It’s popularly known as Niagara Falls’ “Street of Fun.” Its actual name is Clifton Hill and this is its story.
Capt. Ogden Creighton, a half-pay officer in the British Army, had a vision. Arriving at Niagara Falls in 1832, he was struck with the magnificence of the cataracts. Deciding that it would be a popular (not to mention profitable) idea to establish a townsite directly facing the falls, he purchased a large tract of land in the area and laid out building lots and streets.
He named his infant community Clifton after Clifton on the Gorge of the River Avon at Bristol, England, very possibly the area where Creighton had spent his childhood. As the first resident, he built his own home, Clifton Cottage, near the edge of the gorge overlooking the American Falls.
Although the Captain seems to have been very enthusiastic about his real estate project, he was not a very good promoter. Consequently, in spite of the beautiful location, very few lots were sold.
In a more positive side, however, in 1833, what became Niagara Falls’ biggest, grandest and most famous 19th century hotel opened for business. Since the hotel was in the community of Clifton, it took the name Clifton House.
It was brilliantly located at the foot of what is now known as Clifton Hill, on the present site of Oakes Garden Theatre. The location gave the hotel’s guests beautiful views of the falls – and easy access to the Ferry Road.
For many years that road was of extreme importance. Prior to the opening of the first bridge across the Niagara River Gorge in 1848, American visitors reached the Canadian side of the Niagara River at Niagara Falls by ferry boat, crossing just below the falls. With great difficulty considerable expense, in 1827 a road was constructed from the ferry landing to the top of the gorge and then on up to the top of the high bank where Victoria Ave. is now. Appropriately, this new thoroughfare was christened the Ferry Road since it led to and from the ferry landing.
With the gradual discontinuance of ferry service after 1848, the name was no longer as accurate. So it was, that, over time, the name Clifton Hill was adopted to refer to that portion of the former Ferry Road between what is now River Road and Victoria Avenue. (Another section of the old Ferry Road, now called Ferry St., still exists between Victoria Ave. and Main Street.)
A school on Clifton Hill?? While such a building would certainly be out of place there today, in fact, around 1835, a one-room, roughcast schoolhouse was built on the south side of the hill.
The school served the area along the Niagara River from Dufferin Islands (as they are now called) just above the falls to the whirlpool. That included, of course, the tiny community of Clifton.
One of the early teachers at this school was a Mr. McMullen who also had a side job. The owner of a handsome carriage, every time an excursion party arrived at the nearby falls, he would rush out of the school and become a tour guide, leaving his niece to take over his teaching duties.
The last teacher at this school was Marsena Biggar who served from 1851 until the last bell sounded two years later. During the autumn of 1851, Marsena might have taken his pupils down the hill to the Clifton House to hear the famous singer Jenny Lind. Known as the Swedish Nightingale, she was a guest at the hotel for a number of weeks that fall and would occasionally present an impromptu concert from one of its balconies.
Beginning the year after the little school closed, a new sound was heard on Clifton Hill. It was the puff, puff, puff of steam engines along with the lonely wail of their whistles. The railway had arrived. The tracks, which ran along the top of the hill where a small station was also situated, belonged to the Erie and Ontario, a local line that served a number of communities along the Ontario side of the Niagara River.
As time went by, the Erie and Ontario became part of the vast New York Central Railroad system. Following the opening of Queen Victoria Park (the park by the falls) in 1888, the little station at the top of the hill was enlarged and renamed Victoria Park. Over the years, an enormous number of individuals, families and excursion groups began their Niagara Falls experience at the Victoria Park Station. Lastly owned by Canadian Pacific, this line, which had become a frequent and huge impediment to the flow of traffic on Clifton Hill, was closed and the tracks torn up in 2001.
“The 1920’s saw the Foxhead hotel open on the northwest corner of the Falls Avenue and Clifton HIll, owned by Howard Fox, the hotel was built in the English Tudor style of Architecture.”
Although the railroad continued to play an important role in tourism during the early decades of the twentieth century, by the 1920’s more and more people began arriving in Niagara Falls by car. This development saw Clifton Hill become the home of various campgrounds where you could park your car, pitch a tent and walk to the falls.
Facilities were primitive by today’s standards, with outdoor plumbing the rule. One campground owner offered the luxury of inside plumbing by driving his guests to the public washrooms in nearby Queen Victoria Park.
Tenting soon gave way to campgrounds with cabins where kitchen facilities were usually available as well as a building housing toilets and showers.
And hotels were still on Clifton Hill. Destroyed by fire in 1898, the Clifton House had been replaced with the impressive Clifton Hotel in 1906. The late 1920s saw the Foxhead Hotel open on the northwest corner of Falls Avenue and Clifton Hill. Owned by Howard Fox, the hotel was built in the English Tudor style of architecture.
By the 1950s motels also began to appear on Clifton Hill, largely replacing the campgrounds. But an event of more far-reaching importance in the hill’s history took place in 1959 with the debut of Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
Housed in a section of the Foxhead Hotel, the immediate and enormous success of this business showed that many visitors to Niagara Falls were eager for entertainment attractions beyond what were available around the falls. Consequently, as Clifton Hill moved through the 1960’s, more and more family “fun” businesses as well as restaurants appeared in the block between Falls Ave. and Victoria Ave.
However, Clifton Hill also has two other different personalities that need to be noted. Both are on that portion of the Hill between Falls Avenue and River Road.
On the south side is the impressive Niagara Falls War Memorial (Soldier’s Monument). Dedicated in 1927, it records the names of those from Niagara Falls who fell in the Great War – World War!. Following World War II and the Korean War, additional names had to be added. It is a spot for quiet reflection.
Directly across the street from the War Memorial is a grand and glorious sight – Oakes Garden Theatre. A stunning blend of horticultural and architectural skills, Oakes Garden Theatre is on property once occupied by the Clifton House and, later, the Clifton Hotel, which was destroyed by fire in 1932. The site was then purchased by local businessman and philanthropist Harry Oakes who donated the property to The Niagara Parks Commission. It was the Commission that created the beautiful Garden Theatre. It opened in September 1937.
Clifton Hill has a long and varied past – a past that has played an important role in the history of Niagara Falls.