Emotional and Environmental History at Niagara Falls

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Niagara Falls is known for creating an affective response: awestruck explorers; fainting women in Victorian gowns; artists trying to capture the sublime; besotted newlyweds; etc.

Niagara Falls presents an opportunity to blend environmental and emotional history. Emotional, or affective, history is part of the broader turn towards sensory history (and the environmental humanities) which has been coming on strong in the 21st century. Yet there has been little work at the intersection of emotional and environmental/ecological history, despite some obvious overlap: nature makes people feel certain ways, some of which is culturally and historically conditioned or framed.1

Earlier this year, Andrea Gaynor published a fantastic blog post outlining the existing literature, and potential future avenues, for joining environmental and emotional history, and her research is at the forefront of producing this type of synthesis.

Honeymoon at Niagara Falls

My aim here is not to review the literature, discuss how various emotional history methodologies can be imported into environmental history, or forge a new sensory-nature research agenda. Indeed, I’m still quite new to affective history.

My goal in this post is simply to show how emotional history might be used to analyze one slice of the modern history of Niagara Falls. Granted, this is a very limited step toward engaging affective history, and true emotional historians may justifiably contend that I’m just playing at its fringes. Nonetheless, to mix my metaphors, there is value to dipping one’s toe in before taking the plunge.

Twitter emotional history grab

I’ve recently finished the first draft of a book that focuses on the twentieth century history of engineering Niagara Falls. This past summer I was revising a journal article (which is forthcoming in Environment and History, and will be the last chapter in the book) on the campaign to preserve and enhance the American Falls between 1965-75. It seemed obvious that emotions were playing an important role (and that’s not even counting the theory that negative ions from the falling water create a positive sense of well-being). But how to incorporate emotions in an appropriate and sophisticated way? I did some preliminary searching, and couldn’t find much combining environmental and emotional history. As any good researcher does, I turned to Twitter.

After getting recommendations, and then exchanging emails with generous scholars like Andrea, I located more secondary source readings. This led me to some appropriate theory, approaches, and terminology that I figured would help me bring emotions into my work.

What I’m trying to do is strike a balance between both the history of emotions – which has a decidedly constructivist/poststructuralist bent – with envirotech/neo-materialist approaches that stress how humans and their cultures are products of their technologies and environments.2 Perhaps this is on par with the hubris of the hydraulic engineers I’m studying. But I’m convinced that it is important to collapse the artificial divide between humanity and nature, and untangle the web of how they intertwine and co-produce each other. What we culturally think about Niagara Falls matters (e.g., our emotions), but the waterfall has literal and physical power regardless of how we socially frame it. Like the proverbial tree in the forest, when the water falls over the precipice, it does make a sound. That falling water also does lots of other things than shape human history: spin turbines, power electrochemical processes, astound viewers, and maim bodies.

Movie poster for the Marilyn Monroe film “Niagara” shot on location in the early 1950s.

As the affective turn in historical enquiry has demonstrated, emotions change over time and are historically contingent. Such is the case at Niagara, evidenced by the changing nature of what constitutes sublimity among the various involved “emotional communities” or “emotional regimes”: groups that developed their own unique norms of valuation, expression, style and shared assumptions.3

In the context of my study, the prime emotional communities are the engineers, planners, industrialists, artists, and different classes of tourists. Though these can certainly overlap, within them affective responses to the Falls were often stylistically uniform, suggesting that many were performing cultural scripts – e.g., fainting at the site of Niagara or, conversely, shrugging with indifference (“it’s not that big”); advocating that it be left alone or, conversely, planning to dam it all up for power.

Over the past two centuries these communities have determined the conventions of response to the Falls: in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, the engineering community was dominant, though in the 1970s the bounds and assumptions of this regime began to shift.

In my work I detail how the shape and size of Niagara Falls has been manipulated and engineered, especially the Horseshoe Falls during the 1950s. To make a long story short, by the 1960s the physical shape of Niagara Falls had already been altered in ways that were intended to engender particular emotional responses: a sense of reverent awe, or at least sufficiently impressed.

The campaign to preserve and enhance the American Falls got underway in 1965, and involved  turning off the American Falls in 1969. Seeking national and international funding, local newspaper editors on the New York side sought to manufacture a “crisis” of the smaller cataract; this led to ominous headlines that played on readers’ emotional connections to the natural icon: “Fall Menaced,” “Save Niagara”, and “Disaster Threatens”.

The American Falls dewatered in 1969

As planners from both Canada and the US began examining options for remaking the American Falls (e.g., removing the rock talus that accumulated at the bottom), they conducted extensive public opinion surveys to ascertain preferences. In addition to the physical evidence, the American Falls International Board (AFIB) wrestled with the subjective question of what constituted beauty when it came to the American Falls. As the board fully admitted, aesthetic assessments and emotional responses to Niagara’s splendor varied. The AFIB determined that the key elements of the cataract’s appeal included: “the volume of water, the sculptural form of the talus and bedrock, the surface level and water’s edge of the pool. In understanding the American Falls as an immense water-sculpture, these are the controllable elements of the design. The beauty and drama of the Falls depend on the interplay and the relative proportions of these elements.”4

The engineers then sought to quantitatively measure and assess what was essentially qualitative – i.e., how people emotionally responded to the sight, sounds, sound, and feeling of Niagara. Since experts felt that the hearings to date had not provided enough public feedback, they decided to issue to the public 220,000 copies of a booklet entitled “The American Falls: Yesterday Today Tomorrow.” Enclosed were ballots asking respondents to voice their opinion on several options: remove the talus, increase the flow over the Falls, restore the Maid of the Mist Pool, or make no physical changes.

Obviously these questions stressed the aesthetic aspects, but appearance was inseparable from emotions. It was the classical cost-benefit analysis of the engineer, but feelings now factored into both sides of the ledger. Would removing the talus heighten the onlooker’s sense of the sublime – wonder mixed with danger? Would a little more water and symmetry overwhelm them even more – and would it be in proportion to higher engineering costs? At what point would physical modifications to the cataract upset this balance, with foreboding sliding into fear for their own own safety? In turn, the engineers used this information to physically reshape the waterfall so that tourists would continue to experience the requisite emotions.

Comparison of Increased Flow over the American Falls

To be sure, the affective response to Niagara Falls was filtered through various lenses, including nationality, but there was still enough common ground about what constituted the grandeur of the spectacle that it could ostensibly be captured in a laboratory and on the models they relied so heavily upon.

Ultimately, the engineers decided not to remove the talus or perform a major facelift on the American Falls. This was certainly a product of the burgeoning environmental movement, which led to discernible shifts in public feelings about nature and Niagara Falls. The majority of sentiment, including that of engineers, favored letting nature take its course. But the decision to do nothing also stemmed from uncertainty that the public would aesthetically appreciate any major engineering interventions, relative to the cost and effort. In other words, altering the physical appeal of the Falls wouldn’t sufficiently enhance the emotional appeal of Niagara.

Emotions had thus played a key role in shifting the meaning of “preserving” the American Falls from intervening to leaving them alone.

Going back to the beginning of my foray, in a way I had always been taking into consideration emotional responses to Niagara Falls; but I didn’t have the appropriate language and theory to discuss and interpret these responses. Reading up on emotional history gave me those tools. Using affective history in this way is likely watering it down quite a bit, forgive the pun; but to the limited extent that I incorporated emotional history into my research, I was happy with the result.

[1] Scholarship on emotional history includes: Mick Smith, Joyce Davidson, Laura Cameron, and Liz Bondi, eds., Emotion, Place and Culture (Burlington: Ashgate, 2009); Frank Costigliola, “‘I React Intensely to Everything’: Russia and the Frustrated Emotions of George F. Kennan, 1933-1958,” The Journal of American History (March 2016): 1075-1101; Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns, eds., Doing Emotions History (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014); Susan Broomhall, ed., Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2017); Franklin Ginn, Domestic Wild: Memory, Nature and Gardening in Suburbia (London: Routledge, 2017).

[2] On neo-materialism see the recent book by Timothy J. LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[3] On emotional communities see Barbara H. Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); on emotional regimes see W.M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework of the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[4] LAC, RG 25, 86-4-5:1, American Falls (Niagara), Board’s Interim Report and Distribution, Vol. 1: Preservation and Enhancement of the American Falls at Niagara, Interim Report to the International Joint Commission by the American Falls International Board, December 1971, Appendix B, pages, 15-16.

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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