Maid of the Mist: North America’s Oldest Tourist Attraction

By: Megan Pasche

As far back as 1834, the only way to cross the Niagara River was by boat, so small rowboats were commonly used to shuttle passengers from shore to shore, but it wasn’t until 1846 that somebody saw this as a moneymaking opportunity. Building a bigger and stronger boat would allow people, as well as mail and cargo to be transported. So it was then that a steamboat was launched and given the name ‘Maid of the Mist’. This was the premiere of what is now considered to be North America’s oldest tourist attraction. It had the capacity to carry a stagecoach and four horses, and it was in operation from 1846 to 1854.

In 1848, a suspension bridge was built and this put quite a damper on the ferry business. The owners of the Maid of the Mist decided to rebrand it as more of a sightseeing endeavor, with the boat venturing closer to the Falls. The tourism industry began to pick up, as more and more people travelled to see the wonder of the Falls. These first Maid of the Mist boats were coal-fired wooden boats.

But in 1861, with the Civil War looming in the United States, and financial issues beginning to plague the company, then owner W.O Buchanon was forced to sell the Maid of the Mist at an auction. It was purchased by a firm in Montreal with one condition attached: the buying company wanted the boat delivered into Lake Ontario for them. This would require a captain willing to guide the boat through the Whirlpool and the Devil’s Hole rapids, which were quite a dangerous combination, and something that had never been attempted before. Not many sailors were willing to try, especially after surveying the route they would be required to take. But then Joel B. Robinson, who happened to be the captain of the Maid of the Mist at the time, stepped forward to say he would take on the challenge. On June 6th, while thousands of people watched with baited breath, Robinson set out on his adventure, accompanied by two crewmembers. Despite the smokestack being broken away by the strength of the water, and the boat getting completely engulfed with waves, all aboard survived the trip. The boat was able to safely dock in Queenston, (albeit a little beat up) with the entire trip taking under twenty minutes. The boat was then sailed on to Quebec City were it was renamed Maid of Orleans. Captain Robinson himself was quite traumatized from the trip, and vowed never to go on the Niagara River again.

Another Maid of the Mist boat didn’t make it back onto the Niagara River until 1885. Rowboats went back to providing ferry service, until two men, R.F Carter and Frank LeBlond, made the decision to invest in a new Maid of the Mist vessel. They decided to make their boats go even closer to the mighty Falls, capitalizing on the desires of many to get as up close and personal with the Falls as possible. The business became extremely successful, and a second ship was added to the fleet in 1892.

New vessels were again launched in 1955 and 1956. These were made entirely of steel and powered by diesel engines. Each of them carried 101 passengers.

Prior to 1972, all the Maid of the Mist boats had been built and assembled right near the waters edge, close to where the boats docked and embarked from, but the Maid III was delivered in quite a unique way: by being lowered over the gorge all in one piece by a large crane. A crowd of thousands watched as the huge boat was slowly and carefully lowered. It was a successful delivery, and another boat was delivered this same way in 1974.

1996 was the 150 year anniversary of the Maid of the Mist, and the current boats are large, double decker vessels, able to carry up to 600 passengers each.

Over the years, numerous distinguished people and celebrities have made sure to catch a trip on the Maid, and that includes Theodore Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe, Pierre Trudeau, Princess Diana and her sons, Princes William and Harry, Jimmy and Roselyn Carter, Brad Pitt and Katy Perry to name a few.

Since it’s inception, Maid of the Mist has continued to be one of the “must do” attractions in Niagara Falls. It’s a gest that allows visitors to get as close to the Falls as they are ever going to, and experience this wonder of the world in a way that is completely unforgettable.

**Photo courtesy of the Maid of the Mist corporation.

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