Niagara Falls has been an international icon with different meaning and significance to different people over time.
From their first encounters with the Falls until well into the 19th century, Europeans and their American descendants beheld Niagara with awe, perceiving it as an outstanding expression of the “sublime.” To these early visitors the spectacle was emblematic of the New World, in which everything appeared outsized and limitless. Niagara exemplified the concept of wilderness, with the grandeur and terror it represented.
Niagara Falls has been a favored destination of travelers for two centuries and is representative of tourism in the nation as a whole. Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 made Niagara Falls easily accessible for the first time.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Niagara Falls became known as the Honeymoon Capital of the World. Thousands of newlyweds made the ritual pilgrimage to the Falls to inaugurate their lives together.
Even in its earliest incarnation, commercialism at Niagara Falls took on a seamy and aggressive tone. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs on both sides of the river competed with each other in cutthroat fashion in attracting and extracting money from unwary visitors. The tasteless and sensational nature of the commercial exploitation took on a life of its own.
Contributing to the sensational spectacle were individuals who undertook life-threatening feats and dangerous publicity stunts. Tight-rope walking and descending the Falls in a barrel were most prominent among the ways that publicity seekers sought public attention and acclaim.
Niagara emerged as a major battleground between divergent visions of the value and meaning of the Falls and the natural environment in general. Educated, urban and progressive forces battled to protect the integrity of the natural wonder in the face of economic exploitation by tourism, manufacturing, and hydropower generation. The Niagara Reservation was created in 1883 as the first state park, an early triumph of the conservation movement, and a major influence on the creation of national parks.