In an era when water transportation by canoe or bateau was the only means of travel, the Falls of Niagara and accompanying rapids were a serious barrier to movement into the interior of North America for First Nations peoples, early travellers, fur traders, merchants, military men and settlers. Niagara was the longest portage in the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes system.
Though the portage on the east (American) bank was shorter, Loyalists settlers on the west bank established a new route to transfer goods around the Falls between Queenston and Chippawa. Local settlers were employed with their wagons and teams to haul the goods. The Portage Road was one of the first, and the most important road in Upper Canada. It was the major road in the Province until the opening of the Welland Canal in 1829 and the coming of the railways in the 1850s. Settlement and business at Niagara Falls grew up around the Portage Road. Early visitors to the Falls of Niagara came by horseback, stagecoach, wagon, and by ship from Toronto, Buffalo and other lake ports; some came on foot. All were obliged, at first, to find accommodation either at Chippawa or at one of the inns along the Portage Road.
The first roads used by the settlers were the trails established by Indigenous peoples which ran through the dense forests. Several of these trails are still being used as major traffic arteries in the City today: Portage Road still follows much of the original route around the Falls, and the Mountain and Beaverdams Roads likewise follow their original courses. Lundy's Lane, the road westerly from the Portage Road to the Lundy's clearing, was made a public road in 1803. A chain reserve of 66 feet (one chain) was provided for along the rivers in the early surveys so that the government could have a suitable and direct communication between the military reserves in times of emergency. The chain reserve is still maintained as the Niagara Parkway.
In 1831 the Erie and Ontario Railway (more commonly known as the Chippawa-Queenston Railway, because it ran between these two points) was proposed to offset the loss of business in the area created by the construction and opening of the Welland Canal. This horse-drawn railroad was the first in Upper Canada and was located almost entirely within Stamford Township. Actual construction of the line did not begin until 1835 due to opposition by the Welland Canal Company. It was completed in 1841 and followed a path almost parallel to the present Stanley Avenue and it ran for some thirteen years before it was "modernized" for steam locomotion and relocated nearer to the communities of Elgin and Clifton. A stone cairn located on the railroad's first right of way, at Morrison Street and Stanley Avenue, commemorates this early railroad.
In 1848, the first Suspension Bridge was constructed across the Niagara Gorge, built precisely on the site of today's Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. A collection of workmen's shanties and houses sprang up around the new bridgehead. This settlement reached village status, with a population of about 100 inhabitants in 1853, and became an incorporated village named Elgin, after Lord Elgin, the Governor General at the time. In 1853, chiefly through the efforts of Samuel Zimmerman, the Great Western Railroad was extended from Hamilton to Elgin and the Suspension Bridge of 1848 was replaced by a double-deck suspension bridge for trains and vehicles, thus completing at Niagara a connection between the railways of Canada and United States. On the opening of the new bridge in 1855 Elgin became the Canadian terminus of the railway and Elgin became a railway town.
The Great Western Railway had its Canadian terminus at the Bridge Street station and hotels were soon built nearby to accommodate the rail travellers arriving in increasing numbers. Since there were no sleeping cars in those days, rail travellers planned to spend the night in a hotel and get a fresh start in the morning. Even those who were travelling from Toronto to New York took time out to see the Falls before they picked up their rail connection on the US side.
When the Town of Clifton changed its name to the Town of Niagara Falls in 1881, travel to places outside the town was chiefly by rail or water, but the local hackmen and citizens watched with keen interest the construction of a horse-drawn street railway in 1887 through the old town of Clifton to the village of Drummondville. This street-car line did much to hasten the amalgamation of the two municipalities. Cross-town businesses grew because now it was possible to work and shop in neighbourhoods other than one's own.
The days of the rail and streetcar excursions were numbered when the automobile came into being. Pictures of the Clifton Hotel as early as 1907 show horseless carriages drawn up at the entrance. Highway No. 8, known at the time as the Stoney Creek, Grimsby and Queenston Stone Road, was one of the first roads in the province to be designated as a Provincial Highway, in July 1918. The highway was paved in 1920 with macadam and in 1922 with a 20-foot wide concrete pavement. In the same year Highway No. 3 (now 20) was widened to 20 feet and in 1925 it was paved with asphaltic concrete.
The improvement in the roads and the increase in the number of automobiles brought more tourists to Niagara Falls.