The Michigan Fiasco at Niagara Falls


(This 909th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 24, 2008.)



Niagara Falls today


I have often differed with the Animal Rights community and I am especially offended by a recent episode in Santa Cruz, California, where within minutes a home and a car across town were firebombed by what is apparently a fringe group of activists. One of the two university scientists attacked was injured while escaping from his home with his wife and two pre-school children. Although many in the Animal Rights movement have spoken out against these acts, its major organization, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has - until this writing at least - remained silent.


At the same time that I differ with them on many issues, however, I find myself often joining Animal Rights community members in their abhorrence with acts of gratuitous violence against animals.


One of the earliest of these acts in North America took place here on the Niagara Frontier on September 8, 1827. Ginger Strand tells the story in her delightful and highly informative book, Inventing Niagara (Simon & Schuster). I draw extensively on her reporting for this column.


But first, I should remind readers that in 1827 this was indeed the frontier. Just fifteen years earlier the Buffalo population was 200 and a year later even that small community was partly destroyed by the British attack in the War of 1812. The Erie Canal had only been completed in 1825, and the population of all of western New York in 1827 was at most a few thousand.


Despite this, a few hotel owners with property near Niagara Falls had already begun to think of the falls as a tourist attraction.


Their scheme: the decrepit lake schooner, Michigan, partly owned by one of the entrepreneurs, would be allowed to drift over Niagara Falls with a number of wild animals aboard. The original advertisements described a cargo of "animals of the most ferocious kind, such as Panthers, Wild Cats, Bears and Wolves." Before the wreck visitors were offered a chance to observe the caged animals in Black Rock for what the entrepreneurs called a "trifling expense." And on the day of the episode a few others could ride as far as Navy Island with the animals. After depositing its human passengers there, the boat would be towed to midstream above the falls and cut loose.


The organizers informed newspapers that animals that would live through the experience would add "great interest" when they would "rise among the billows in the basin below," and an indication of contemporary attitudes was a newspaper account in the New York Sun predicting that the coming spectacle would be "hardly equaled by the combinations of nature and art in any other part of the world."


Clearly the stunt drew people to the Falls. As Strand describes it: "Every hotel bed in town was booked and people slept on tables and floors. Taverns ran out of food and liquor. Estimates of attendance ranged from 10,000 to 20,000. The jostling masses were entertained by a ventriloquist, an astronomy lecturer, a menagerie, a learned pig and a card-playing dog named Apollo. Temperance lecturers railed against the evils of drink, violinists and pipe-players solicited donations, keno and three-card monte experts separated the gullible from their coins, pickpockets worked the crowds."


Instead of the promised panthers, wildcats and wolves, the final Michigan's "crew" consisted of two bears, a buffalo, two foxes, a raccoon, an eagle, a dog and fifteen geese. (The dog, it was said, deserved to die; it had bitten a reporter.) Dummies representing Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, recent election opponents, completed the schooner's personnel.


As soon as the boat was released, one of the bears identified the danger and swam ashore; the other made a less fortunate choice: it climbed a mast. Caged or tied, the rest had no chance.


The expected result: only a single goose briefly survived the boat's destruction.


Immediate response to the event was almost universally favorable. "The power of the Almighty was imposingly displayed over the workmanship of mere human hands," crowed the Rochester Telegraph. Strand concludes, however, "Nature's supremacy was already looking like an act."


This event, described glowingly in 19th century guidebooks, is omitted from them or ridiculed today. Happily, at least some attitudes are changing.-- Gerry Rising