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Niagara River | Niagara Falls, New York

© Sophie W. Smith

Joined October 2012

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History
The Niagara River and Falls have been known outside of North America since the late 17th century, when Father Louis Hennepin, a French explorer, first witnessed them. He wrote about his travels in A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America (1698).

The Niagara River was the site of the earliest recorded railway in America. It was an inclined wooden tramway built by John Montresor (1736–1799), a British military engineer, in 1764. Called “The Cradles” and “The Old Lewiston Incline,” it featured loaded carts pulled up wooden rails by rope. It facilitated the movement of goods over the Niagara Escarpment in present-day Lewiston, New York.

Several battles occurred along the Niagara River, which was historically defended by Fort George (Canadian side) and Fort Niagara (American side) at the mouth of the river and Fort Erie (Canadian side) at the head of the river. These forts were important during the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. The Battle of Queenston Heights took place near the river in the War of 1812.

The river was an important route to liberation before the American Civil War, when many African-Americans escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad crossed it to find freedom in Canada. The Freedom Crossing Monument stands on the bank of the river in Lewiston, to commemorate the courage of the escaping slaves and the local volunteers who assisted them in secretly crossing the river.

In the 1880s, the Niagara River became the first waterway in North America harnessed for large-scale generation of hydroelectricity.

On the Canadian side of the river the provincial agency Niagara Parks Commission maintains all of the shoreline property, except the sites of Fort George and Fort Erie (both National Historic Sites are maintained federally by Parks Canada), as a public greenspace and environmental heritage.

On the US side New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation maintains the state parks that line Falls and Niagara River.

Today, the river is the namesake of Niagara Herald Extraordinary at the Canadian Heraldic Authority. Read more

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