Half a century ago, no place in North America could match thundering Niagara Falls as a tourist attraction. People from around the world, especially legions of newlyweds, came to see the awesome sight and feel the power of the three majestic waterfalls that cascade between two Great Lakes separating Canada's Ontario Province and the U.S. state of New York. In a recent visit to what was once called America's Honeymoon Capital, VOA's Ted Landphair found the American side depressed by industrial decline and struggling to attract visitors, while the Canadian side booms with hotels, observation towers and gambling casinos.
Amid the jumble of souvenir stands, restaurants, and casinos, Niagara Falls is no longer a picture-postcard place. The Canadians are even planning to put a 57-story building right on the edge of the chasm.
But the allure of this place is intact, thanks in great part to a one-man Niagara Falls encyclopedia. Retired chemistry teacher Paul Gromosiak has written eight books about the falls on topics such as the Indian legend of the Maid of the Mist, the great ice bridges and rainbows and even moon bows, the daredevils who have lived and died tumbling over the falls in barrels and other contraptions. On Goat Island - a verdant, drizzly place of endless life forms - we strolled along the precipice.
"Niagara Falls is the finest creation of the Ice Age," says Mr. Gromosiak. "Despite all the development around the falls, I still feel overwhelmed, humbled, like I'm so unimportant. I want to shout to the world, 'You've GOT to see this. You've got to feel it. I've talked to tens of thousands of visitors through the years, and they all seem so happy when they come here!"
To Native American people, this was a holy place, so important that the Creator placed Heno, the Thunder Being, behind Horseshoe Falls. Awestruck whites called this Rainbow Country.
"If you come to the falls, and the sun is behind you, you're going to see one or more rainbows. Guaranteed," he notes. "Before there were lights on the falls, in the days when the moon's light was the only way to see them at night, on the night of a full moon, you would see a faint bow of colors produced by the moon's light. The water looked like silver, or the finest crystal that you could buy. People would come by train, just to see the lunar bows."
Cheap electricity from all the roaring falls turned Niagara Falls, New York, into a bustling mill town for a time. Until the State of New York seized the riverfront in 1885 to create a free, public park, a single family owned the land and turned a tidy profit.
"If visitors wanted to see the falls, they had to pay enormous sums of money," he explains. "They were harassed by hucksters of every type, actually physically abused by some of these hucksters."
Mr. Gromosiak says that with the world now open to easy exploration, not so many people come to the run-down American side any more.
"People here are depressed and desperate, very desperate," he states. "And when people are desperate, they often make serious mistakes in judgment. It's happening now. We tell the world that they're coming to see a natural wonder. They're not coming to see hotels. They're not coming to see casinos. I fear the day might come when people will say, 'I'm not going there. There's nothing natural about that place.'"
He stood by and waited like the others before for his turn to go over the falls.
Still coming, though, are fearless (or foolish) daredevils, who defy physics and the laws of two nations by hurtling over Niagara Falls in barrels, metal tanks, rubber balls, kayaks, and jet skis.
"And of course, last year, a man went over 'as is': no craft at all," notes Paul Gromosiak. "Kirk Jones, dressed in a red, white, and blue outfit with sneakers, waded into the water on the Canadian side, calmly walked in, lay on his back, stretched his arms out, and went over. Lost one shoe, got a few minor bruises, they say, and then swam to the shore below the falls and waited for help. He was one lucky man!"
Among the 16 publicity-seeking daredevils who have tried it, five were not so lucky. They perished in the rocks and foam below - their names added to the lore that Paul Gromosiak treasures.
"My roots go to the center of the earth here," he says. "I am so much a part of this place. I love it so deeply. One of my friends told me once I never married, because I was married to the Falls. I suppose that's true. The more I learn about its past, the more I love it. I want to be a part of it for eternity. So when I die, I want my ashes to become part of the soil there, so that the trees will grow from it some day and bow to the falls with the ice on their branches every winter in my memory."
Even though, to quote another resident, you'd have to be a one-eyed contortionist with a good imagination to see Niagara Falls unspoiled, Paul Gromosiak still paints tender word pictures of the oldest and mightiest state park in America.