Southern Divines on the Great Lakes and at Niagara Falls – Summer 1951

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Mentor L. Williams

A century ago it was as much “the rage” to travel as it is today. People with the means to make journeys toured the country for their health (if they needed a reason) or to acquaint themselves with geographical wonders. Newspapers and magazines were eager to print the observations of the tourists; incidents of travel were featured in most periodicals.

Niagara Falls

In gathering literature about the Lake-Falls region, recorders have limited themselves chiefly to the journeys of Europeans and of tourists from the Atlantic seaboard. Such a practice ignores the fact that people from the South were great travelers also. When the unpleasant heat of summer and the plagues of malaria and cholera threatened, southern planters, merchants, professional men and their families found occasion to look after their business interests in the North and, incidentally, to visit the fabulous lake country. The magazines are filled with their letters, “notes-by-the-way,” and descriptive sketches.

Take, as an example, The Southern Lady’s Companion, an entertaining monthly journal edited at Nashville, Tennessee, from 1847 to 1852 by M. M. Henkle and J. B. McFerrin, reverend doctors of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Messrs. Henkle and McFerrin were also the editors of the Nashville Christian Advocate. To the Lady’s Companion were sent the reflections and effusions of Tennessee’s pious Christians whose devotions had taken them to see God’s “most magnificent handiwork” on the North American continent. Accounts of God’s awfulness and majesty, as reflected in the Falls of Niagara, were frequently supplemented with tales calculated to chill the marrow of the sinner who happened to leaf through the pages of the Lady’s Companion. The saved, of course, could read without fear. That they were edified and titillated goes without saying!

The Reverend C. Foster Williams of Gallatin, Tennessee, visited the Great Lakes and the Falls in October 1848. The Lady’s Companion printed his report in the December 1848 and January 1849 issues. His “Lake Erie and the Falls” began with the remark: “If one is at all observing, while traveling, he will find much to instruct as well as amuse him.” Reverend Williams found much to instruct. From Nashville, the City of Rocks, as it was then fondly nicknamed, he had made his way to Sandusky, Ohio, where he boarded the steamer America for Buffalo. Only three weeks before Lake Erie had been lashed by a furious tempest. Thankful for the Lord’s special blessing, a calm passage, Williams wrote: “He who causeth the wind to blow, and maketh it to cease, and who rideth upon the whirlwind, had said, ‘Peace, be still!’ ” With this bit of divine intervention the reverend’s journey to Buffalo required only twenty hours. There, after “visiting all the public buildings worth seeing,” he boarded the cars for the Falls. After supper (the Falls could wait on the appetite) and after sundown, he and his party had their first view of “the greatest of this world’s wonders” by moonlight. A beautiful lunar rainbow “hung over the misty waters of the wild chasm, like an angel of mercy, or an oasis in the desert.” Awestruck, breathless at the “terrible, yet beautifully sublime scene” the holy man spoke not a word, “nor wished to disturb the current of thoughts passing through the minds of the others.” “I think,” he declared, “a first view of the Falls, such as I had by the light of a full moon, far preferable to any other, and has a tendency to awaken deeper and holier feelings.”

These feelings were quickly disturbed by the harrowing tale of a man who, only three days before, had set forth in a small sailboat “on the Sabbath day, regardless of God’s law,” and had with great skill and self-possession piloted his craft through the rapids and over the Falls. As he had passed under the bridge leading to Goat Island he had asked a man standing on the bridge whether he should jump from the boat. The horrified spectator had been too paralyzed to reply. Thus “the sun that rose upon him that morning, full of hope and full of life, set upon him in endless night and the dreams of a bright and happy future were buried with him beneath the foaming torrent of Niagara.” For those who cared for morbid things, like the Reverend Mr. Williams, the boat could still be seen “fast in the rocks, a short distance below the bridge, and about twenty yards from the shore opposite the saw mill.”

The Falls from Goat Island

By moonlight, the party crossed over the Goat Island bridge (fee, 25¢) to that “wild romantic spot,” the Hog’s Back, where both the American and the Canadian falls could be seen. Then, by way of the “Biddle Stair Case,” they cautiously descended into the darkness at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls. The swirling mists dampened their ardor and drove them back, At the top again, they climbed Prospect Tower, where the greatest American wonder spread out at their feet “like a map.” Into the awful gulf below had plunged the steamer Caroline in 1837, noted the lugubrious divine. Back at his hotel (at 10:30) he was lulled to sleep by the “unceasing roar” of the waters and the constant rattle of the window panes!

After breakfast next morning, the preacher and his party took a coach to the wire suspension bridge where (fee, 25¢) they crossed over into “Her Majesty’s dominions” -a strange experience for all of these southern folk. The bridge, “the greatest of wonders, next to the Falls” failed to daunt them. In fact, it was a preliminary structure that would soon be followed by another, ten feet above it, on which would pass a locomotive and train of cars. Having got the measurements of the bridge, 7′ x 800′, the group went to the Whirlpool, “a place more celebrated as a curiosity than it deserves”, and to Table Rock. At the latter place, fitted out with guide, boots, and oil cloth suits (fee, 25¢), they made the trip behind the Falls. At Table Rock an apple vendor gave Reverend Williams a card (for which he obligingly purchased some apples) on which was printed an account of Miss Martha K. Rugg’s misadventure with a flower. Noted for her acquirements in botany, Miss Rugg’s fate was proclaimed in doggerel to warn other female botanists:

 Woman, most beauteous of the human race,

Be cautious of a dangerous place.
Miss Rugg, at the age of twenty three,
Was launched into eternity.

The apple man himself had picked up the poor girl, the “flower still in her hand, and the blood streaming from her nose and mouth.”1

For another twenty-five cents the parson was ferried by rowboat to the American side, where “the dashing waters, roiling and tumbling in wild fury, are ever before me, while I sleep; and the eternal roar of the cataract is ever in my ears.” The eternal roar did not deafen him to one annoyance – continual dunning by the servants. Southern patrons of the resort hotels of the North found it hard to endure the practice of tipping, obviously much abused:

As an instance of this, a servant held out his hand to me, as I was seated in the stage about starting for Lewiston, with a request that I would “remember the servant.” “What for?” said I, not remembering that he had done me any particular service. ‘Why, for bringing out your baggage, and it is customary to pay the servant for such things.” Now it so happened, that when the stage drew up, there was no servant at hand, and a fellow-passenger and myself brought out my baggage to the driver; yet the fellow had the impudence to ask pay for my own services. I heard of a visitor who was much annoyed by these fellows; so much so that he could not sit down or get up, or ask a question, but pay was demanded, either for brushing off a seat, unasked, or for answering some question concerning the cataract; so at last he concluded he would stand by himself under a tree, and see if he could keep from paying money; but in a minute a servant was behind him brushing his coat with one hand, while the other was extended for pay.

Desiring to see more of the Lakes, Reverend Williams boarded another steamer at Ontario. The trip to the Genesee River was tempestuous, but the captain, a musician, settled queasy stomachs with songs which he accompanied with a guitar. Naturally, the company turned to sacred music, and those who could sing kept the “well-conditioned” timbers vibrating until midnight. At Rochester, a flour milling center, the man of God was distressed to find that flour was packed into barrels (one miller turned out 300 barrels a day) by men with naked feet:

This was rather repugnant to my ideas of cleanliness. I found a person similarly situated in all the mills I visited. There is a trite saying that every person must eat his peck of dirt, but as the cleanliness of these persons cannot be well vouched for, those who purchase their flour may have eaten more than their quota.2

From their Nashville Christian Advocate the editors of the Lady’s Companion (May, 1852 ) lifted an account of the Falls of Niagara as observed May 4-5, 1848. “Sylvanus,” too, had proper religious feelings toward Niagara, but he coupled with them a mania for statistics. He not only reckoned the width, depth, length, and height of river, islands, and Falls; he also quoted the quantity of water passing over the Falls and the hydraulic horse power that could be developed (4,833,334 h. p.)

For Sylvanus, also, the spray curled “away over the surrounding heights like the form of an angel floating over the world with the bow of God set upon its bosom.” Leaning over the precipice at Table Rock he again saw “the bow of God, woven amid the foam and mist, [which] conveyed to my throbbing heart a renewal of the promise, that the floods shall be restrained, and not sweep over the world again to ruin and destroy it.” When the sun reached its zenith, Sylvanus, like Moses “was compelled to put a veil over my face, that I might endure the effulgent splendors of the throne of waters.” To him the sound of the Falls was not unpleasant for “it came upon my spirit like the voice of God with a subduing but not with a stunning effect. ” The most splendid view of the Falls from the American side was that from the “Chinese Pagoda,” whose summit was 275 feet above the dark waters of the chasm below. Iris Island (the controversy over Goat and Iris was then at its peak) from this point appeared “like the abutment of a world.”

Sylvanus visited the suspension wire bridge six months earlier than Dr. Williams. His account recaptures the thrill of early aerialists:

But one wire, about an inch in diameter and eight hundred feet in length, is yet stretched across the river. It hangs like the wires between the telegraphic posts, and the lowest point of its curve is two hundred and five feet above the water. In a basket suspended just below the wire, fixed with rollers, with ropes attached, persons are drawn over this terrific channel, in which the mighty flood of waters which pours over the Falls is boiling and foaming in its wild career. When seen midway the channel, the adventurous passengers over this dread abyss appear, from their great height above the water, and their distance from the shore, like little children navigating the air in a small boat of lattice work; and as they near the opposite shore, their forms continue to diminish, and their hold upon the arm of safety appears still more feeble and attenuated. Four only of our company, three gentlemen and one lady, ventured over. I had the temerity to be one of the number. I felt perfectly safe; though it was a strange thing to find myself suspended by so small a thread, over a chasm of such awful width and depth; and I regard it as one of the most interesting moments which I have enjoyed during my visit to the Falls.

Rail bridge just past the Falls

In bidding farewell to Niagara, Sylvanus exclaimed “thou hast taught me what is meant, in inspiration, by the sound of many waters. I have reclined at thy feet and deemed myself gazing on the face of Omnipotence.”

It is of some interest to note that neither Williams nor Sylvanus took cognizance of the scientific question that was disturbing the religious mind. Was Niagara a measuring stick whereby the age of the earth could be determined by the rate of its cutting through the Niagara gorge? Would Niagara eventually cut back into Lake Erie, thus bringing sudden disaster to the whole Ontario region?3 Sylvanus, by implication, denied the latter possibility when he exclaimed: “Eternity is written on thy forehead. Thy crown was given thee by the ‘Ancient of Days,’ in the infancy of the world. Thou remainest, and thy years shall not fail, till the only voice which is louder than thine shall still thy roar.” The echoes of such words could still be heard at the Scopes Trial in Tennessee in 1925.

1.John Portmess, poet and preacher of St. Charles, Missouri, visited the Falls in 1849-a few days after another terrible accident. A young man, his bride-to-be, and her small sister were standing on the Goat Island bridge when the youth seized the child and held her playfully over the torrent, Frightened, the little girl struggled and fell into the water. The young man plunged in, though rescue was impossible, and both went over the Falls. Portmess was moved to fervent plagiarism: “Gabriel’s trump shall awake the dead, and bid the sleeping millions rise, to sink in darkness and in death, or mount to joys above the skies, ” Lady’s Companion (May, 1852.)

2, The good doctor, remarking on the lack of grandeur in the falls of the Genesee river missed an opportunity to introduce another exemplary story: the celebrated leap of Sam Patch into eternity. The omission is the more odd because Sam Patch had survived his leap into Niagara’s foaming chasm.

3.Horace Greeley had discussed this probability on his visit to the Falis in 1842. See Mentor L. Williams, “Horace Greeley at Niagara Falls,” INLAND SEAS, Summer, 1948.

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This article originally appeared in Summer 1951 issue of Inland Seas

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