Review of Macfarlane, Fixing Niagara Falls

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Daniel Macfarlane, Fixing Niagara Falls: Energy, Environment, and Engineers at the World’s Most Famous Waterfall. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020. 332 pgs. ISBN 9780774864220.

Reviewed by Clarence Hatton-Proulx.

Anyone who has visited the city of Niagara Falls (whether in Ontario or the state of New York) since the 1950s would probably agree that it’s somewhat of a “fake” town, full of amusement rides, casinos, mini golfs, and restaurant chains tailored for tourists. Few would go so far as to designate the falls themselves as somehow fake or artificial, yet this is precisely the argument that Daniel Macfarlane makes in Fixing Niagara Falls. Macfarlane documents the different engineering interventions undertaken during the 19th and 20th centuries to tailor this natural landscape to productivist needs. The falls themselves are the central character of this book.

Employing an envirotechnical perspective, Macfarlane demonstrates how the falls became a complex blend of nature and culture. Ever since 19th century interventions by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux — landscape architects known for their work in designing Central Park in New York and Mount Royal Park in Montréal, respectively — the falls have been characterized by a “manufactured naturalness that needed constant maintenance” (27). This is particularly salient to the ever-present tension in the modern history of Niagara Falls between natural beauty and industrial efficiency, between tourism and energy generation. How this tension was managed is a central theme of the book. The challenge for technocrats and politicians in the 20th century was to generate as much energy as possible without compromising the falls’ scenic attributes that brought in tourists and acted as a showcase for the wonders of both manufactured nature and engineering prowess.

Starting in the 1890s, numerous generating stations were constructed to use the power of falling water in order to produce electrical energy for nearby industry. Niagara Falls became one of the world’s primary hotspots of hydroelectric experimentation, boasting the biggest installed capacity and proving that transmission from a large generating station to nearby industry was feasible and efficient. The First World War confirmed that hydroelectric production was strategically essential for North American industrial output. Then during the Second World War both Canada and the United States undertook multiple water diversions to step up energy production – diversions that took far more water than the two countries had agreed could be used in the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. When the war ended, neither side wanted to let go of this extra power supply, and this facilitated a transition to a new water regime.

Niagara, mills on the American shore, c.1900. Postcard by Detroit Publishing Co. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LOT 12006, p. 6 [P&P].

The 1950 Niagara Diversion Treaty is the central part of this story. Signed between the United States and Canada, it equalized water diversions and restricted the flow of water over Niagara Falls to no less than 100,000 cubic feet per second during daylight hours in order to preserve the site’s scenic beauty. Divided equally between the two nations, the remaining water could be used for hydroelectric power. The treaty paved the way for multiple remedial works in the 1950s and 1960s by Ontario Hydro and the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built tunnels to divert and store water away from the top of the falls for hydroelectric generation. They also beautified Horseshoe Falls by reshaping the water’s flow to reduce erosion while keeping its visual attractivity. Models built in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Islington, Ontario were used by engineers to simulate the consequences of diversions on water flow. Macfarlane rightly insists that these models couldn’t accurately represent the real-world consequences of massive human interference on the natural environment. They embody the high modernist vision that presided over envirotechnical efforts of the mid-20th century.

The American Falls and Bridalveil Falls in Niagara Falls during the preservation work carried out in 1969. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Multiple groups challenged this hegemonic vision for the river. The Tuscarora First Peoples contested the Robert Moses-led Power Authority of the State of New York’s decision to use their ancestral land for the construction of a power reservoir. They brought the dispute before the American Supreme Court in 1960 but lost and their land was sacrificed on the altar of progress. Further, the predominant hubristic view in technocratic circles somewhat shifted in the 1970s. For instance, in 1973 the International Joint Commission invited 15 environmental planners and landscape architects to reflect on the falls’ future: these experts concluded that the falls should be left as they were. The fact that no engineers were consulted demonstrates a changing ethos towards an increased environmental consciousness that comes with the acknowledgment of scientific uncertainty. Even though glimpses of such challenges to the hegemonic engineering mentality appear in the book, they are submerged by the activities of governments and businesses to turn Niagara Falls into a productive hydraulic environment.

The falls as viewed from the Crown Suite Dining Rooms, Niagara Falls, ON in the 1960s. Courtesy of SwellMap.

Fixing Niagara Falls is based on extensive research conducted in multiple archives in both the United States and Canada, most notably in those of the International Joint Commission. It is richly illustrated and some of its findings are based upon geographic information system (GIS) methods. This is an academic book mostly intended for specialist readers, and Macfarlane doesn’t hesitate to delve into technical detail. While this attention to detail is laudable, the result is a dense narrative full of acronyms and units of measurement, and non-specialist readers might get lost here and there, drenched by aquatic technicalities.

In my view, the book could have benefitted from a wider perspective going beyond English central North America. The book’s subtitle reveals something of a continental bias: for whom is Niagara Falls the world’s most famous waterfall? Surely, if you were to ask an Argentine or Brazilian their answer would be Iguazú, and a Zambian Victoria Falls. Other passages of the book could have been enriched by comparing Ontario and New York’s experiences with other areas. For example, Macfarlane is absolutely right that hydroelectricity was central to Ontarian democracy, but discussion of neighbouring Québec (or of British Columbia), where hydrodemocracy was just as important, would have been welcome, fostering wider reflection around this engaging concept. Similarly, his claim that up until the 1960s the majority of energy of any kind exported from Canada to the United States was hydroelectricity from Ontario elides the fact that lot of hydroelectricity was exported from Québec as well, with Cedar Rapids generating station mostly turned towards American industry from the 1910s and Beauharnois from the 1930s. Without such comparative context, I felt sometimes as though the book overstates the case for Niagara Falls’ political, technical, and cultural importance. Certainly like other large engineering projects of the 20th century, from the Hoover Dam to the Dneprostroi Dam, it involved a violent reengineering of the natural environment to fit with productivist ideals and was used as a symbol of the so-called victory of humans over nature. But I’m not sure if it’s really fair to claim that “Niagara Falls played a central role in the legal regimes that evolved to help govern not only the border and natural resources but the two nations themselves” (62).

Small quibbles aside, Fixing Niagara Falls is an excellent monograph that cleverly analyzes how engineering interventions and human hubris helped make the Niagara Falls that we are familiar with today, manufactured and managed so as to look good on pictures while providing the electrical energy upon which hydrodemocracies are based. In addition to North American environmental historians, it will interest historians of technology and engineering, as well as tenacious non-specialist readers.

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Clarence Hatton-Proulx

I am a PhD candidate in history and urban studies at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS, Montréal) & Sorbonne Université (Paris). My thesis is on the history of urban energy transitions in 20th century Montréal. // Je suis doctorant en cotutelle en histoire et en études urbaines à l'Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS, Montréal) et à Sorbonne Université (Paris). Ma thèse porte sur l'histoire des transitions énergétiques urbaines de Montréal eu 20e siècle.

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