock.

The hotel took its name from the tiny community in which it was located, Clifton, which was around what is now the Centre Street, Victoria Avenue, Clifton Hill area. It had been established just the year before by Captain Ogden Creighton, who, in turn, took the name from Clifton on the Gorge of the River Avon at Bristol, England. (Greatly expanded in area and population, Clifton later changed its name to Niagara Falls.)

John Orr’s Niagara Guide Book of 1842 provides some very flattering information about the Clifton House. He notes, “The Clifton House, a large, elegant, commodious, well-finished and well-furnished hotel, stands on the brow of the bank, near the ferry and commands a splendid view of the falls, in which all of their majesty and glory are revealed. It is a noble structure with triple colonnades of ample length and area and an interior that leaves nothing to be regretted.”

The same year Orr’s guidebook was published the Clifton House had a famous visitor. Charles Dickens, along with his wife Kate and her maid Anne, were guests of the hotel for nine days. Dickens described the hotel as “a large square house standing on a bold height with overhanging eaves like a Swiss cottage and a wide handsome gallery outside every story.”

He was pleased with both the accommodation and the view, writing, “Our sitting room is on the second floor and is so close to the falls that the windows are always wet and dim with spray. Two bedrooms open out of it, one our own, one Anne’s. From these chambers you can see the falls rolling and tumbling and roaring and leaping all day long.”

As tourism in Niagara Falls grew during the 19th century, so did the Clifton House in both size and fame. It became the showplace of the Niagara Frontier.

The Niagara Falls, New York Gazette frequently reported on events taking place at the hotel. On May 16, 1860, for example, the paper described how “the Clifton has undergone a thorough overhauling and comes out looking wonderfully improved.” At that time the hotel had 10 bathrooms “where guests may enjoy warm or cold baths.” After noting the beautiful panoramic view available from the hotel’s galleries, the paper went on to say how the Clifton House also had a “broad and beautiful park lighted with gas in the evening, with beautiful flowers and fountains.”

The hotel was also a social centre. In the Gazette of September 1, 1869, it was reported that on the coming Friday evening “a musical entertainment will be given at the Clifton House by Alfred Poppenberg and the Clifton House Orchestra.” It was noted that “the programme embraces an overture, two ballads, a fantasy, harp solo and subsequently a hop” (dance). Tickets were only 50 cents.  That same edition of the Gazette announced that Rev. W. Morley Punshon, late of London, England, would deliver a lecture in the concert hall, Clifton House, on Monday evening, the 13th.

The Clifton House frequently hosted distinguished guests, the Gazette once commenting that the hotel’s register “can show a list of names possessed by no other place or resort.” In the edition of September 29, 1869, a news story related the following: “His Royal Highness, Prince Arthur – one of Queen Victoria’s boys – arrived at the Clifton House last Friday afternoon.” Details about his activities in this area were provided, including the fact that “a complimentary hop was given at the Clifton Saturday evening. A large number attended and it was a brilliant affair.”

During August 1887, the hotel hosted the Prince of Siam (modern day Thailand). He and his retinue occupied 28 rooms.

The hotel was also a marvelous place to dine.  A surviving breakfast menu from around 1896 reveals an incredible array of offerings: Cereals included rolled oats, hominy and rolled wheat flakes. You could choose from such meat and fish dishes as unicorn herring on toast, salmon lake trout, salt and fish with cream, calf’s liver and bacon, broiled ham, mutton kidneys and sirloin beef steak. There was a variety of potatoes, cold meats, salad, eggs, eight different varieties of breads along with various fruits and teas. Specialty dishes included such items as stewed kidneys, frizzled beef a la crème, corn beef hash and Boston baked pork and beans. And that was only breakfast!

Popular Canadian writer Suzanna Moodie and her husband stayed at the Clifton House in 1852. She notes that “you pay $4.00 a day for your board and bed – wine is extra.” She also comments on the waiters in the hotel’s dining room, most of whom were escaped slaves from the southern United States. She was impressed with their appearance, calling them “young, handsome, intelligent looking men.” She compliments them on “the perfect ease and dexterity with which they supplied the guests without making a single mistake out of such a variety of dishes.”

The Niagara press provided some details about a lavish banquet held at the Clifton House on July 25, 1896. The Premier of Ontario, Oliver Mowat, was one of the guests.

The reporter set the scene: “The banquet was spread in the hotel’s private dining room and was served at 7:30 in the evening. The tables were resplendent with rare cut glass, Venetian ware and solid silver. The decorations were in red and yellow. The candelabra were tied with yellow satin ribbons while boutonnieres were placed at each plate.  Potted and foliage plants were banked about the room and the hotel’s orchestra provided the dinner music.”

Although the hotel had both fame and splendor, it was not immune to tragedy. Around 9:30 a.m. on June 26, 1898 (a Sunday), several employees suddenly noticed smoke coming from the roof near one of the kitchen chimneys. A ladder was rushed out and a bucket brigade swung into action attempting to extinguish what was thought to be a minor blaze.

After a few minutes, however, smoke began pouring from several other places in the roof. At this point it was realized the fire was much more extensive than originally thought and a general alarm was turned in.

Before long, many firemen were on the scene along with plenty of hose. Unfortunately there was not enough water pressure and a strong wind was quickly fanning the flames out of control. It was soon obvious the hotel was doomed. All guests were safely evacuated. As can be imagined, a huge crowd quickly assembled to watch the spectacular and historic event unfold.

As the fire blazed on, a few persons were observed raiding the hotel’s kitchen, emerging with such items as jars of pickles, chickens and fruit. At the same time news circulated through the crowd that $1,500 worth of wine had been delivered to the hotel just the day before. However, nobody apparently felt it was worth the risk to try and reach the wine cellar.  It was well after dark before the fire burned itself out.

A reporter from the Niagara Falls, Ontario Advertiser later wrote: “The scene presented by the smoking ruins after nightfall was strange in the extreme. Where in the morning stood the great hotel bright with colours and with the spacious verandahs beautifully decorated with tropical plants and thronged with guests, now there were only grim old walls with a huge mass of charred timbers, twisted irons and piles of debris beneath. It was truly a picture of desolation and many a regret was uttered by the thousands who witnessed the famous old building’s end.”

Eight years later a new Clifton Hotel, as it was now called, arose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old.  Operating in the spring, summer and fall seasons only, it quickly earned the same outstanding reputation its predecessor had enjoyed.

In a 1907 edition, The Niagara Falls, Ontario, Record gave a glowing review: “The new hotel was completed in July 1906 at a cost of half a million dollars and in architectural beauty, elegant furnishings, complete equipment and perfect service has no superior in the world. It is richly, artistically and harmoniously decorated throughout, and is fitted with every modern and approved appliance for the comfort and safety of its guests. There are 270 cozily furnished sleeping rooms with electric light and heat, hot and cold water, phones, electric bells, ample bath facilities, electric elevator and all the conveniences that are to be found in the finest hotel in the country. The dining room has a seating capacity of 600. Room rates are from $4.00 to $6.00 a day.”

Acknowledging a rising popular trend in transportation at the time, the hotel even featured a well-equipped garage “for the benefit of the motorcar enthusiast.”

But as sometimes happens, history was destined to repeat itself. The fateful day was December 31, 1932. In the cold early morning of that Saturday, the hotel’s winter caretaker, James Jones, who, with his wife and child occupied a room in the north wing, was awakened by the frenzied barking of his watchdog. Upon investigating, Jones found the corridor outside his room filled with smoke. He got his family out of the building and turned in the alarm.  The heroic efforts of a huge force of firemen, were, however, in vain. As it was described in the press, “A high swirling wind fanned the flames into one great blaze and the huge crowd watched the great structure turn into a giant torch and the walls gradually buckle and fall.”

The loss was estimated at a million dollars while the cause was never determined. Fire had erased two quite remarkable and famous Niagara landmarks that had dominated the hotel scene here for nearly a century. A third edition of the Clifton did not happen. An era had passed.

Written By: Sherman Zavitz