America was one step ahead of Canada in creating public parks beside Niagara Falls in the 1800s

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Published April 12, 2022 at 11:53 am

Those huge swaths of green on both the American and Canadian sides of Niagara Falls are courtesy of some forward-thinking people back in the 1800s.

Both the American side and Canadian side of Niagara Falls have protected parklands. It’s a well-known fact.

But how that came to be is probably a little less well-known as it literally dates back centuries.

Someone recently posted the past events leading to the parklands after seeing them on an Niagara Falls information page and it’s a fascinating look at two men showing remarkable fore-sighted thoughts on a simple idea that residents and tourists would still be enjoying to this day.

According to the information site, it was two Americans who ultimately pushed to protect the parklands on both sides.

In 1856, Frederic Church, an American landscape artist, came to Niagara Falls. In order to preserve the natural beauty of the Falls along both sides of the border and to prevent unwelcome commercialization, Church began a campaign to establish public parks along each side of the Canadian and American borders at Niagara Falls.

In 1869, he met a strong supporter of his public parks proposal in Frederick Law Olmsted, an American landscape architect. The articulate and well spoken Olmsted lobbied many politicians in the Western New York area of the Niagara frontier.

Olmsted made a similar appeal to the Canadian Governor-General, Frederick Temple aka Lord Dufferin. In 1878, during a speech, Dufferin publicly announced his support for a public park at Niagara Falls. Dufferin then teamed up with Oliver Mowat, the Liberal Premier of Ontario.

Mowat, in turn, lobbied his American counterpart, Governor Lucius Robinson of New York State, to support the parklands plan. Robinson do so in January 1879, recommending public parks proposal to the New York State Legislature.

By September 1879, the New York state geological survey report had been concluded and the results shared with the Ontario Government. The report suggested land acquisitions should be carried out by both governments.

The Ontario Government supported the report but suggested that the Dominion of Canada, meaning the federal government, should assume the cost of establishing the park since it was claiming jurisdiction over the lands involved.

However, Canada’s Prime Minister was John A Macdonald, a Conservative, so there ended up being a financial dispute over the property, which delayed the development of the Canadian public park at Niagara Falls for three and a half years. (As you can see, Liberal and Conservative governments bickered even 100-plus years ago.)

In February 1880, Mowat introduced a law entitled “An Act Respecting Niagara Falls and adjacent Territory”. The ownership of the chain reserve (provincial vs federal) was still an issue yet to be determined.

Mowat thought his law would force the Federal government into action. Macdonald responded by creating a Federal Niagara Parks Commission but no action to develop a national park was undertaken.

The Americans acted unilaterally in the development of the New York Reservation State Park at Niagara Falls. The park became a reality on April 30, 1885 when it was signed into law by Governor David B. Hill.

The new Reservation State Park would consist of 412 acres including Prospect Park, Goat Island and Bath Island. The cost to create this park was estimated at approximately $1.4 million dollars. The New York Reservation State Park was officially opened to the public on July 15, 1885.

In 1883, the new Governor-General of Canada, John Campbell, aka the Marquis of Lorne, resurrected the development of a public park. However, the Canadian Southern Railroad wanted to build a bridge across the Niagara Gorge near Niagara Falls.

This proposal spurned Mowat into action to protect the landscape near along the Niagara River so on March 20, 1885, Mowat introduced the “Niagara Falls Park Act – an Act for the Preservation of the Natural Scenery about Niagara Falls,” which was passed into law on March 30, 1885.

The original park was comprised of 154 acres which included the area between present day Clifton Hill and Dufferin Islands. The width of the park was extended beyond the original chain length to approximately 300 yards west from the Niagara River to the glacial moraine which rises approximately 100 feet above the plain.

Nineteen private properties were expropriated – something few remember – and the cost of parks creation was estimated at $436,813 – roughly $1 million less than the American side.

On April 23, 1887, “the Queen Victoria Niagara Parks Act” was passed by the Government of the Province of Ontario and it was officially opened to the public on Victoria Day – May 24th 1888 – some three years after the American’s opened their side.

So behind the hard work of two American men – and an uncompromising Ontario Premier named Mowat – both sides now enjoyed the parklands to this day.


Frederic Church, left, and Frederick Law Olmsted were the two American men
responsible for saving the parklands on both the Canadian and American side of
Niagara Falls.

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