Niagara Falls III – Staging the Spectacle

Russ Glasson, 15 December 2010

To be successful, a tourist attraction has to appeal to the desires of tourists for something extraordinary and be capable of firing the imagination. In doing so, the attraction succeeds in creating an experience which visitors perceive as meaningful. To this end, grateful use is made of whole and partial myths, derived from history and fantasy. This makes the tourism industry one of the cornerstones of the experience economy.

In his essay ‘The Iconography of the Tourism Experience’ (1997), American scholar Ernest Sternberg analyses the way in which tourist products are created. Niagara Falls serves as an example. An important part of this production process is what Sternberg calls ‘staging’, a term borrowed from the theatre.

Unlike Disney World, Niagara Falls did not have to be built from scratch to become a top tourist attraction. It was created naturally, after all. Since the early 19th century, however, this ‘naturalness’ has been under pressure from the lucrative exploitation of the waterfalls as a source of hydropower. The current success of Niagara Falls is due to an extensive and lengthy process of staging: the man-made design of the waterfalls and surrounding environment, the careful arrangement of all the elements, embedding the falls in the right context, or even distracting attention from the context that does not fit the story. This gives rise to an audience willing to ignore everything that detracts from the image of the waterfalls as a natural wonder, and sometimes leads to striking examples of self-censorship.

When clearing out his in-laws’ garage in 2009, Russ Glasson came across an old shoebox full of slides. They spent their holidays at Niagara Falls in 1969, when the American Army Corps of Engineers was involved in a remarkable operation.

Niagara Falls dewatered

Following subsidence in 1931 and 1954, large amounts of loose rock and debris had been deposited in the riverbed at the foot of the American Falls. Above the falls, large areas of the river had dried up. In 1965, the Niagara Falls Gazette ran an article arguing that the American Falls would silt up entirely if the debris were not removed. Four years later, engineers from the US Army were assigned to clean up the riverbed above and below the waterfall. They diverted the Niagara River, causing the American side ran dry. To achieve this, a 180-metre dam was built across the Niagara River, redirecting all the water, more than 250,000 litres per second, over Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. The work took about six months, from June to November 1969. For the first time in thousands of years, the waterfalls were brought to a halt.

In the slides that Glasson found, Niagara Falls resembles a giant quarry. Armed with bulldozers and cement mixers, yellow-helmeted workers tackle the erosion. But the engineers did much more than just clear rubble. Using cement, bolts and anchors, they reinforced the rock face and tiny Luna Island between American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. The island was also stripped of overhanging rocks, which could pose a potential danger to tourists. Goat Island was enlarged and the edge of the falls was levelled: by ‘improving’ the shape, the water would flow more evenly over the edge.

Erosion was not the only reason for the river running dry. Greater consumption by hydroelectric plants, which draw the water through inlets and underground channels to large turbines, caused a sharp decrease in the volume of water. To regulate this, the US and Canadian governments built a large dam with sluice gates. It was decided that during the day in the tourist season, around half of the actual water supply should flow over the edge of the waterfall. This would guarantee a ‘very satisfactory scenic spectacle’. At night and out of season, consumption by the hydroelectric plants would be increased, leaving only a quarter of the actual amount of water to crash over the falls. The technicians can, as it were, control what the waterfalls look like, down to the second and litre. Get to the falls early enough and you will see how they are ‘turned on’ again.

Glasson posted the pictures on his Flickr account. They were spotted by a journalist from the British Daily Mail, who wrote an article about them in December 2010. The story was picked up by media outlets around the world. It is remarkable that these photographs still cause so much excitement 40 years later. This massive ‘reconstruction’ of Niagara Falls was never kept secret and tourists were welcome throughout. And yet there are few images available; very few people took the trouble to photograph the dismantled waterfalls. They did not fit the picture that they had hoped to see.

– Russ Glasson, photo set ‘Dewatered Niagara Falls’,
– Graham Smith, ‘The day Niagara Falls ran dry. Newly-discovered photos show the moment the iconic waterfall came to a standstill’, Daily Mail, December 15, 2010
– Ernest Sternberg, ‘The Iconography of the Tourism Experience’, in Annals of Tourism Research, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1997, p. 951-969, Elsevier Science Ltd
– Ginger Strand, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, 2008, Simon Schuster Paperbacks

Excerpt from: Raymond Frenken, ‘Pictures from the Brink of Love and Death. Niagara Falls’, in: Objects in Mirror. The Imagination of the American Landscape, 2012, design and editing by Hans Gremmen, published by Fw:books, produced and co-published by Fotodok, distributed by Idea Books, ISBN 978-94-90119-15-7