Native Americans knew about Niagara Falls but it wasn’t until French priest, Father Louis Hennepin, wrote about the site in 1678 that national and international interest turned to the area. Visiting the region became easier when the railroad reached upstate New York in the early 1800s. Adventuresome travelers began a trek which soon became popular with the general public.
Niagara Falls gained a reputation as a honeymoon destination – perhaps inspired by the younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte who brought his bride to the location in 1804.
Canadians take the cake for the best views of the falls. Because of the topography, the American view is more restricted. But that’s the side of the border I was on in September.
It was late on a gray, drizzly afternoon when I got my first look at the cataracts. Between the falling moisture and the rising mist, it was hard to discern where the water ended and the sky began.
The falls are the number one reason visitors flock to the city. And a must, for the most impressive experience, is a trip on the Maid of the Mist – one of the fleet of boats which ply the waters of the Niagara River below the cascades.
I’d actually been to Niagara Falls (on the Canadian side) several years before – so I’d been there, done that. I was in town for Travel Media Showcase, a meeting which can best be described as speed-dating for destinations and travel writers. We only had half a day to explore Niagara Falls and surrounding communities so I chose a tour highlighting a couple of the area’s other attractions.
Our first visit was to the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in nearby Tonowanda. In 1872, James Armitage and Allan Herschell joined together to found a company which manufactured steam engines, boilers and machine parts for local industries. The firm quickly grew into a successful operation.
Several years later, on a business trip, Allan Herschell happened to see a new amusement attraction – a steam-driven carousel. He came back to his partner with the suggestion that they try to build one. They produced their first carousel in 1883. The product proved so popular that within two years, it made up 50 per cent of their business.
Walking into the museum was like walking into the past. The scent of sawdust and machine oil had soaked into the structure. The museum has great exhibits on the industry. The wood mill shop still has the overhead belts which drove the larger machines. Different stations illustrate the different steps in creating a finished animal. The horse, of course, is the most traditional figure – dating back into medieval times when machines similar to the modern carousel were used by knights practicing jousting.
Early Herschell animals were fairly crude but sported glass eyes and horsehair tails. Later models were more sophisticated. Most were carved from basswood or yellow poplar. Master carvers who did the fine finish carving had their own tools – typically owning between 50 and 100 different tools for different effects.
Herschell made carousels (and, yes, it can be spelled with one or two rs) were designed to be moved from place to place – to be featured at county fairs, for example. Early carousels were viewed with suspicion and said to be too dangerous for children – some revolved as rapidly as 10 miles per hour. But they quickly became popular items used by entrepreneurs to bring traffic to bathing parks and picnic areas.
You’ll learn some business history at the museum. The Armitage Herschell company went bankrupt in 1899. By 1900, Allan Herschell and partners created a new company, Herschell-Spillman. Herschell retired in 1913 but by 1915 created another new company, Allan Herschell, competing with Herschell-Spillman, which later changed its name to Spillman Engineering. Allan Herschell eventually purchased Spillman Engineering and continued to make not only carousels but other amusement rides until the 1970s when it was purchased by Chance Rides of Wichita. Chance continues to produce rides, including carousels.
The Allan Herschell Company adopted new techniques to make the carousel animals sturdier. Wooden horse legs, which were easily broken, were replaced with metal legs. These horses were known as half-and-halfs. By 1952, the company introduced a full cast-aluminum horse.
You can see all these examples at the Carrousel Museum. But, best of all, you can ride on a beautiful, 1916 carousel. This unique machine, the first produced by the Allan Herschell Company, features three rows of hand-carved horses. The outer row reflects a newer style horse while the two inner rows are older styles.
The museum also has an interesting exhibit on band organs – the type of instrument so popular on carousels. While there were several companies in the area producing these instruments, the best-known was Wurlitzer. On display is one of Wurlitzer’s perforating machines, used to punch holes corresponding to particular notes or instruments, on rolls of paper. The museum has a thousand master rolls of songs.
The old Wurlitzer building in North Tonowanda, built in the late 1800s, is an impressive structure now repurposed into commercial and event space. One of the businesses in the building is the Platter’s Chocolate Factory. In business for over 80 years, this family-owned company continues to produce great chocolate treats.
And I sampled – okay, more than sampled, I bought – a candy I’d never tasted before – sponge candy. It’s an odd – and oddly addictive – confection. The center looks a bit, and crunches a bit, like Styrofoam. But, of course, it doesn’t taste like it – it’s yummy. And it’s coated in chocolate.
It provided dessert to a delightful afternoon. How frustrating to spend so little time exploring the Niagara Falls area attractions. My brief trip left me hungry for more.