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Castellani Art Museum Of Niagara Universlty
The first published image of Niagara Falls, by Pieter vander Leyden in 1704, was an engraving based on Louis Hennepin's account of seeing the falls with La Salle in 1678. Niagara is known for its scenery.

Ginger Strand, who teaches writing at New York's Fordham University, is a woman with an obsession, not far from the Great Lakes area where she grew up. It is the famed honeymoon destination, Niagara Falls, the subject of her intriguing book, "Inventing Niagara."

Most people have several phrases pop into their minds when they hear Niagara Falls: amazing scenery, natural wonder, honeymoons, Manhattan Project, fugitive slaves, underground railroad, Love Canal, landscape alterations, power plants, the NAACP, commercialization, Indian myths and Marilyn Monroe.

Very few people would be able to speak with depth about any of these and most would be surprised at how many connections exist. That is what fascinated Strand who spent three years researching Niagara Falls. She stayed at Ontario's new Radisson or New York's "decrepit Travelodge," then walked everywhere, interviewing park rangers, engineers and local historians.

It is her opinion that the Canadian side has been better kept than the American side.

Not willing to call herself a muckraker, Strand did express a "love of digging into the back story, finding out all the things not talked about with respect to Niagara Falls." In a phone interview from her New York City home, Strand said she considers the book to be "a love letter to the falls" and hoped that readers would come to think of Niagara and places like it as "more complicated" than they seem.

Strand found that Niagara Falls is neither "a sublime, natural wonder or a capital of kitsch with no scenic value. We should have a wiser attitude about it."

Strand would like it known that she never had any intention of "attacking" the falls, "but only to consider how to move forward. While I was working on the book, many people would tell me stories about the falls. It's like the Grand Canyon in that everyone has an opinion on it."

She has also discovered that many people think of the falls today with "a sense of sadness," because of its commercialization — wax museums, halls of fame, haunted houses, historical societies, scenic tunnels, Evel Knievel Museum and Pawn Shop, aquariums, water parks and boat rides, to name a few.

"Niagara is unusual as compared to Yellowstone Park or Zion's Canyon in Utah," said Strand. "There are always multiple interests at work, commerce, technology, industry, all pulled in multiple directions."

The most important change in Strand's opinion has been the harnessing of the falls under the control of the power companies. She is not against that way of utilizing the falls, but she thinks that the falls are no longer "deeply mysterious" to most people, even though there will probably always be an emotional feeling about the falls for most Americans.

Strand wanted the previously "hidden history" of Niagara to come out, so that people would realize how diverse its history has been. "Most people realize it is a beautiful natural wonder that has too many hotels, but they don't know the interesting history, as the locals know it."

In writing her book, Strand also focused on "the visual history of Niagara." She believes that photographs and paintings have documented the falls in a very measurable way. "We can piece together the changes that have been made by looking at the different pictures. I never could have written this book without the local librarians who helped me. It was hard to find the corporate histories that emanate from there, i.e., Alcoa and Union Carbide."

Strand spent a lot of time "driving around and trespassing. I liked being in the archives. I like to read people's old letters, even their laundry lists, and then sometimes come across something unbelievable. It brings history to life."

In 1893, Mark Twain wrote a short sketch, "The First Authentic Mention of Niagara Falls" for a souvenir volume. It purports to be a diary entry from Adam in the Garden of Eden when a new creature arrives. Strand happily quotes it in her book: "Tuesday — Been examining the great waterfall. It is the finest thing on the estate, I think. The new creature calls it Niagara Falls — why I am sure I do not know. Says it looks like Niagara Falls. That is not a reason, it is mere waywardness and imbecility."

Soon, Eve renames it "Niagara Falls Park," then puts up signs that say, "Keep off the Grass," "This way to the Whirlpool," "This way to Goat Island," etc. Even in the late 19th century, Twain could see the dangers of commercialization.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com