Niagara Falls: A Very Quotable Place

“Niagara Falls is a vast, unnecessary amount of water flowing the wrong way over unnecessary rocks.” This quite original observation was uttered by the famous Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde during his visit to Niagara in 1882.

It is a memorable line. Over the years there have been many other comments related to our famous falls that for their uniqueness, humour, insight or passion deserve to be remembered—or at least recalled. What follows are some additional examples of these quotable quotes.

Along with his unusual description of the falls, Oscar Wilde also referred to honeymooners here when he noted: “Every American bride is taken there and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest if not the keenest disappointments in American married life.” This remark is often abbreviated to the somewhat more cutting “Niagara Falls must be the second greatest disappointment in American married life.”

Often referred to as Niagara’s first honeymooners, Theodosia and Joseph Alston came here during the summer of 1801. They did not come alone, having been accompanied by a number of packhorses and servants. The daughter of Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States at the time, Theodosia was obviously overwhelmed with the spectacle of the falls. She wrote to her sister-in-law: “If you wish to have an idea of real sublimity, visit the Falls of Niagara—they are magnificent; words when applied to express their grandeur appear to lose half their significance—to describe them is impossible; they must be seen.”

As Theodosia rightly realized, describing the Falls of Niagara can be a challenge. Nevertheless, there have been a great many attempts. Here are a few notable ones. The first European to see the cataracts, Father Louis Hennepin, who arrived here in 1678, portrayed the spectacle as “a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner.”

The inspiring Helen Keller, both blind and deaf, came to Niagara Falls in 1893 and left with a definite understanding and appreciation of the scene. Describing the cataracts as a “vast force,” she wrote about the “fearful and irresistible plunge of its waters over the brow of the precipice.”

The American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne compared the falls to “an ocean tumbling out of the sky.”

Abraham Lincoln succinctly summed up the sight as “a world’s wonder.” British author Fanny Trollope also neatly summarized her Niagara experience with the words: “Wonder, terror and delight completely overwhelmed me.”

Major Sir William Francis Butler of the British military visited Niagara Falls in September 1867. The Irish-born Butler felt our famous falls was an impressive, not-to-be-missed landmark for the traveler, noting: “What the pyramids are to Egypt, what Mount Vesuvius is to Naples, what the Battle eld of Waterloo has been to Brussels, so is Niagara to North America.”

Winston Churchill visited Niagara Falls three times, in 1900, 1929 and 1943. During the latter visit, he was accompanied by his daughter Mary. While standing at Table Rock beside the Horseshoe Falls, a Canadian Press reporter approached the renowned statesman and asked him if he saw any difference in the falls compared to how they looked during his first visit here 43 years earlier. Churchill stared at the reporter for a few seconds, then turned and looked at the falls while taking a few puffs on his ever-present cigar. After what seemed like several minutes he once again faced the reporter and said, “The basic principle remains the same.”

Of course, some people who have been unimpressed with the falls left behind some classic quotes as well. For example, during February 1886 the Toronto Globe (now Globe and Mail) columnist Laura Bradshaw Durand related the story of the Niagara guide who escorted a couple to Table Rock. After staring at the falls for some time, they turned to their guide and, both totally blasé, one of them asked, “What else could the water do but go over?”

Going one step further, probably the epitome of Niagara putdowns came during Charles Dickens’ visit in 1842. His wife’s maid, Anne, dismissed the falls as: “It’s nothing but water and too much of that!”

Dickens had a much different reaction. Emotionally affected, he wrote: “Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an image of beauty to remain there… until its pulses cease to beat forever.” He referred to the area around the falls as “enchanting ground.” Many have been spiritually affected by the sight of the cataracts. Writing in 1853, Ontario pioneer settler Maj. Thomas Strickland enthused: “Who could behold the mighty Niagara and say there is no God?”

Occasionally there have been references to Niagara Falls in popular music. In the lyrics to “Let’s Get Away From It All,” there is the highly quotable line, “Let’s take a trip to Niagara, this time we’ll look at the falls.”

Movies have also produced some interesting Niagara quotes. One of them came in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief when Cary Grant tells Grace Kelly: “What you need is ten minutes with a good man at Niagara Falls.” Let’s conclude our survey of Niagara quotes with a comment from British Travel Writer Ethel Tweedie, as found in her 1913 book “America As I Saw It; or America Revisited.”

Ethel was very impressed with Niagara Falls but at the same time left a warning for future generations concerning its care: “Niagara is worth travelling many hundreds of miles to see; its power, its strength, its force, teach a sermon far deeper and more lasting than the best of sermons or the nest books of man. Even the most frivolous must pause and think before such a masterpiece of majestic beauty and power. It is devoutly to be hoped that the material gain to the industrial undertakings in the neighbourhood would not be allowed to destroy one of the greatest, most forceful and most awe-inspiring sights in the world.”

To learn more about Niagara Falls, visit our Best of Niagara section. 

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