Although a very obscure event now, at the time it was a major news story that for many weeks placed Niagara Falls on the front page of virtually every daily newspaper in both North and South America. The “event” was a peace conference which took place here during May and June, 1914.
In his recent book “The Forgotten Peace: Mediation at Niagara Falls, 1914”, author Michael Small has noted, “For Canadians, the conference provided an unexpected spectacle on their doorstep, combining high diplomacy and low intrigue around the gardens and cataracts of Canada’s most famous natural attraction.”
The conference was held as the result of American intervention in the Mexican Revolution, a bloody, often confusing civil war which convulsed Mexico from late 1910 to 1920. Fearing for its interests in the Gulf of Mexico and hoping to alter the course of the revolution, the United States captured Mexico’s chief seaport, Veracruz, on April 22, 1914. This placed the two countries on the brink of war.
At this critical point, a mediation offer was made by Argentina, Brazil and Chile – who were quickly christened the A.B.C. Powers. The offer was accepted by both the American and Mexican governments. Niagara Falls, Ontario was chosen as the site for the peace conference with headquarters located at the lovely Clifton Hotel, which was located where Oakes Garden Theatre is now.
Mexico and the United States each sent three official delegates (or commissioners), along with teams of advisers. Almost all of these people, as well as the mediators from the A.B.C. Powers, brought along various family members and servants. This throng, along with a hoard of newspaper reporters (around 150) added up to a significant number of people, all of whom descended on Niagara Falls in mid- May 1914.
Although Canada was the host nation, it played no official role. Nevertheless, there was some special significance in the conference’s location. As many people realized, both sides of the Niagara River had been a battleground during the War of 1812 – a war that had been settled 100 years earlier with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. As one of the U.S. Commissioners, Frederick Lehmann, noted in a speech to the Canada Club of Niagara Falls, the Niagara Frontier was “a demonstration of lasting peace” for all delegates to consider.
This first all-American peace conference got underway on May 20th. Formal sessions were held in the Clifton Hotel’s sun parlour, a large room on the top floor overlooking the falls. The Niagara Falls Daily Record noted that with its oak panelling and thick carpets, “the room resembles more clearly a very handsomely appointed smoking room…and is very cozy.”
During the course of the conference, the delegates were invited to take part in various social events, including a number of dinners such as one hosted by what is now The Niagara Parks Commission.
On Sunday, May 24th, shortly after the conference had opened, all the delegates and their families along with many local residents and members of the press attended a special peace Mass at, appropriately, Our Lady of Peace Church, which still stands at Fallsview. A Buffalo reporter took notice of the lovely setting and later wrote: “An atmosphere of peace and religion surrounded the site of the famous little Carmelite shrine perched away up on the grass-covered cliff overlooking one of nature’s most sublime features, Niagara’s cataract.”
The conference ended on July 1st. One immediate result was that war between the United States and Mexico was, at least for the time being, averted. However, the Revolutionary War in Mexico continued.
As Michael Small also points out, “The conference was the first occasion when an event of major political importance to both the United States and Latin America took place in Canada. For this reason alone, it is worth recalling in an era when Canada has made its relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere a priority for its foreign policy.”
For the City of Niagara Falls, it was a major (although now all but forgotten) episode in its long and fascinating history.
By Sherman Zavitz - Official Historian, City of Niagara Falls