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Summer Suns in the Far West
Chapter XIV. Niagara

FROM Toronto we made a brief detour in order to feast our eyes once more on that grandest, brightest, purest of all earthly spectacles—the Falls of Niagara. I never can express one-tenth part of the emotion to which it gives rise. There is a glory about it which is hardly of the earth earthy. Perhaps it is wisest just to abandon oneself to the luxury of indefinite pleasure. But this is not the way to enable others to share your enjoyment. I will avail myself here of something which I wrote on occasion of a former visit, when I spent three days at Niagara, and at the end seemed to be only learning to spell out the alphabet of its glory.

There is no fine scenery in the neighbourhood. The country round is flat and featureless, and this probably is the cause of the disappointment many visitors feel on their first glimpse of the Falls. Instead of a setting of majestic rocks, with all the glory of Alpine magnificence, the cascade of Niagara is surrounded by level fields and gentle heights, and the only great feature that breaks the monotony is the cliff over which the river is precipitated. The Falls are alone in their magnificence, the one glory of the neighbourhood.

Most people know that a mile or two above the Falls the liver Niagara, carrying along the whole body of water collected in Lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan, and Erie, spreads out over an expanse of two or three miles; then it begins to contract, and descends with great velocity, till it rolls over the cliff. Goat Island divides the stream into two just before the plunge. The eastern or American section goes round the island, and descends with great regularity and majesty in a line almost at right angles to the western or Canadian Fall. This other cataract, double the breadth of the former, is borne more rapidly to the edge of the cliff, and comes over it with greater impetuosity. It is in the form of a horseshoe, the curve bending up the stream. In the bosom of the curve there is a chasm in the rock, also passing upwards, causing a tremendous collision between the two masses of water that dash over it on. either side. As the Canadian Fall, though not quite so high, is more impetuous than the American, the form of the falling water is more broken, the spray dashes with more vehemence, and the eddies at the bottom are more wild and tumultuous. In the sunshine, when the air is full of vapour, a splendid rainbow spans the fall.

But what is it that gives Niagara such a charm? It is not, as we have remarked, the surrounding scenery. The height is not remarkable—only a hundred and fifty-eight feet on the Canadian side, and a hundred and sixty-four on the American. The Staubbach is five times its height; the Yosemite Fall many times more. What, then, gives Niagara such imperial pre-eminence?

In the first place, there is the wonderful ploy of life, extending over the whole length and breadth of the cascade (the breadth of the one fall is one thousand one hundred, and of the other two thousand two hundred feet); the quick, darting movement of the wafers, leaping in a marvellous state of exhilaration down the height. This rapidity of motion gratifies and charms one of the most powerful instincts of our nature. For there is nothing that has more attraction for human eyes or more interest for the human mind than the vigorous play of life. Be it the horse racing on the turf, or the rocket flying in the air, or the forked tongue of the lightning, or a ship sliding from a slip into the water, or the express train whirling past us, or the collision of armies, or the collision of intellect in Parliament or Church court—all are attractive because of the display of living energy. Now, about Niagara, everything is instinct with life. Such an immense body of water, estimated at a million and a half tons per minute, Hinging itself over more than half a mile of precipice's, is a marvellous display of “animated nature.” First, there is the preparation for the leap— the gathering of the waters at the “Rapids,” a little above the falls, as if making ready for a tremendous effort. And really, if there were nothing else, the Rapids are a wonderful sight; the water rushes past the “Three Sisters” with such arrowy swiftness that you can hardly follow the wild, perpetual motion. Then, when the edge is reached, there is the unhesitating, fearless plunge, as if the water enjoyed the somersault and did not care one straw for the consequences. If you fix your eye more powerfully on a portion of the waters in their descent, you observe that the desperate earnestness of the great movement is combined with innumerable little touches of frolic and merriment. Every filament of the stream seems to have a. life of its own. Everywhere the water is leaping, laughing, dancing, dashing, flying, evidently in the highest spirits. It is as if all the nymphs and naiads of classic story were collected together for some wild frolic, and were entering into it with the keenest enthusiasm. And as fast as one set of naiads plunges into the caldron, there comes another and another in everlasting succession.

But while this is your impression as you watch the separate streamlets (as it were), you get a marvellous idea of majesty when you survey the whole. You are awed by the spectacle of such a vast body of water rolling over, as if in the consciousness of imperial will and resistless might. It is the very emblem of Sovereignty, moving for ever with a force to which any resistance that could be offered would not have the weight of a feather. An unwearied life too, like that of Him who fainteth not, neither is weary.

This idea of pre-eminence and majesty is one of the greatest elements of impression, and grows on you as you give a little scope to your imagination. For all this has been going on hour after hour, year after year, century after century, in daylight and in darkness, in summer and in winter, in war and in peace, if not since the beginning of the world, at least throughout the whole period of history. Where else shall the mind find such a display of the unwearied activity and irresistible will of the Sovereign Creator?

Then there is the beautiful display of colour. One of the first things to catch the eye on a sunny day is the bright blue of the water as it curls over the precipice. You see the same shade of blue at the seaside on a sunny day, when the neck of a wave catches the sunbeam, just as it turns over to break. You see also the lily whiteness of the foam; but you do not see at the seaside the pearly lustre of the water as it rushes past you in its fall. Lower down, the water assumes a sea-green colour. Blue, white, green, the waters gleam before you in vast masses of colour; and if it is summer or autumn, you have, in addition, the colours of the surrounding woods and fields, and the azure of the sky above. And if the rainbow sheds its gleam, you have all the colours, and most conspicuous of all the red, which they tell us is never wanting in a perfect picture.

Nor must we omit mention of the sound. It is true, many are disappointed with this. They expected a noise of thunder: they find little more than a solemn murmur. But watch the murmur, and it will gain upon you; it will by-and-by sound like a psalm, like the song of creation to Him who made the heaven and the earth, the sea and the fountains of waters. Then you remember that that psalm has been going up unceasingly from the beginning—before human foot trod the earth, before Red Indian flourished his tomahawk. You try to catch the burden of the psalm: it gives praise to God from everlasting to everlasting. How it contrasts with the broken tribute of our lives, and with our songs of praise so few and so feeble, so little worthy of the great Being, our Creator, Redeemer, Lord, and Father, our Portion, our God for ever!

And this leads to yet another view of Niagara—its symbolism. It is a sermon as well as a psalm. Ever since the globe assumed its present form it has been the same. The stream has been flowing on, as we have said, without cessation and without interruption. Could there be a fitter emblem of the grace of God and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ? Could any material thing more fitly portray the endless stream of the divine mercy in Christ, bearing down all opposition and defying all efforts to exhaust it? Does it not seem to echo that beautiful psalm: “Thy mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds. Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O Lord, thou preservest man and beast. How excellent is thy loving kindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings. They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light we shall see light.”

We cannot put up with the impertinences practised on Niagara. The men that trifle with its majesty are not only fools, but impudent knaves. But in this respect things are not so bad as is sometimes represented. On the morning of the day when we reached Niagara, we had read in a Toronto newspaper an elaborate account of a wonderful feat said to have taken place the day before: how a certain American cooper had got into a barrel which he had contrived for the purpose, and being duly strapped inside of it, and the barrel well secured with two padlocks, had been thrown into the river, and after an hour carried over the precipice; how the barrel came to land, and being opened by a friend, the cooper was found to be stunned, but after a copious draught of whisky came all right, and proceeded quietly to his home! Strolling along the Queen Victoria Park, we came on a park-keeper, and on being asked how much truth there was in the paragraph, he simply stared and said, “Not one word.” And the landlord of the Clifton corroborated! Of course the absurd story went the round of the world, though it was afterwards contradicted. That any one could have believed it is hardly credible; but how it could have got into the columns of a sober Toronto journal passes belief.

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