By Sherman Zavitz: Official Historian of the City of Niagara Falls
This article originally appeared in the 2016 edition of Circa magazine
J.C. Bonnefons obviously had more than the usual amount of courage and curiosity.
This was amply demonstrated during April 1753 when he and two friends visited Niagara Falls. After viewing the cataract from Table Rock, Bonnefons proposed that they climb down the side of the gorge to the foot of the enormous waterfall. His friends were horrified at such an idea. Since there was no path of any kind, it would mean clinging to bushes and roots while using small rock ledges for toeholds as you gingerly lowered yourself into the gorge. One false step and you would be hurled into eternity.
His fellow travellers refused to take part in such a risky venture so, undaunted, Bonnefons undertook the perilous descent on his own. He soon realized that he had taken on more than he had bargained for but as he later wrote, “I had to finish as much from pride as from curiosity.” An hour later he had reached the bottom of the gorge.
Drenched by spray, Bonnefons clamored over the slippery rocks to the base of the cataract. His adventuresome spirit then propelled him to see if it was possible to go behind the falls. It was! Although the overwhelming roar combined with the trembling of the rocks was both deafening and disconcerting, he cautiously moved in behind the vast curtain of crashing water. There he found a wide cavern around 6 metres high and 4.5 metres wide. Large clefts in the rock prevented any further progress, forcing Bonnefons to retreat.
When he finally got back to his friends on top of the gorge he was soaked, cold and temporarily deaf. Several hours passed before his hearing returned.
Bonnefons’ account is one of the earliest descriptions of this unique Niagara experience.
Seeing a business opportunity, in 1818 local entrepreneur William Forsyth constructed a spiral stairway down the side of the gorge near Table Rock. With access now much easier and safer, many more people began to make the descent into the gorge and explore the area behind the Horseshoe Falls.
By 1827, a “Trip Behind the Great Falling Sheet of Water,” as it was named, had become a relatively popular and organized attraction. Captain Basil Hall visited Niagara Falls during June 1827, and wrote how on three occasions he visited “the extraordinary cave formed between the cascade and the face of the overhanging cliff.” He was conducted each time by an experienced guide who made a “handsome livelihood” leading these tours.
Hall reported it was possible to walk some distance behind the falls before a huge piece of limestone, which came to be known as Termination Rock, blocked the way.
In the autumn of 1827, the wealthy partnership of Thomas Clark and Samuel Street bought out Forsyth’s stairway and cave attraction. They immediately sublet the business to W.D. Wright.
Around the same time, Clark and Street constructed two small buildings at Table Rock. One had dressing rooms where visitors could don their waterproof clothing for the trip behind the Horseshoe Falls to Termination Rock. The other was built at the top of the stairway and housed a barroom.
W.D. Wright came up with the idea of offering (for a fee) a signed certificate to each person who had successfully reached Termination Rock. It would be a souvenir of your visit and a reminder of your accomplishment.
This practice was continued by Isaiah Starkey who became keeper of the stairway at Table Rock in 1834. He held the job for eleven years and was a familiar figure around Niagara Falls. Starkey permitted free access to the stairway but in order to reach the stairs you had to pass through his barroom. Here, he sold not only liquor but such treats as lemonade and pastries. He also charged a fee for both the waterproof clothing and the guide service.
The barroom also housed a display of various minerals and tables holding guest registers. One of Starkey’s visitors in 1842 was Charles Dickens. Looking through some of these registers, the famous novelist was horrified to find them “scrawled all over with the vilest and the filthiest ribaldry that ever human hogs delighted in.”
A number of 19th century visitors to Niagara Falls wrote about their experience behind the Horseshoe Falls. Most commented on the ear-splitting noise, getting soaked (in spite of wearing what was supposed to be waterproof clothing) and being buffeted by the strong winds.
John Fowler added another interesting detail. He made the trip in 1830 and noted in his journal how the walking was made more difficult “by the number of small eels which are twisting about under your feet in all directions.”
Nevertheless, the majority of people felt it was an exhilarating, unique and memorable experience.
The modern-day version of going “Behind the Great Falling Sheet of Water” is Journey Behind the Falls, operated by The Niagara Parks Commission. Located at Table Rock, visitors descend 38 metres through the gorge wall by elevator. A short tunnel then provides access to two outdoor observation decks beside the base of the Horseshoe Falls as well as two portals directly behind the falls.
Having this experience helps people realize just how accurate J.C. Bonnefons was back in 1753 when he described Niagara Falls as an “astonishing cataract.”