A Newsworthy Visitor:
Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich (Alexis) of Russia (1850-1908)
In the winter of 1871, North America was abuzz with excitement about the visit of Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. The youngest son of Czar Alexander II, Alexei Alexandrovich (anglicized as Alexis) was 21 years old at the time of his visit and was by all accounts a tall, handsome man with fine manners but a somewhat immoderate taste for partying. The visit was a show of friendship between the United States and Russia, which had provided support to the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War.
When his ships arrived in New York on November 21, the fleet of boats that awaited his arrival (as well as the dignitaries, military guards and musicians on board) had stood vigil for forty-two days to be there at the exact right time. Everywhere he went in the United States huge crowds lined the streets, waving flags and cheering as he passed by.
His reception in Canada was somewhat more reserved, the festivities dampered by news of the illness of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who had contracted typhus. Nevertheless, he was fêted in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto before passing through Niagara Falls and crossing back over to the United States.
The Grand Duke and his party arrived at the Great Western Railway Depot near the Suspension Bridge in Clifton (now Niagara Falls) at 2 o’clock on the afternoon of December
22. They were met by such dignitaries as F.J. Preston, Mayor of Clifton; Hon. Thomas Clark Street, M.P.P. for Welland county riding and President of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge Company; and Colonel Sidney Barnett, son of Thomas Barnett, proprietor of the Niagara Falls Museum. Barnett had with him 100 men of the Forty Fourth Battalion Canadian Volunteers, and, along with a throng of excited onlookers, a military band helped create a festive mood. After a brief address by the mayor, the Imperial delegation was taken by sleigh to the Niagara Falls Museum. They were led to a private parlour to don hooded rubber coats to protect their clothing for a trip behind the Falls. The New York Times reported that as the Grand Duke chatted with his Russian companions, the group “seemed more like a group of jolly tourists than aught else.”
Alexis’ trip behind the Falls was immortalized on the front cover of at least two illustrated newspapers of the time, The “Canadian Illustrated News” (January 20, 1872) and London’s “The Graphic” (February 17, 1872). Although he spent more time at his other 3 Canadian stops, the image of such a famous visitor to such an iconic landmark made his visit to the Falls a front page news story.
Upon climbing back up the stairs, the Grand Duke’s party took time to peruse the Museum’s widely varied exhibits before being transported back to the Suspension Bridge. They walked across the bridge over to the United States, enjoying the spectacular view along the way. After spending the night at the Spencer House hotel, which had renovated and furnished suites especially for the delegation, they spent the greater part of the next day enjoying the sights of Niagara Falls before departing for Buffalo.