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Niagara: A History of the Falls Paperback – December 1, 1997

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Editorial Reviews Review

Sometimes a place can be as good a subject for a "biography" as a person--and Niagara Falls turns out to be such a place. Fortunately, it found its ideal biographer in Canadian historian Pierre Berton, who chronicles its colorful history with a storyteller's verve. Niagara Falls was a sort of laboratory and breeding ground for a wide variety of American phenomena: carnivals and theme parks, destination tourism, industrialization based on cheap hydroelectric power, and the conservation movement, among others. Berton weaves all this together in a readable, well-paced book rich with anecdotes, memorable characters, and nicely crafted language. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The first Europeans to see Niagara Falls were struck with an awe akin to terror, but with the passage of a couple of centuries the site came to be regarded as the ultimate symbol of God's creative power. Even Charles Dickens, who didn't think much of what he found on this side of the Atlantic, was deeply moved. In the 19th century, the American side of the falls became a Mecca for honeymooners, first luring the rich and then the middle class as well. Later in that century, the unparalleled opportunity for hydroelectric power, combined with the development of alternating current, which meant that electricity could be sent over long distances, brought a wealth of industrial development. Canadian historian Berton (The Wild Frontier) tells dozens of absorbing tales about the region and those who passed through it: the "funambulist" Blondin, who danced on a tightrope high above the chasm; John Roebling, better known for the Brooklyn Bridge than for the one he built to span the Niagara River; the adventurers and crackpots who went over the falls in barrels; the lengthy struggle to close the Love Canal toxic waste dump. He tells them all superbly, aided by essential maps and a few reproductions of posters advertising some of the more bizarre stunts.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1st edition (January 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140270167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140270167
  • Product Dimensions: 3.5 x 0.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,172,065 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By John B. Maggiore on June 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"Niagara" is a nice little book, stringing together a series of anecdotes about Niagara Falls and its immediate region, especially from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century. As histories go, it is fairly light (the author does not cite his facts, although he does include an extensive bibliography), but Pierre Berton is adept at telling stories, especially human stories.
The stories mostly develop along one of two themes - daredevil encounters with the Falls, and human manipulation, either for the purpose of exploitation or protection of the Falls. Berton is best with the small stories of explorers, tightrope walkers, barrel riders, a family of "rivermen" (the Hills), and their ilk. The small becomes large with what is perhaps the best-crafted story, that of Lois Gibbs and the toxic tragedy of Love Canal, with which Berton ends the book.
Although the story of the Falls did not end in 1980, Love Canal is a fitting final story. Despite the occasional preservationist triumphs, the story of the Falls really culminates in Love Canal. The natural wonder of the Falls became framed by hucksters, factories, power stations, tacky museums, homes, roads, manicured parks and everything else unnatural. Engineers even managed to stop the falls in an attempt to clear out fallen rocks (they wisely chose not to once they realized that the rocks propped up the rock face behind the falls). A visit to the Falls today is a jarring reminder of what a mess we humans have made of the natural world. It is an obscene juxtaposition of nature's best and humanity's chintziest.
Berton is less skilled at relaying scientific stories about the formation of the falls, and the energy and chemical industries.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 14, 1999
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you're curious about Niagara Falls, and want to know more about its geological and social history told in an highly engaging narrative style, this book is highly recommended. All aspects of the area and the natural phenomenon known as Niagara Falls is covered, with detailed stories about both the New York and Canadian sides. Interesting illustrations complement the text. Included are a wide range of topics, including the stories of the daredevils who tried to conquer the Falls to the more serious subject of Love Canal.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Bomojaz on April 30, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Here's a wonderful history of Niagara Falls in all its splendor and loopiness, from the early explorers and the first tourists, to the artists who've tried to capture its stupendous glory on canvas and the daredevils and just plain crazies who've tempted fate by going over it in a barrel or walking across it on a tightrope. Although it ends on a sour note with the Love Canal environmental disaster of the 1980s, which took place in the city of Niagara Falls, Berton's history is comprehensive and marvelous to read. Whether it's John Roebling building the first great suspension bridge near the falls, Robert Moses trying to swindle the Tuscarora out of their lands for a power plant reservoir, or those who viewed the falls with almost spiritual awe (as Harriet Beecher Stowe did) or saw them with dollar signs flashing before their eyes (too many to mention), Berton's book captures them all. It's extremely well written, with many illustrations to boot.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By James Carragher on September 2, 2001
Format: Paperback
The subtitle here says it all -- this is truly a history of the Falls, beginning back with the Ice Age, although that pre-history is dispensed with quickly. Berton is an easy, if not compelling read. I learned a whole lot more than necessary about the machinations of the power players in the early hydroelectric industry in Niagara. Amidst all that detail, however, Berton properly highlights the importance of the Falls to industrial development in both the United States and Canada, a fact easily overlooked in the popular image of Niagara. My own Falls memories include being thirteen and reading in 1960 the next day's Buffalo newspapers about the boy who accidentally went over the Falls in his bathing suit and survived, the only person ever to do so. The history Berton draws of the man's life after that miracle made interesting reading, as did the reasons the first person to survive going over in a barrel had for doing so. There is a full panoply here of fools, stoic rescuers (and body retrievers), and shysters, but I found Berton's efforts to be exhaustive sometimes obscured the lure and power that makes Niagara the popular fascination it has always been. That said, I know much more about Niagara than I did before and would recommend this as a quick summer read to anyone with curiosity about this natural, and -- Berton makes clear -- ever-changing wonder.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By George Waters on January 21, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I give this book four out of five stars. It's a very good read, providing an excellent history of one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sites on the earth. The book covers the beginning of Niagara Falls during the Ice Age, continues to the early explorers and first tourists of the Falls, and then goes on to provide an expansive and yet easy-to-read history of the Falls since then.

Much of what Berton recounts in his book is anecdotal, but all in all it is an excellent and informative read. I took one star off because the pictures in the book really aren't very high quality, but the writing is top-notch.
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