"Be sure to see Niagara Falls," they say. "Not the town, the waterfall."
Nearly 20 million do, annually.
Until three hundred years ago, when rivers were the primary means of transportation, the falls required an eight-mile portage, with hundreds of feet elevation gain. For the region's first settlers, the native Senecas managed the route, portaging goods between the gorge and the top of the falls. At the falls, the French came to maintained one of their most important forts in all of New France and in 1719 they a added a road downstream to Fort du Portage in the gorge. Forty-five years later, the English, having dislodged the French, brought rail. In 1825, the 360-mile Erie Canal, which had been largely constructed with hand tools, displaced the Portage. Man vs Nature was backbreaking work.
The equation reversed in 1895 when Westinghouse built the first large-scale AC hydroelectric plant near the falls. Now it was the falls doing the work, sending readily-available power 25-miles distant to Buffalo —solidifying the city's place as one of the country's most successful and influential industrial cities, the Silicon Valley of its time.
Today, we see the legacy costs of that era in the abandoned factories, grain silos, and neighborhoods; mountains of commercial, industrial, and nuclear waste; a chilling legacy of Superfund sites —including Love Canal, the first; and ongoing health issues related to working in proximity to these industries.
In the story of America, the two "niagara's" are inseparable.