Niagara Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311
In the 1820s, Niagara Falls held the top spot in the catalog of sublime attractions and travel destinations for the upper class. Paul E. Johnson begins this chapter by focusing on one of these elite tourists, Colonel William Leete Stone. Stone was present on October 6, 1829, the day Sam Patch was scheduled to make his jump at Niagara. He watched as crews set up for the day’s events and wrote about them in his travel journal. Stone considered himself a connoisseur of aesthetic taste and sensibility, and he exulted in the sublime. Indeed, Stone was among the class of “genteel elite” that had been making the “Fashionable Tour” in upstate New York to experience and appreciate the various landscapes and towns. Stone and his fellow travelers particularly sought moments of sublimity—but always from a place of safety.
Hotel owner William Forsyth provided such moments at his establishment near Niagara Falls. He created a set of paths, walkways, stairs, bridges, and piers to offer his guests safe vistas, both horizontal and vertical. Stone took his time in absorbing these vistas when he arrived at Forsyth’s Pavilion. Then he, like many others before and after him, stood upon Table Rock and let the scene of “wonder and dread admiration” enter into his very being, experiencing the sublime terror of the falls from his perfectly safe perch and allowing himself to be swept up in the aesthetic pleasure of the moment.
During his stay, however, Stone was to witness several sights he would find less exalted. Crews planned to set off several explosions; a ship, the Superior, was scheduled to take the plunge over the falls; and Sam Patch would perform another one of his spectacular leaps. Stone found these events inappropriate for his travel journal, but he described them for his newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, and its elite audience. Stone had little use for Sam Patch and his antics. He called him a “crazy chap,” but he did make Sam into a prime example of the hated Jacksonian democracy that supposedly threatened to overwhelm the elite with universal suffrage, low tastes, and atrocious grammar.
Writing as his satiric alter ego Hiram Doolittle Jr., a Jacksonian Democrat, Stone lambasted everything from political opponents to manipulative business owners to lowlife proponents of social virtues. In Doolittle’s voice, Stone presented Sam Path and his exhibition as a mere “treat” for the lower classes who cared only to gape at explosions and circus tricks while being unable to appreciate the spiritually sublime. Sam’s jump, Doolitte/Stone remarked sarcastically, was “wonderful” and “prodigious,” and it even startled the fish. He meant, of course, the opposite, for Stone had no use for such low spectacles.
Many others, however, did. While the upper classes were content to pay for exclusive views, the “plain people” largely ignored the falls unless they were recalling stories of war and hardship, for the Niagara was often a battle site. They told stories of death and destruction at the falls and engaged in an off-season festival that included often gruesome demonstrations like the destruction of a boat containing a crew of live animals.
The events accompanying Sam Patch’s 1829 jump were largely unsatisfying, because the explosions failed to detonate properly, the Superior got stuck and failed to go over the falls, and Sam Patch delayed his jump until the next day.
On October 7, 1829, Sam performed his first leap at Niagara Falls. While Colonel Stone was not overly impressed, many others were, for Sam carried out the jump with his usual nonchalant expertise. He then spent the next few days in Buffalo, drinking, carousing, and talking to visitors at Jonathan McCleary’s Buffalo Museum. The Museum was a curiosity in its own right—theater man McCleary filled it with everything from Indian relics to petrified fish to live rattlesnakes, and he offered live performances to enhance his collections. McCleary also apparently gave Sam Patch some tips about showmanship, because Sam began donning a black silk scarf and leading around a pet bear.
Just five days after his first Niagara Falls jump, Sam advertised a second, more dramatic jump. He was still determined “to show that some things could be done as well as others,” the old phrase he had used back in Paterson, and he was determined to leap from a height of 120 to 130 feet on October 17. Crowds watched in awe and terror as Sam climbed a “jerry-built ladder” onto a shaky platform. He stood beneath an American flag—which proved offensive to some Canadian and Anglophile spectators—for a few moments and then leaped into the abyss. The audience gasped in horror when Sam disappeared into the water, but he soon surfaced, uninjured, to the cheers of the crowd.
Two journalists caught up with Sam Patch after his two Niagara leaps, and they proved to be much more admiring of his feats than Stone was. William Lyon Mackenzie described the jumps in detail, and the reporter for the Buffalo Republican made an effort to appreciate Sam’s skill, technique, and daring, and he highlighted Sam’s apparently casual indifference to the danger he faced.
In this chapter, Paul E. Johnson brings together a variety of contrasting viewpoints. Just as visitors to Niagara Falls viewed the cascade from many different angles, each of which provided a unique perspective on the natural wonder, so the people featured in this chapter have distinct and often divergent perspectives on nature, Niagara Falls, war, entertainment, and Sam Patch himself.
To upper-class tourists like Colonel William Leete Stone, nature was all about beauty, sublimity, and spirituality. He wanted to appreciate natural scenes like Niagara Falls through an aesthetic perspective. He wished to raise his mind to God and glimpse grandeur and romance. As such, he planned his views of the falls carefully, making sure he drew from them every possible moment of uplift. But those who lived near the falls permanently—the farmers, the workers, and even the hotel owners—had a different perspective of the natural wonder. It was simply part of their lives, and they paid little attention to it. For some, the falls provided their livelihood; for others, Niagara was a place to go hiking and fishing. The varying viewpoints run the scale from the transcendent to the pragmatic.
In his discussion about the history of Niagara Falls, Johnson notes that many stories of Niagara center around war, for the falls had been a site of battles for decades. Tourists like Stone waxed romantic as they imagined the sublime struggles between soldiers with the falls raging in the background. Area residents, however, recalled horror stories of burned homes, hunger, and fear. To them, war was far from romantic and sublime; it was real and disastrous.
The chapter also features varying viewpoints on proper entertainment. Stone and his fellow upper-class tourists looked down their noses at spectacles like explosions, ship drops, and Sam Patch’s jumps. To them, these were low amusements that lacked beauty or uplift, unlike the quiet observation of scenery that allowed a person to enter into contemplation, appreciate God’s creation, and experience moments of pure sublimity. The majority of Niagara visitors did not agree. They might have appreciated the wonder of the falls on some level, but they also liked to see action. They wanted excitement, and they found it when they watched Sam Patch jump.
Of course, the views on Sam varied, too. Stone called him “a crazy chap” who made insane jumps for the amusement of less cultivated crowds. Sam was merely hungry for fame, a show-off who sought glory. To the working class, though, Sam was a hero who represented their values and gave them the kind of excitement they craved and which enlivened their often monotonous lives. Sam made them believe, if only for a while, that even the common man could be famous.