Made of the Mist

Going behind the curtain

From time to time, something goes wrong with a taken-for-granted piece of infrastructure, and we remember the crucial, unheralded role it plays in our interconnected world. Perhaps, for example, we have forgotten that the Suez Canal carries 10 percent of global trade. But then the Ever Given gets stuck, with its 20,000 shipping containers full of goodies, and suddenly we’re all transfixed by a 193-kilometre ditch in the middle of the Egyptian desert.

Something similar happened on June 7, 1956, when 100,000 tons of rock came tumbling down on the Schoellkopf generating station, just below Niagara Falls. As the hydroelectric plant, once the largest in the world, crumbled into the Niagara River, the lights went out for much of New York State. On the other side of the gorge, Ontario Hydro sent electricity across the international border to help keep American factories running, but it could do only so much. As Daniel Macfarlane writes, “The Schoellkopf disaster created a wider power vacuum, literally and metaphorically.”

With Fixing Niagara Falls, Macfarlane casts the world’s most iconic cataract as a shape-shifting protagonist in a centuries-long story of tourism, conservation, diplomacy, and, above all, energy infrastructure. And while he alludes to the Hollywood glamour of Marilyn Monroe, the neon schlock of Clifton Hill, and the political wrangling of Lester Pearson, Louis St‑Laurent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and countless others, Macfarlane keeps his focus on the acrobatics of a fifty-eight-kilometre river that has, in so many ways, transformed a continent, even as we have tried to transform it.

On the heels of an informative if somewhat self-indulgent foreword by Graeme Wynn, of the University of British Columbia, Macfarlane opens his book in the late nineteenth century, when the United States and Canada “began to wring as much energy from the waterfall as was technologically possible.” Over the next several decades, public servants and engineers on both sides of the river “repeatedly sought to increase the amount of water diverted for hydro power, while simultaneously reducing erosion and ‘beautifying’ ” the falls in ways the average tourist wouldn’t necessarily notice. This protracted process — which dramatically curtailed the amount of water that comes crashing down, even as it made the falls appear much higher than they once did — helped jump-start the electrification of North America, spurred a host of technological and engineering innovations, and, especially during the two world wars, played a central role in the evolution of Canada-U.S. relations. Macfarlane ends his tale in the 1970s, the last time officials in both countries contemplated a significant re-engineering of the corridor (at least out in the open, since Ontario Power Generation’s “Big Becky” did her boring earlier this century largely out of sight).

Despite its many cameo appearances, Fixing Niagara Falls is not character driven like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, nor does it have the narrative thrust of Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything (made all the more relevant by the Ever Given ’s recent antics). At times, Macfarlane tacks perfunctory and overly moralizing sentences onto the end of paragraphs, as if readers won’t be able to connect on their own the Tuscarora nation’s fight against the Robert Moses Power Plant, in the 1950s, with the larger colonial projects that are Canada and the United States. But even as Macfarlane occasionally wades into dogmatic waters, he offers a certain infrastructural intrigue that balances things out.

With this carefully researched study, we find in Niagara Falls a locus of past concerns that reverberate today: the realities of appropriation, the hubristic underbelly of “green” energy, the politics of energy transitions and exports, the power struggles between provincial, state, and federal governments. We also find a treasure map of anecdotes and hyperboles that can illuminate and guide one’s next visit to the Honeymoon Capital of the World.

And an edifying map with a broad appeal it is. During normal times, this is a place that attracts between 22 and 30 million visitors annually. Do these people, drawn from upstate New York and the Golden Horseshoe and all over the place, know that “Niagara Falls, despite being freshwater and hundreds of miles inland, has its own tide” or that officials could effectively turn off the entire 100,000-cubic-feet-per-second tap with a switch? Do these visitors realize that everything about the Horseshoe and American Falls is highly contrived? That the colour, the sound, even the mist before them is largely ersatz?

“Nature and technology have become so intertwined and fused at Niagara Falls that it is impossible to fully disentangle them,” Macfarlane writes in his conclusion. “Ultimately, what has been done at Niagara Falls feels dishonest for three primary reasons: scale, deception, and commodification.”

We may suspect the fix is in within the casinos of Niagara Falls. This fascinating book shows how that’s undoubtedly the case outside.