Frederick Law Olmstead and Niagara Falls, NY
Landscape Artist, Frederick Law Olmstead is widely known for his city parks across the United States, including Central Park in New York City and the Delaware Park system in Buffalo, NY. He was also the leader of the U.S. Conservationist Movement, and without his interest in preservation, we would not have the pleasure to fully view Niagara Falls from the U.S. side as we do today. Most of the area around the U.S. side of Niagara Falls was private property owned by industries and residents. Visitors were unable to view the falls freely. In some instances, they paid property owners a fee so they could look at the falls through a hole in a wood plank fence. Olmstead believed that the area surrounding the falls needed to be brought back to its natural scenic beauty and be available for all to see.
So, in 1879, he prepared a special report for the New York State Survey of the area around the falls. He led the "Free Niagara" movement which urged New York State to buy back all the private land on the United States side of the falls and preserve it for public use. Olmstead and his partner Clavert Vaux designed an amazing park that presented unparralled views of the upper rapids and Niagara Falls. Because of his perserverance, the Niagara Reservation became the first state park in the nation in 1885. The area is now known as Niagara Falls State Park.
As often happens, Olmstead and Calvert's design was somewhat altered over time. One of the biggest things to mar the integrity of the park was the construction in the early 1960s of the Robert Moses Parkway. The intent was to create a spur from the New York State Thruway Grand Island North Bridge to Youngstown, NY by way of the Niagara River and Niagara Falls. The parkway took traffic past the falls and through the state park, bypassing the City of Niagara Falls and offering only a passing glimpse of the might cataract. The parkway directly impacted commerce in the city as frustrated and confused visitors were unable to find their way off the parkway in the vinicity of the falls, thereby causing declining patronage in the park and the lack of tourist spending in the city. The highway also destroyed direct access to the river and gorge area as it created a barrier between the city and the river front.
It wasn't until the 1980s that the value of Olmstead and Calvert's design was recognized. Sections of the Robert Moses Parkway were closed within the boundaries of the state park. Sections along the gorge are being converted into a recreational trail. Work continues to restore Niagara Falls State Park to its original layout through maintanence and improvements. So the next time you visit Niagara Falls, enjoy the beauty of the cascade, but take a moment to enjoy the park Olmstead fought to create for us.
To learn more about Frederick Law Olmstead and his influence on Niagara Falls State Park, join us for a tour.