Shady Dealings: The Story of William Forsyth

Niagara Falls is blessed with a number of hotels offering fine hospitality, beautiful views, and comfortable, even luxurious, accommodations. Each has their own distinct charms, their own merit, something unique to provide guests. But all have one thing in common: they are spiritual descendants of the Pavilion Hotel, the first luxury, tourist hotel in Niagara Falls.
For more than a decade, it was the place to go and the place to be seen. Yet few of the wealthy, well-heeled patrons knew the depths to which the Pavilion’s owner sank to ensure his hotel profited, or paid any heed to the vicious behind-the-scenes war going on to capture precious tourist dollars. The competition was fierce and at stake was economic dominance of a developing industry.
The Pavilion Hotel was the brainchild of William Forsyth, one of Niagara’s earliest entrepreneurs in the tourism industry but also a shameless and aggressive opportunist with a disreputable past. Born in the United States in 1774, he developed a somewhat shady reputation early, by running a smuggling operation. In 1799, not long after arriving in Canada, he was charged of a felony but acquitted. A few years later he was found guilty of another unspecified crime and jailed. Forsyth escaped from his prison and made a desperate attempt at flight, but was apprehended shortly after.
During the War of 1812, Forsyth, described as a “small wiry man, weighing barely 150 pounds,” fought with the British as part of the 2nd Lincoln Militia. His commanding officer, Thomas Clark, suggested he was poorly liked by his fellow soldiers, ‘a man of uncouth behaviour,’ and indicated he was prone to cowardice and deceit.
In the post-war period, Forsyth found a new opportunity to exploit. Since 1815, Niagara Falls had been attracting wealthy world travelers—Americans, predominantly—intent on seeing the renowned natural wonder in person. However, there was no tourist hotel to wrap these tourists in the luxury they expected.
Forsyth was determined to remedy that. His plan began in 1817 when he purchased Wilson’s Tavern, a Niagara inn built in 1797. In 1821, Forsyth purchased more than 100 acres surrounding the hotel, and a year later tore down the aging structure and in its place built the luxurious Pavilion Hotel. The Pavilion Hotel, which was located just north of where the Minolta Tower now stands, was three storeys in height, of white clapboard construction, and boasted covered verandas overlooking the Falls and rapids. Because it catered to the elite of society, the Pavilion included a well-stocked library, a piano, billiard table, and accommodations for ‘noblemen and gentlemen of the highest rank with their families’. Forsyth made sure to stock the hotel with ‘the best flavoured and most costly wines and liquors.’
There could be no doubt that the Pavilion was by far the largest and most famous hotel in Niagara at the time, accommodating as many as 150 guests in style, many of whom remained for weeks or even months at a time. Among the prominent guests were two Governor-Generals of British North America and the Duke of Richmond
William Forsyth was undeniably the leading figure when it came to selling the Falls as a tourist attraction, but he wasn’t the only one and as the decade wore on competition from other hotels became fiercer. That didn’t sit well with Forsyth. The Falls were big enough to share, but that wasn’t his style. Forsyth didn’t want just a piece of Niagara Falls, he wanted the whole thing and would go to just about any lengths, stoop to any depths, to get it.
When rival hotelier John Brown built a plank road from his Ontario House hotel to the Falls, Forsyth promptly ripped it up. When Thomas Clark and Samuel Street acquired ferry rights on the river to bring guests to their own hotel, Forsyth harassed and sabotaged the operation so aggressively it couldn’t operate. And when the Ontario House burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances in 1826, many in town pointed fingers at Forsyth as the likely culprit. The accused made little attempt to dissuade this opinion; when asked about the fire, he would simply smile knowingly but remain silent.
Forsyth finally pushed his luck too far and it cost him dearly. In 1827, he built a fence around the Pavilion and down to the banks of the Niagara, enclosing part of the shoreline and laying claim to it as his own. But this wasn’t just any stretch of river: enclosed within Forsyth’s self-proclaimed domain was Niagara’s ultimate prize, Table Rock.
Table Rock was a huge platform of rock, several acres in size, that once hung more than fifty feet over the gorge just above the lip of the Falls. From the edge, sightseers were no more than five feet from the raging waters below, so close that you could almost dip your toes into the raging water. The bravest people crept to the edge nearest the Falls and peered out over the wondrous vista. Over the years, as the rock beneath it eroded and crumbled, vast slabs of it tumbled away until, bit by bit, Table Rock disappeared. But that wasn’t until much later. In the 1820s, Table Rock was the favoured spot from which to view the falls. If one could take possession of Table Rock, as Forsyth realized, he could monopolize tourism at Niagara Falls.
Once the opportunistic entrepreneur had put up his fence, the only way to enjoy that view would be through his hotel and only after paying a fee. The other hotelkeepers were enraged that Forsyth was attempting to grab the Niagara experience for himself. The fence was completely illegal as the Crown owned the land along the river bank to a depth of sixty-six feet, so soldiers were sent to tear the fence down. Forsyth rebuilt the fence, and once again soldiers tore it down.
Around the same time, Brown sued Forsyth for tearing up his road, while Clark and Street sued him for ruining their ferry service. In the end, after five years and a fortune spent in court, Forsyth lost. In 1833, now a beaten and despondent man, he sold the hotel to his rivals, Street and Clark, and moved to Fort Erie. William Forsyth was never again a player in the Niagara Falls tourism industry
As for the Pavilion, it declined in popularity during the 1830s and by the closing years of the decade, the Pavilion had been superseded by Clifton House, the next generation of luxury hotel and the new place to be seen. The end for the controversial hotel came on February 19, 1839 when a raging fire, the cause of which was never determined, consumed it in spectacular fashion.

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