Olmsted Park and Parkway System - Table of Contents

In Defense of Niagara
: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Niagara Reservation

by Francis R. Kowsky
(Home Page)
Art History, State University of New York College at Buffalo
Preservation Coalition of Erie County Board of Directors

Reprinted with permission from the Buscaglia-Castellani Art Gallery of Niagara University. Originally published in "The Distinctive Charms of the Niagara Scenery: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Niagara Reservation," the catalog for the 1985 Niagara Reservation art exhibit.

Catalog Companion Article:
Planning the Niagara Reservation
by Charles E. Beveridge

The footnotes in the original publication have been inserted into the main body of the text (brown type).
None of the illustrations on this Web page were found in the original publication.

"I had shortly before been engaged in establishing the State Reservation of California for the preservation and free Public use of the natural scenery of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove and the question had been on my mind whether something should not be done with a similar purpose at Niagara. I had had some conversation as to the conditions of the property, the rights of the state and the danger impending, with Mr. Whitney of the Cataract House and I think also with Mr. Peter Porter.... While rambling on Goat Island with Mr. Dorsheimer and Mr. Richardson I brought the subject before them and, as there were, at the time, two or three other gentlemen at Niagara with whom we had been associated in the project of the Buffalo Park and the Buffalo State Lunatic Hospital ground, they were asked to meet in the evening at Mr. Dorsheimer's room to consider the matter."

Olmsted to C.K. Remington, May 28, 1888. Olmsted Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The guest book of the Cataract House showing the signatures of Olmsted, Dorsheimer and Richardson on August 7, 1869, is preserved in the Niagara falls Public Library.

With these words, Frederick Law Olmsted remembered the meeting that had taken place at the Cataract House Hotel in Niagara Falls on August 7, 1869, and which truly began the movement that culminated sixteen years later in the establishment of the Niagara Reservation. Olmsted, who was forty-seven years old at the time, had recently embarked upon a career in the nascent field of landscape architecture. In 1858, he and his partner, Calvert Vaux, had undertaken to design New York City's Central Park, the nation's first important municipal pleasure ground. The Civil War, however, had interrupted Olmsted's work, for when fighting began he gave up his post as superintendent of Central Park construction to become secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, a private body devoted to raising much-needed medical supplies for volunteer troops.

Pushed by his own spirit of dedication to duty and the enormity of the task, Olmsted, near to a breakdown, left the commission in the summer of 1863 and went West to seek fortune as manager of the Mariposa Estate, an ambitious mining venture located in the gold fields of central California. While there, Olmsted, for whom natural beauty held a compelling attraction, became deeply impressed by the Yosemite Valley and the stands of immemorial sequoia trees nearby. In addition to his duties as manager of the Mariposa Estate, Olmsted played a significant role in the effort to protect the valley and grove from commercial exploitation. This labor of love was Olmsted's most productive work in the West, for the estate proved to be poor in gold ore, and the social and managerial problems Olmsted confronted there seemed impossible of solution.

Click on the illustrations for larger size

Cover of the catalog for the 1985 Niagara Reservation art exhibit at the the Buscaglia-Castellani Art Gallery of Niagara University

Frederick Law Olmsted

Calvert Vaux

Niagara Falls map engraved by Wagner and Debes of Leipzig, Germany, and published in 1904 by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York.

William Dorsheimer

The Front (now Front Park)

Henry Hobson Richardson

Dorsheimer House

Buffalo State Hospital (present Buffalo Psychiatric Center)

Capitol at Albany

Capitol at Albany

Frederick Law Olmsted's Plan for the US Capitol Grounds

Fairsted. Brookline, Massachusetts, Olmsted's home and office, which is maintained by the National Park Service and is the repository of many of Olmsted's plans.

Frederic Edwin Church painting of Niagara Falls

Goat Island map engraved by Wagner and Debes of Leipzig, Germany, and published in 1904 by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York.

Grover Cleveland

C. 1913 postcard

1911 postcard

1908 postcard

1913 postcard

C. 1913 postcard

C. 1913 postcard

In 1865, encouraged by his friend Vaux, Olmsted returned to New York City and resumed wholeheartedly the professional life he had barely started before the war. Forming with Vaux the firm of Olmsted, Vaux and Company, Landscape Architects, Olmsted inaugurated a thirty year course of action.

In August, 1868, Olmsted was in Buffalo to discuss the creation of parkland with William Dorsheimer and a group of civic minded businessmen who were strong park advocates.

For a discussion of the Buffalo parks, see Charles Beveridge, "The Buffalo Park and Parkway System," in Buffalo Architecture: A Guide, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981.

Dorsheimer, their leader, was the district attorney for northern New York and a prominent figure in the liberal wing of the Republican party in Buffalo. Greatly respecting Olmsted's talents as a landscape architect, Dorsheimer grew to cherish him as a friend. In subsequent years, they worked closely together in Buffalo and elsewhere.

The Buffalo park project was advancing steadily in the summer of 1869, and by the spring of 1870 Olmsted and Vaux had prepared plans for a series of new parks linked by broad, elm shaded boulevards they called parkways. The scheme, which was largely completed by 1876, was the first park and parkway system for an American city. It came to represent in Olmsted's mind a model for other municipalities to follow in creating recreational lands and new residential districts.

Of the several sites that Olmsted designated for parks in Buffalo, The Front possessed for him the greatest scenic value. Located on a bluff overlooking the spot where the swiftly moving waters of the Niagara River flow out of the broad expanse of Lake Erie, The Front quietly marked the first episode in the saga of Niagara. Here Olmsted and Vaux planned a wide terrace from which visitors could take in the splendid view, which Olmsted himself described as commanding "a river effect such as can be seen, I believe, nowhere else a certain quivering of the surface and a rare tone of color, the result of the crowding upward of the lake waters as they enter the deep portal of the Niagara.

Frederick law Olmsted, "A Healthy Change in the Tone of the Human heart," Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, XXXII, 1886, 963.

The friendship that grew up between Olmsted and Dorsheimer soon expanded to include Henry Hobson Richardson. After winning the competition for the design of Trinity Church in Boston in 1872, Richardson went on to dominate the American architectural profession. In 1869, however, he was working little-known in New York City where he had settled after five years of study in Paris. A neighbor of Olmsted's on Staten Island, Richardson was also a member of the Century Club in New York, as were Olmsted and Dorsheimer. In 1868, Richardson designed a handsome Parisian style home for Dorsheimer in Buffalo on Delaware Avenue, one of the thoroughfares that formed part of Olmsted and Vaux's parkway network.

See the author's "The William Dorsheimer House: A Reflection of French Suburban Architecture in the Early Work of H. H. Richard Richardson," Art Bulletin, LXII, 1980, 134-147, and Buffalo Projects: H.H. Richardson, Buffalo, 1980.

Two years later, Richardson obtained the commission to design the Buffalo State Hospital (present Buffalo Psychiatric Center), the first building to demonstrate his broad-shouldered re-invention of Romanesque architecture. The mammoth mental institution, which was the largest structure of Richardson's career, occupied a 200 acre site for which Olmsted created a park-like setting.

The friendship which began in Buffalo and Niagara Falls became a permanent feature of these three men's careers. In 1874, when Dorsheimer was elected lieutenant-governor of New York under Samuel Tilden, he used his considerable influence to have the state employ Olmsted and Richardson (together with Leopold Eidlitz) to complete the capitol at Albany, a building that had been begun by another architect. Olmsted and Richardson also collaborated on a number of other public and private projects. After 1880, they became neighbors in Brookline, Massachusetts, where today Olmsted's home and office, Fairsted, is maintained by the National Park Service and is the repository of many of Olmsted's plans.

The day after the meeting at the Cataract House in 1869, Olmsted was joined at the Falls by Vaux. Vaux was one of a number of talented English architects who since the mid-nineteenth century had set up practice in New York City. His ties to the American romantic landscape tradition were strong, for he had originally immigrated to work at Newburgh, New York, with Andrew Jackson Downing, the man who in the 1840's first acquainted American audiences with the principles of British landscape gardening. Aware that Olmsted possessed the ability to organize and direct others and that he held notions about nature sympathetic to his own, Vaux had eagerly chosen to collaborate with him on the creation of the plan which had won the Central Park design competition. In the late 1860's and early 1870's, Vaux worked with Olmsted on Prospect Park in Brooklyn, South Park in Chicago and the nearby community of Riverside, lllinois, as well as the Buffalo park system. He was also destined to take an active part in the campaign to save Niagara.

Although not present at the Cataract House meeting, the landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church, a distant relative of Olmsted's, was also at the time strongly in favor of preserving the Falls. In 1857, Church had painted the definitive Victorian image of the cataract. And as a commissioner of Central Park and the owner of Olana, a large estate near Hudson, New York, he demonstrated a public and personal commitment to the advancement of the art of landscape architecture. Olmsted freely acknowledged Church's early and continued influence on the reservation concept.

Calvert Vaux in "A Natural Park at Niagara," New York tribune, October 15, 1878, 9, talks about Church's interest in preserving Niagara Falls.

In the 1860's and 1870's, Church apparently spoke with his colleagues at the Century Club about the need to take action to protect the Falls.

In a letter to Thomas V. Welch, Olmsted discussed the influence of Church on the reservation movement. He was specifically responding to a notice that had appeared in New York World, whose editor thought that Church had not received proper acknowledgment in the report published by the Commissioners of the State Survey. "In a notice by the New York World of the report of the Survey Commission of 1880," Olmsted wrote to Welch, "it was observed that no credit had been given in it to Mr. Church except in an obscure note by Mr. Olmsted. What I had said in this note was that my attention had been called by my friend Mr. Church some ten years before to the deterioration of the scenery of the Falls. This was not an accurately true statement. Mr. Vaux had said that before this meeting at the cataract House in 1869, he had heard Mr. Church talk at the century Club of the injury which was occurring to the scenery. I do not think that I had ever heard a word from Mr. Church, or from any other source of what he had said on the subject. But as I was a member of the century (though not a frequenter of the Club House) and might have done so, I thought it right to assume that I had. Mr. Dorsheimer told me afterwards that it had not been very uncommon for gentlemen visiting the Falls to bewail the condition of things there and to say that it was disgraceful and that something ought to be done about it. Mr. Dorsheimer was also a member of the Century and though then residing in Buffalo was probably more at the Club House than I was. But he had not been aware of any talk on the subject there or anywhere by Mr. Church. l do not in the least doubt that Mr. Church had talked on the subject. l think it likely that he had before 1869 suggested that the State and Dominion Government should take action in the premises, but if he had it was wholly unknown to me, to Mr. Dorsheimer or, as I believe, to any of the gentlemen meeting at the Cataract House in 1869. " Olmsted to Welch, February 16, 1889, Olmsted Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In 1878, accompanied by William H. Hurlbert, editor of the New York Tribune, Church approached Lord Dufferin, the governor general of Canada, with the proposal that Canada and New York State initiate joint discussions aimed at the eventual establishment of a public park surrounding the cataract.

Olmsted was also familiar with Hurlbert. In the 1850's, when Olmsted was managing editor of Putnam's Monthly, he had selected Hurlbert to replace Richard Grant White as art writer for that magazine.

The Niagara landscape that Church knew in the 1850's and that Olmsted and his companions saw in 1869 was a mixture of primitive wilderness and ugly commercialism. The Cataract House shared the banks of the American rapids with a miscellaneous assortment of buildings that included a grist mill, stable, and pulp mill. Prospect Point bore the burden of an ostentatious pavilion where, according to an associate of Olmsted's, "free and easy men and women" came in the evening to drink and dance.

Charles Mason Dow, The State Reservation at Niagara, A History, Albany, 1914, 63.

An iron bridge constructed in 1856 near the Cataract House crossed the rapids to Bath Island, the untidy site of a large paper mill. From Bath Island, a second span led to Goat Island, that triangular bit of land miraculously suspended between the American and Canadian Falls.

In Olmsted's mind, Goat Island was the crowning jewel of Niagara scenery. Since the early nineteenth century, the island had been in the hands of the Porter family who scrupulously kept it free from commercial development. The Porters maintained Goat Island in its primeval condition, allowing tourists to visit for a fee. "Goat Island is happily intersected with good drives laid out with sufficiently fair taste through the natural forest," wrote a traveler in 1865, "and seats are placed at intervals for the accommodation of visitors."

William Howard Russell, Canada, London, 1865, 52.

In addition, bridges afforded access to Three Sisters Islands and Luna Island. Through this idyllic setting Olmsted "rambled" with Dorsheimer and Richardson, discussing his dream of securing eternal protection for the magnificent forest and water scenery.

In Olmsted's view, a visit to Niagara was to be leisurely and thoughtful, a pilgrimage providing a variety of uplifting encounters with nature. Like Church, Olmsted approached nature with a keen esthetic sensitivity which he wished to awaken in all of his fellow citizens. "I do hope that it is possible to give to common country folk even some idea of what art is," he wrote in 1880, "enough for a starting point of such self-education as may be possible toward a softer and finer life." He was speaking not of works of painting or sculpture, but of the acquired appreciation of beauty in nature. The artist John LaFarge, riding with Olmsted on a train to Washington, provided him with the best example of what he believed all people could learn to see. "In the car I thought he had been some time asleep," Olmsted said of his traveling companion, but "he explained to me that he was greatly enjoying the landscape and the colors in the low lying rain clouds, the beauty of which he then made me see and I don't suppose that . . . there were two others to whom it was apparent. This is a part of my idea of the true line of common school art education."

Olmsted to Charles Eliot Norton, January 22, 1880, Olmsted Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

It was this sort of subtle beauty that Olmsted especially hoped people would come to know at Niagara, not only the obvious spectacle of the Falls.

Indeed, Olmsted's consistent use of the word "Niagara "rather than Niagara Falls or the Falls, to describe the area signified this larger reference to the coming together here of many unique natural events. Olmsted and his colleagues, all men steeped in the romantic pantheism that informed the spirit of the times in intellectual circles, meant to preserve the enchanting aspects of Niagara scenery along with the great cataract itself which Olmsted warned had a "terrifying effect" on some who viewed it.

Frederick Law Olmsted, "Notes by Mr. Olmsted," in Special Report of the New York State Survey on the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls, Albany, 1880, 29.

During the decade following the Cataract House meeting, Olmsted must have fostered the Niagara project, although he made no public statements on the subject. Others, however, did talk during the 1870's about the worsening conditions at the Falls. Articles in newspapers and journals attested to the growing public perception that the Falls were in danger of being completely ravaged by greedy industry and commerce. Henry James, writing in The Nation, a periodical which Olmsted had helped found, noted in 1871 that while the Porters had been model proprietors of Goat Island and had refused numerous attractive bids to sell their property, "they are human, and the offer may be made once too often." He pleaded: "Before this fatal day dawns why should not the State buy up the precious acres, as California has done the Yosemite?"

Henry James, "Portraits of Places," The Nation, X111,1871, quoted in Charles Mason Dow, Anthology and Bibliography of Niagara Falls, Albany, 1921,II, 1099.

In 1875, William Morris, the founder of the arts and crafts movement and an early advocate of the preservation of historic buildings, lamented a commonly cited unpleasantness associated with visiting the Falls. "It would seem that the very pick of the touts and rascals of the world had assembled there," he complained of the army of guides, souvenir sellers, carriage drivers and dubious restaurateurs who preyed upon tourists.

William Morris, Letters Sent Home, London, 1875, quoted in Dow, Anthology, II, 1111.

The meeting between Frederick Church and Lord Dufferin in the summer of 1878 seems to have been the event that spurred the development of concerted efforts to have the Falls placed under the protection of the Dominion of Canada and the State of New York. In September, 1878, Dufferin addressed the Toronto Society of Artists on the subject, an occasion that was regarded as the initial public airing by a political figure of the novel concept. Somewhat later, in his 1879 address to the New York Legislature, Governor Lucius Robinson, with whom Dufferin had spoken personally, proposed that measures be taken immediately that would lead to the formation of an international park at the Falls. Samuel Tilden, whose law partner, Andrew H. Green, was a reservation advocate, may also have encouraged Robinson in this direction. The legislature responded favorably to Robinson's appeal and in 1879 authorized the Commissioners of the State Survey (the body responsible for making accurate maps of the state) to report on what steps would have to be taken to create a state reservation at Niagara.

Olmsted was called in to assist James T. Gardner, the director of the state survey, in the preparation of the report which was presented to the legislature in March, 1880. The report, the single most important document of the campaign to save the Falls, called attention in words and photographs to the commercial and industrial abuses of the river bank and Bath Island and to the high cost that visitors were forced to pay to view the Falls, as well as to the constant annoyances tourists suffered at the hands of dishonest guides and merchants. The report proposed that the state acquire the area around the Cataract, restore it to its former natural condition and make it accessible free of charge to the public.

There was special urgency in the situation because what Henry James had feared might happen loomed as a reality: the Porters were close to relinquishing ownership of Goat Island. "I made careful inquiry concerning the nature of the proposals for purchase," wrote Gardner in the report, ". . . by some it has been proposed to cut the woods off the Island, and make a race-course of it; others think it a favorable sight for a great summer hotel; others wish to make a rifle range upon it, while another and more practical party suggests cutting a canal down the center of the Island and building a row of factories along its front between the American and Canadian Falls . . . No power but that of the State," he warned, "can save this delightful spot from the fate which has overtaken all other pieces of forest around the Falls."

James Gardner, "Report of the Director," in Special Report of the New York State Survey, 22.

In support of the commission's report, Olmsted and others, notably his friend Charles Eliot Norton, the renowned Harvard University art historian, presented the governor of New York and the governor-general of Canada with a petition backing the reservation concept. This memorial, as it was called, asked the two governments to act on behalf of the "civilized world " to preserve one of the "most valuable gifts which Providence has bestowed upon our race." The list of signatures included leaders from every walk of life – Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Ruskin, among them. The new governor, Alonzo B. Cornell, however, was unmoved by either the report or the memorial, and nothing was done in Albany to advance the proposal that year.

The reservationists, as the promoters of a state-owned Niagara came to be known, realized that in order to succeed they would need to mount a public and political crusade. For the next two years, Olmsted and Norton promoted the publication of letters by Henry Norman and Reverend Jonathan B. Harrison describing for readers of newspapers in New York and Boston the sad conditions that prevailed at the Falls. In December, 1882, a meeting to plan larger efforts took place at the New York City home of banker Howard Potter. Present were Olmsted, Norton, Gardner and Dorsheimer (who in 1880 had moved to New York City and become editor of the New York Star). From this meeting came the Niagara Falls Association, a group of influential New Yorkers who took charge of directing the political campaign to restore and preserve the Falls. The Association published tracts and sent Harrison on speaking tours to turn public opinion in favor of the reservation.

The State Acts

In 1883, with Grover Cleveland, Dorsheimer's old friend from Buffalo, occupying the governor's post, the association drafted a bill that the legislature passed and Cleveland signed in April, 1883, authorizing "the selection, location and appropriation of certain lands in the village of Niagara Falls for a State reservation and to preserve the scenery of Niagara Falls." Five commissioners were appointed (Dorsheimer being one) to determine the boundaries of the proposed reservation and to appraise the property that would need to be expropriated. Although the commissioners saw clearly the desirability of including the gorge within the reservation, they considered it politically wise to lay claim only to the banks along the American rapids, Prospect Point, Goat Island and the islands in the rapids.

In 1885, the Niagara Falls Association organized one last effort in support of the reservation. This came when the bill was before the legislature to appropriate money to acquire the land designated by the commissioners. Harrison once again took to the state-wide lecture circuit, and private citizens were encouraged to send letters and petitions to their representatives. On April 30,1885, in response to evidence of overwhelming popular sentiment, Governor David B. Hill signed the necessary bond issue; on the following July 15th, he officially opened the reservation to the public. Canadian officials participated in the American ceremonies. Queen Victoria Park, however, was still in the process of creation and did not formally open until May, 1888. Nonetheless, the audience that attended the ceremonies at the American Falls recognized that the great object of natural beauty before them would no longer be directly threatened by the unchecked forces of private enterprise.

A few months after the opening of the reservation, Charles Dudley Warner visited the Falls and observed that the state commission "had silenced drivers, and stopped the mills, and made the park free, and was tearing down the presumptuous structures along the bank."

Charles Dudley Warner, Their Pilgrimage, New York, 1897, 303.

With Dorsheimer as president, the commission engaged Olmsted and Vaux to prepare a master plan indicating the way to provide appropriate access to the various sights within the reservation. The map and written description they submitted in 1887 called for a network of roadways and paths, as well as for other improvements. By the time of Olmsted's death in 1903, some of what he and Vaux suggested had been carried out under the supervision of Thomas V. Welch, the first superintendent of the reservation.

Modern Developments

A century after the founding of the reservation, the ideals of the early defenders of Niagara scenery imperfectly endure. The history of the reservation since World War II has largely ignored the plan for Niagara articulated by Olmsted and Vaux. A four lane expressway (now in the process of removal) obliterated much of the original landscaping put in place along the banks of the American rapids, and a metal and glass elevator shaft and observation deck has, since 1960, asserted its incongruous presence at Prospect Point. A steel highway bridge to Goat Island is situated where it most effectively mars the comprehensive view of rapids and sky that tourists once admired from the earlier Goat Island bridge. Goat Island itself has lost much of the secluded forest beauty and abundant wild flora that Olmsted spoke of a century ago. Now automobiles usurp considerable portions of land for parking, and during summer months sightseeing helicopters drown out all sounds of nature beneath the incessant roar of their engines. Lesser intrusions of statues, souvenir stores, eating facilities and flower beds have also done their part to weaken the natural park idea that Olmsted and Vaux envisioned for the reservation.

Final Assessment

Yet none of these abuses is as unsympathetic or as resistant to change as the evils which threatened Niagara prior to 1885. Olmsted and his colleagues faced formidable adversaries when, in the name of the human spirit, they espoused the goals of restoration and preservation. To have turned the clock back at the Falls at the moment when industrialization was about to give Western New York an era of bounding prosperity, was truly a herculean political achievement. "Indeed, when we consider the business and manufacturing possibilities which Niagara offered," wrote Charles Mason Dow, an early president of the reservation, ". . . we marvel, not that the achievement of a free Niagara took so long, but that it did not take longer."

Dow, The State Reservation at Niagara, 37-38.

See also: Niagara Falls: History of Power Site includes description of Niagara Falls, stories, pictures, history, and more.

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