Overlooking The Grandest Scene In The World
By Sherman Zavitz
“You are indeed lucky in the magnificent setting of your convent school and I am sure it is an inspiration daily to look out of the windows at Niagara Falls.”
These were the words of the Countess of Bessborough to the staff and students of Loretto Academy during her visit to the school on October 25, 1933. She and her husband, the Earl of Bessborough who was Canada’s governor general at the time, were on a one-day visit to Niagara Falls. Loretto and its lovely location directly overlooking the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, an area long known as Fallsview, had been included in the Countess’s itinerary.
Today it’s the thousands of visitors each year looking out the windows of one of the many Fallsview hotels who are inspired by the sensational view of the famous falls below.
At one time Fallsview was a relatively quiet area. Now, with many large gleaming hotels as well as the Fallsview Casino Resort, it is throbbing with excitement and energy – a key location in the huge Niagara Falls tourism industry. A look at Fallsview’s past reveals a many-sided story.
During the early years of Niagara’s settlement and tourism, Fallsview benefited not only from its marvellous location but also by having the Portage Road bisect the area. Opened in 1790, the Portage was the Niagara Region’s first major road. Connecting Chippawa and Queenston, it was used to transport freight and passengers around the rapids and falls of the Niagara River. (Although the Portage lost its commercial importance in 1830 following the opening of the Welland Canal, much of the original route, now a busy thoroughfare, still remains.)
Charles Willson seems to have been the first to realize Fallsview’s potential as a business site. Around 1795 he opened a tavern on the east side of the Portage Road where the Oakes Inn is now located.
Charles died around 1812 after which his widow, Debora, took over the ownership and management of the business. During the War of 1812 Willson’s Tavern is mentioned in various dispatches, letters and journals. Debora declared herself to be neutral, providing refreshments (along with information) to both British and American officers who stopped at her establishment. This must have placed her in compromising and even dangerous situations at times. Nevertheless, her tavern remained open all during the war.
Part of its popularity with the military of both sides seems to have been due to Debora’s two lovely adult (and single) daughters, Harriet and Statira, both of whom worked in the tavern.
Following the War of 1812, Debora sold her property and business to William Forsyth, a prominent local entrepreneur. He made improvements to the building and constructed an addition that offered rooms for overnight accommodation. The name was changed to the Niagara Falls Hotel.
A guest in 1822 described the Forsyth family’s hotel, noting, “Their place might have been an old farmhouse in Worcestershire. The house was low with little windows and lozenge-shaped panes, cow houses, stables and pigsties hung close around. The public road (the Portage) was in the rear.”
Later that year Forsyth demolished his Niagara Falls Hotel and on the same site built the Pavilion, Niagara’s first major hotel. Described in an 1836 Niagara guide book as “having an imposing appearance,” the Pavilion was three storeys high and of white clapboard construction. At both the front, which faced Portage Road, and the back, which overlooked the falls, were galleries for viewing the area’s scenery.
Apparently the Pavilion’s bar was a widely- known, popular gathering spot. Adam Fergusson of Scotland visited Niagara in 1831. Arriving at the Pavilion’s bar, he met well-known Upper Canada (Ontario) frontiersman Doctor William “Tiger” Dunlop. Fergusson wrote, “I scarcely recollect of anything more welcome than a beverage with which my companion (Dunlop) regaled me at Forsyth’s, under some odd name, but which consisted of a bottle of good brown stout turned into a quart of iced water with a sufficient quantity of ginger, cinnamon and sugar; truly it was a prescription worthy of being filled.”
The Pavilion was destroyed by fire on February 19, 1839.
By that time Fallsview had become a religious centre. This began with the construction of a lovely little Roman Catholic Church that still stands looking out over the cataracts and upper rapids of the Niagara River. Originally known as St. Edward’s, construction of the church began in 1837.
St. Edward’s had both its status and its name significantly changed in 1861. Early that year, Archbishop John Joseph Lynch of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toronto became greatly concerned about events unfolding in the United States that seemed to be hurling that country into a civil war. He suggested to Pope Pius IX that a pilgrimage shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Peace be established overlooking Niagara Falls – a place he described as “the grandest scene in the world.”
The Pope agreed with the Archbishop’s proposal and on March 1, 1861 issued the appropriate decree to elevate St. Edward’s to a place of pilgrimage. The name was then changed to the Shrine of Our Lady of Peace.
Six months later a small group of nuns arrived at Fallsview. Members of the Sisters of Loretto, this religious congregation had been given a large parcel of land immediately north of Our Lady of Peace for establishing a school to be known as Loretto Academy. It was first housed in a former hotel. This was replaced by a large stone building constructed in two stages between 1869 and 1880.
Although the school closed in 1982, this landmark heritage structure still stands.
On the other side of Our Lady of Peace is the Mount Carmel Spiritual Centre. Originally built as a hospice and a residence for members of the Carmelite Order, the building formally opened in 1899. Both its use and to some extent its look have changed over time – for a number of years it was a school for young men in training for the priesthood. A highlight is the 1926 chapel which features a number of incredibly beautiful stained glass windows.
While 19th century Fallsview obviously witnessed a great deal of religious-related activity, it also saw, at least for a day, one of the most extraordinary, even bazaar, entertainment events ever held in Niagara Falls. The date was August 28, 1872 and the event was the Grand Buffalo Hunt.
While the show’s promoter, local businessman Thomas Barnett, had expected to be able to import a large number of buffalo from Nebraska, due to a host of logistical problems, only two actually arrived here along with a Texas ox. A few Indians from the American West were hired as well as a number of Mexican cowboys. Directing the show was none other than “Wild Bill” Hickok.
Designed as a promotional event for Niagara Falls and held inside a large, especially fenced area, advertising promised the Grand Buffalo Hunt would be a “thrilling spectacle.” However, it turned out to be more of a boring yawn. A reporter covering the event for the local press noted, for example, how one of the buffalo cows was brought out from a pen in the centre of the enclosure. But “it just loafed around and then laid down.” Finally persuaded to stand up, she was then lassoed and pulled back into the pen. The rest of the brief show was no better, the reporter summing up the whole thing as a “swindle” and a “farce.”
Railways played a significant role in the early development of tourism in Niagara Falls. For the Michigan Central Railway in particular, the late 19th century brought a business bonanza and a public relations coup, due, in large measure, to Fallsview.
The Michigan Central (later the New York Central) was an American-owned line connecting Detroit and Buffalo via southern Ontario, from Windsor to Fort Erie. In 1883 the company constructed an extension of their mainline from Welland to Niagara Falls, with the tracks passing by Fallsview. At the same time, a bridge was built to take their trains across the Niagara River into Niagara Falls, New York and then on to Buffalo.
As a finishing touch, the company created a large, attractive viewing platform at Fallsview, just below Loretto.
Once all this was completed, the Michigan Central launched an advertising blitz, calling itself “The Niagara Falls Route,” declaring, “There is but one Niagara Falls on earth and but one great railway to it.” All this had the intended effect – business on the company’s Niagara Falls line boomed.
Part of the company’s publicity described how all daylight trains would stop at Fallsview: “Every train stops from five to ten minutes at Falls View – which as the name indicates is a splendid point from which to view the great cataract. It is right on the brink of the grand canyon, at the end of the Horseshoe, and every part of the Falls is in plain sight. Even if he is too ill or too lazy to get out of his car, every passenger can see this liquid wonder of the world from the window or the platform. Thousands of beauty lovers and grandeur-worshippers will journey over the only railroad from which it can be seen.”
The Fallsview stops ended in the 1920’s. In the decades that followed, passenger train service on the line rapidly declined until it was dropped altogether. An era had passed – times had changed. Later owned by Canadian Pacific, the tracks were closed and torn up in 2001.
By the mid-1920’s, a large number of Niagara visitors were arriving by automobile. As an outgrowth of this trend, tourist camps became popular, a place where you could park your car and pitch a tent or, in most cases, rent a cabin. Some also featured a camp kitchen where simple meals could be prepared.
The Falls View Tourist Camp (historically, the area was spelled as two words) quickly became a popular place to stay in Niagara Falls. Located in the area where the Embassy Suites and Tower Hotels are now, the camp provided a superb view of the falls by day while at night the roar of the cataracts would lull you to sleep in your tent. By 1935 the Falls View Tourist Camp was gone, a likely victim of the Great Depression.
A major turning point in Fallsview’s fortunes came in July 1962 with the opening of the 325-foot- (98-metre) high Seagram Tower, the first of Niagara’s viewing and dining towers that overlooked the falls. Now operating as the Tower Hotel, it offered a whole new concept in Niagara tourism and put Fallsview firmly in focus for vast numbers of visitors and residents. The area has not looked back since.
War, religion, transportation and tourism have all played a role in the long history of Fallsview. While the look of the area has changed over the years, the view is still an “inspiration.”