Francis Abbott - The Hermit of Niagara Falls

Below is an excerpt from  Tunis’s Topographical and Pictorial Guide to Niagara and Traveler’s Companion,  Published by W. E. Tunis, 1855.   Tunis introduces Francis Abbott, the Hermit of Niagara, who lived among the islands in the Niagara River above the American Falls.  (NFHM 2000.D.068). 

“The History of this singular individual has been given in various forms from the hurried compilation of a guidebook to the extravagances of a romance.  We present you with only what is known of him by all who lived in the village at the time of his residing here.  His first appearance at Niagara was in the afternoon of June 18, 1839. He was a young man then, tall and well-formed but emaciated and haggard of an easy and gentlemanly deportment, but sufficiently eccentric in his appearance to arrest the gaze of the stranger.

“Clad in a long flowing robe of brown, and carrying under his arm a roll of blankets, a book, portfolio and flute, he proceeded directly to a small retired inn, where he engaged a room for a week stipulating, however, that the room was to be for the time exclusively his, and that only a part of his food was to be prepared by the family.  Soon after he visited the village library, entered his name and drew books.  About the same time also, he purchased a violin. At the expiration of a week he returned to the library where, falling into conversation, he spoke with much enthusiasm on the subject of the Falls and expressed his intention of remaining here some time longer. 

“Shortly afterward he asked permission of the proprietor of these islands to erect a cabin on Moss Island that he might live here in greater seclusion than the village afforded him.  Failing in this request, he took up his abode in part of a small log-house which then stood near the head of Goat Island.  Here for nearly two years he continued to live with no companions but his dog, his books, and his music, blameless but almost unknown.  On this island, at hours when it was unfrequented by others, he delighted to roam, heedless if not oblivious of danger.  At that time a stick of lumber about eight inches square extended from Terrapin Bridge eight feet beyond the precipice.  On this he has been seen on almost all hours of the night, pacing to and fro beneath the moonlight, without the slightest apparent tremor of nerve or hesitancy of step.  Sometimes he might be seen sitting carelessly on the extreme end of the timber, sometimes hanging beneath it by his hands and feet.  Although exquisitely sensitive in his social habits, he seems to have been without an apprehension in the presence of danger.  After residing on Goat Island two winters, he crossed Bath Island Bridge and built him a rude cabin of boards at Point View, near the American Fall.  Although brought into the immediate neighbourhood of the villagers, he held but little intercourse with them; sometimes indeed, refusing to break his silence by oral communication with anyone.  At times, however,  he was extremely affable to all, easily drawn into conversation, and supporting it with a regard to conventionalism, and a grace and accuracy of expression that threw a charm over the most trivial subject of remark.

“The late Judge De Vaux was perhaps the only person with whom he was really familiar.  With him he  would often interchange arguments, by the hour, on some point of theology, his favourite topic of discussion.  Views on this subject were by no means stable, but as far as they assumed a definite form that seemed nearly akin to those held by the Society of Friends.  But it was in his brilliant reminiscences of foreign lands and scenes that he was especially glorious. 


“All his subjective speculations were tinged by shadows of melancholy or despair; but in describing the glories of nature and art the scholar and the amateur lifted off the cowl of the hermit and revealed the enthusiasm of a spirit still exquisitely alive to the kindling touch of Beauty. 

 

Above is a coloured copy of one of a series of steel-engravings made by William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854).  The series appeared in Bartlett’s book, American Scenery,  showing the main sites visited on the American Grand Tour.  This view, entitled “The Horse Shoe Fall of Niagara—with the Tower,” 1837, shows the Terrapin Tower and Terrapin Bridge, where Francis Abbott, the Hermit of Niagara would cavort on moonlit nights.

Constructed in 1827, Terrapin Bridge was a 300-foot long wooden boardwalk which extended from Goat Island  beyond the brink of the Falls.  The Bridge was built in the midst of the rapids on top of the Terrapin Rocks, a scattered group of large boulders so named because they rose above the water like the backs of giant turtles.  To compliment the view, Terrapin Tower was situated at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls, accessible by the Terrapin Bridge.  The Tower was blown up in 1873 but the Bridge can be seen in pictures as late as 1934.

 

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