An enormous ice dam formed at the source of the Niagara River on the eastern shore of Lake Erie on March 29, 1848. Just after midnight, the thunderous sound of water surging over the great falls at Niagara came to a halt as the flow of water became severely restricted due to the ice jam. The eerie silence persisted throughout the day and into the next evening until the waters of Lake Erie broke through the blockage and resumed their course down the river and over the falls.
By 1848, Niagara Falls was already a popular tourist spot, attracting thousands of visitors each summer. Daguerreotypist Platt Babbitt set up a studio and began taking images of tourists watching the falls in 1853.
The commercial development of the land surrounding the falls sparked a movement to preserve the falls’ natural beauty through public ownership. These efforts culminated in the July 15, 1885, opening of the 400-acre Niagara Reservation State Park. Now known as the Niagara Falls State Park, it is the oldest state park in the country.
In his address at the opening of the park, James T. Carter, an eminent New York lawyer and legal scholar, made an eloquent plea for the preservation, through public ownership, of scenic wonders. “These visions of Infinite Beauty here unfolded to the eye are not a property,” Carter insisted, “but a shrine—a temple erected by the hand of the Almighty for all the children of men.” Carter’s address is featured in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.
- Search on Niagara Falls in the following collections to explore a wide array of material, including a 1921 film still of Harry Houdini swimming down the Niagara River.
- The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
- Panoramic Photographs
- American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920
- Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies
- Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
- American Notes: Travels in America, 1750 to 1920
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey
- Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives
- Search on the keyword Niagara Falls in the Abraham Lincoln Papers to find materials related to that location. Read, for example, a fragment of Lincoln’s 1848 notes for a lecture concerning the falls or correspondence concerning the Niagara Falls negotiations, a futile attempt to conclude the Civil War.
- To learn more about the movement to conserve and protect America’s natural heritage, see the chronology in The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. For additional resources, visit the Collection Connections feature of the Teachers Page.
- Review the Today in History features on Yosemite, Rainier, and Acadia national parks, and on the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916.