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In the 1830s, the area around Niagara Falls was still mostly wilderness. Railroads were just coming in, and already people were complaining about how commercialization was ruining Niagara Falls. Already there were cheesy attempts to make money off tourism. In 1827, promoters sent a ship full of animals over the falls. They had advertised that it would be ferocious animals of the forest-- panthers, wildcats, wolves. Instead, the cargo included a buffalo, two foxes, a raccoon, a dog, and 15 geese. It didn't matter. Everybody made money. The town of Niagara Falls had barely been settled for two decades.
This kind of exploitation of the falls has continued for nearly two centuries since then. And what's surprising about it really is how unsuccessful it's been. Power plants fell into the river. Bridges collapsed. Deals were struck that benefited no one. If the classic story of America is the story of people who started with nothing, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, made something of themselves, the story of Niagara Falls is the opposite story. Here, they started with something, something big, something huge, but didn't build anything lasting from it.
The modern history of Niagara Falls can be divided roughly into three phases-- the schemers who came in trying to exploit the falls for tourism, how their dreams rose and fell. But that's not the story we're here to tell today. Then there were the schemers who came in trying to exploit the falls for industry. By the twentieth century, they built hydroelectric power plants and factories that used that power, that cheap power, moved in. But then those factories left, decimated by the same economic forces that ravaged the industries in most of the Rust Belt states, forces so powerful they can destroy a town, even a town with one of the world's natural wonders in it.
But that's not the story we're here to tell today either. We're here to tell the story of the third phase of Niagara's life-- the people who live in the aftermath of those dreams that have been dreamt and lost, who live in present day Niagara Falls, a city like many cities around the country, blessed at some point with natural advantages and resources that somehow fell from grace, fell apart, a town full of people trying to make sense of what's happened, living in the aftermath of what's happened, some who've made their peace with what Niagara is, some who haven't.
During the next half hour, we're going to bring you two sets of stories interlaced, half of them from documentary producer Alix Spiegel, who went to the falls and interviewed people living there, half from David Kodeski, who grew up in the town of Niagara Falls. It's This American Life, from WBEZ Chicago, Public Radio International, I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
All the stories this hour will be from Alix and David. We'll start with this one from Alix.
There's a painting of Niagara above the couch in Paul's living room and another on the opposite wall over a chair. These pictures have a romantic, epic feel, like the two Niagara pictures he's hung on the wall near the front door. Then there are the four aerial photographs of the falls above the greenhouse window and the etchings of the falls in his office and the small, delicate portrait of the falls in the kitchen over the sink. There is in fact a picture of Niagara on almost every wall of every room in Paul's house. I visit Paul, and we sit together on the couch in his living room under the biggest picture of blue water rushing the brink. He's wearing his Niagara baseball cap.
Walking towards the falls you can notice the crescendo building up, the change. Then you can hear this mmmmmm, and that sound of the falls as you're getting closer and closer and closer. And finally you're there. It's like the "1812 Overture," when the symbols go, boom! Dum-da-da-dum! I get goosebumps when I hear that every time I hear it. Honest to God. If you've ever heard the "1812 Overture," I'm sure. Well, that's the same feeling. That's what people should get when they go to Niagara-- goosebumps.
Paul was a schoolteacher but retired early so he could study and write about Niagara full time. He's written five books, a folder of poems and gives lectures to local high schools and environmental groups. Nothing about the falls is too small for Paul to study. He is, for example, the only person ever to compile a comprehensive history of suicides at the falls. He did this by combing through a century's worth of newspapers at the local library, picking out all the articles and references to suicide, and collecting this information in a series of graphs, colored bar charts on poster board, which break the suicides down by age, sex, and so on.
Monday, blue Monday, I guess is the most popular day. Wednesday is the least popular. Over the hump. People always feel good. Over the hump. Weekend's coming, so who wants to do away with themselves? We got the weekend coming. And then what time of the day are suicides? 4 o'clock in the afternoon. So tired of work. Can't stand it. Can't decide to go home or whatever. And then what month of the year? September is the most. And believe it or not, the next month is the least, October.
Paul reads me a poem he wrote called "Sensing the Wonders of Niagara." He tells me that the American Falls and the area around the American Falls is supposed to be a natural reserve according to a hundred years of New York state law. But, he says, the city of Niagara doesn't care. He says there are too many skyscrapers, too much honky-tonk, too many factories, and tourist helicopters buzzing low all day long. On the Canadian side of the falls, there's casino gambling and wax museums and sushi.
Then Paul starts asking me questions, not the kind I'm supposed to answer. The kind that answer themselves. Who are we, the residents on either side of this wonder, to think that it is ours to do with as we wish? Why do we insist on introducing more and more buildings and distractions around the falls? Why must we turn the falls into a commodity? How come so many people are so unhappy today? Why are people angry when they drive? Isn't this because there are no places of natural beauty where people can escape modern life?
How would it look if you stood in line at the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa, as I did in 1979, how would it be if when you finally got to see it there were neon lights all around it, flashing. Buy this. Buy that. Buy this. Could you really enjoy the painting? No. If you went to hear Mozart-- oh, my favorite composer, Mozart. If you wanted to hear Mozart and went to a concert, and you've waited for months to hear this concert and then, right next to the stage was a rock band playing at the same time, could you enjoy the Mozart? I'm afraid not. So when you come to see Niagara Falls, you should see something natural. When you come to hear Niagara Falls, you should hear something natural.
Paul writes letters to the Niagara Gazette and the Buffalo News, and speaks out at town meetings about limiting commercialization of the area around the falls. His opinions are unpopular. He's seen as an outsider, an extremist. He's been called a complainer and anti-industry. One city councilman told one of his friends that he'd like to see Paul disappear. In 1983, Paul was testifying against a landfill that he thought might threaten the Niagara River. And that night he was woken up at three in the morning by the sound of a truck in his driveway.
A truck pulled up in my driveway and put a large metal sawhorse against my overhead garage door. And my dog was barking. I got up, and I just got to see the truck leaving my driveway. And there were two men on the back of the pickup truck and a man driving. And there were two blinking amber lights on the sawhorse. I put my coat on, went outside, and I took a look at it. I said, my god, why is this here? So I called the police. And the sheriff came to my house. And he said Mr. Gromosiak, you've been warned. I said, by whom? He said, I don't know, but that's how they warn people. I said, oh, really?
As a kid, Paul would visit Niagara three or four times a week. He would sit on his favorite stump, watch the water, and fantasize about what his life would be like. But now Paul doesn't visit Niagara at all. He lives less than three miles from the falls, studies and writes about the falls every day, covers his walls with pictures of the falls, but he can't bring himself to go.
For relaxation, I can't anymore. I just can't. I get upset now. I could cry. I feel like I'm walking on the ruins of a wonder. So I go other places to walk.
When you think about your life in the future, do you ever think that you will be able to--
No. No. No, I can't. I don't think I will. I will only go there when I have to, to do a favor for someone or to take people there to see it. But I will remind them about what it was.
Paul tells me that he sometimes thinks that fighting for the falls is his destiny. He never married and lives alone, so he has plenty of time to really pursue it. And ultimately, he believes he will see a natural Niagara Falls-- one day-- when he gets to heaven.
Could you imagine being in that place forever, how it used to be with the bald eagle soaring above, hundreds of them, with that ground shaking, with the trees bending over the gorge, growing larger than most other places in North America, all kinds of food to eat? Just cup your hands together and put them in the water and drink it while you're looking at the falls. I can deal with that forever. I can deal with that forever.
There are really only two kinds of jobs at Niagara-- heavy industry and tourism. I got a job in tourism. Early in the spring of 1986, I was hired by Gray Line Tours, Incorporated, licensed by the state of New York and the province of Ontario. I had to pass a couple of simple tests. The Canadian, or Horseshoe Falls, are 158 feet high. The American Falls are 184 feet high and have a crest line of 1,060 feet. 30,000 cubic feet of water pass over both falls every minute during the daylight hours in the summer months. The water at the base of the falls is as deep as the falls are high.
I became Niagara Parks commission tour guide number 674. All that spring, summer, and fall, I drove van loads of tourists to all points of interest in the region. Every tour a three-hour tour, three times a day, 21 times a week. Did you go on the boat, I'm often asked. Yes, I went on the boat three times a day, 21 times a week.
Today, I know that in family photo albums in India and Japan there are pictures of me pointing out a geologic feature, telling a tale of daredevilry, posed with the rest of the tour group, the natural wonder in the background providing the perfect backdrop.
When I was a kid we visited the falls often, nearly every weekend, usually just before Sunday supper at grandma and grandpa's. Yet I never really got over my terror of the falls. Despite the fact that I led tours at Niagara Falls three times a day every day for a single summer, I never got over my terror of them. The water there is so swift, the drop so sudden. You can't stand there at the brink-- watching the water roll over, changing yet always the same-- you can't stand there without the thought crossing your mind. It would be so easy, so peaceful, to just jump. And it does happen. Often. Everyone who lives here has a story of someone they've seen, of someone they've heard about, of someone they've known who was killed in the falls.
Sometimes people will plan for a long time for a trip to the falls. They stand there watching the water for a while. Usually they'll remove their shoes, place their belongings, their personal effects inside their shoes, climb up over the railing and jump. I've seen it happen once. It was terrible. A young woman.
I was at Table Rock guiding a tour. There was commotion as the would-be be rescuers ran past us. There were people on the observation deck calling out to the people on the Maid of the Mist boat trip who were taking photos of the majestic cataract, waving to the people 158 feet above, people who had seen her jump and were now trying to get the tourists aboard the boat to help the woman who was now being tossed about in the swirling waters. Her body was sucked behind the curtain of water. Disappeared. I don't know if they ever found her body. Sometimes they don't.
They pay people to go down to the lower river and retrieve the bodies they do find. $100 a body.
I think it started back in my grandfather's day. He did a lot of hunting and a lot of fishing. Them days they used to hunt below the falls. And being he was around the river all the time, any time they had someone jump over the falls, commit suicide or someone drowned accidentally, or someone would fall over the cliff, they'd get my grandfather to go down and recover the bodies or if the person was injured to find them and get the help to bring them up. Well, then from there, it went to my dad.
Now, when I was eight or nine years old, I used to go down with my dad when he pulled bodies out. I'd just stand back and watch. He did the same to all my brothers. And I got three boys and a daughter. And all my boys used to go down with me to retrieve the bodies too, help us carry them up and everything.
Wes Hill collects the dead bodies of people who go over the falls. A warning-- some of his descriptions may be a little graphic for some listeners.
After you see one or two or three, you get used to it. It's just like looking at a dead animal really, because 90% of these people committed suicide. And it wasn't accidental. They wanted to be there, so why feel sorry for them? And it gets so after you've taken out a hundred or so, then it's just like somebody repairing a car. It's the same thing over and over again. And I've taken around 400 bodies out of the river.
One time, it was in the afternoon. I was going to collect my paycheck. And it was too early to get my paycheck. I had to wait a couple hours. My wife was with me, so I said, let's drive down to the Maid of the Mist, and I'll go look around the driftwood, see what's floating in there. Because I got all kinds of fish and tackle and boat parts and everything out of the driftwood years ago. So as I parked car in the parking lot of the Maid of the Mist, I could see something pink going around the point just below the Maid of the Mist docks. There's a point of a rock that sticks out. I told my wife, that looked like someone's back or something.
So I walked in behind one of the docks, and I got a pike pole. It's a logger's pole they have the pull out driftwood. I got that, and I walked around the bay and went in behind this big rock. And here's an old woman laying there in the water. So I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up on shore. Her body was still warm and everything, but her back was all smashed. She was dead. Apparently somebody in Montreal went to visit his mother and father. And he went in the house. And there's a suicide note on the table saying that one didn't want to live without the other. And being they're up in their 70s, they figure, one could die any time. So they said they're going over Niagara Falls and jump together. And they did. We got her body that day, and I got the man's body about a week later.
I got a 18-year-old girl out of the river. She got pregnant, and her boyfriend said he'd marry her. And then he didn't, and she accidentally caught him with another girl. And she jumped over the falls. And of course, with the pressure on the body, when I went to pull her body out, the baby was halfway out. That is sickening.
Back in 1950, my brother, Red, decided he was going to try to go over the falls in a barrel. And he figured he needed something light, that if it hit any rocks, it would bounce so he wouldn't get hurt. So he got these big truck inner tubes, and he had them all put together with nylon webbing and everything, and a large net over the whole thing. The ends were closed with smaller inner tubes.
And he figured if he went over in this thing made with inner tubes-- and he called it the Thing-- that he'd come out all right. So I told him, I'm not going to help you. And he said, why? I said, mainly because you weigh more than the barrel you're going over in. And I said, those inner tubes, when you go over the falls, it's going to hit the water and stop dead. And I said, you're going to shoot right through it, right out of it. No, no, he says, I'll be all right.
I seen him that morning when he left my house. I was with my mother. And I went down to the Maid of the Mist landing with my brothers and my mother, because they figured he'd come out all right and they wanted to be there to greet him. And I was standing on the dock of the Maid of the Mist when I seen this jumble of tubes come out. And I turned to my mother and said, Bill's dead. She said, how do you know? I said, look at the tubes. They're all smashed up. And the small boat from the Maid of the Mist pulled the tubes in. He wasn't in it. They got his body the next morning.
My mother had been fighting my father and us boys for years. Every time we'd go down to the whirlpool, take a body out or rescue somebody, she'd say, you're going to get in trouble. Stay home. She'd worry about us all the time we were gone. She always did that. When my brother said he was going over the falls, two of the neighbors said, why don't you try to stop him? She says, ain't no sense in talking to my family. She says, see? I can't talk him out of it. She tried, but we're all bullheaded.
Did she hate the falls or did she--
She hated it. She really hated it. My other brother Norman, he worked on the Maid of the Mist for years, and when they started the hydro project, he went to work in the hydro. And he was down working in the tunnels, and a rock came down one of the shafts and hit him on the head and killed him. So actually, he was killed working along the river too.
There's a legend for retelling by tour guides. I would retell this legend at the base of the Bridal Veil Falls during the Cave of the Winds trip part of my tour. This is a legend.
Every year the Indians who lived at the falls would, in the autumn, choose a maid to be sacrificed at Niagara to appease the angry god who lived in the waterfall, to ensure safe passage through long, cold, dark winter months. Now, it happened one year that the kind chief's only lovely daughter was selected as the maid of sacrifice. The chief loved his daughter very much. And though it broke his heart, he went through with the preparations. When the fateful day arrived, the canoe, beautifully painted and laden with garlands of flowers and cornucopias of nature's bounty was carried to the village with his lovely only daughter inside. It was set into the river, and she drifted away, silently, nobly to her destiny.
When she hit the first rapids above the falls, she let out a small cry of terror, and her father, overcome by heartwrenching grief, jumped into his own canoe in hopes of rescuing her. As her canoe tossed and turned in the rapids, she called out again and again. The chief paddled faster, but alas, he was too late. With a final cry, she passed over the brink and was lost. Her father paddled with speed to the edge, and he too disappeared. It is said that the roar that you hear at the falls is the father crying out in anger, and the mist you feel raining down are her tears.
I would retell this legend three times a day every day to Australian and German tourists, to visitors from Tokyo and Bombay, to smiling blond-haired, straight-toothed families from Nebraska. They would smile and nod. Smile and nod. And then, simply because I could not help myself, I would tell them that the whole thing was a fabrication. Not true at all.
The visitors, whether from Missouri or Melbourne, would lower their cameras, squinting at me, slack-jawed, like they were woken from a dream. I'd tell them that the aboriginal people who lived here never, ever engaged in human sacrifice of any kind, that really, what was in a way amazing about this story was that it survived for so long from the time of the very earliest tour guides in the area, from the 1820s when Niagara was only just starting up.
What I didn't tell them was that I would, as a kid, attend the Maid of the Mist parade every summer. It came right down main street in Niagara Falls. And at the end of the parade every year, after the Shriners, the Knights of Columbus, high school bands and waving dignitaries, the most elaborate float would appear-- a re-creation of the Maid of the Mist legend, usually with a pretty young woman from the reservation nearby. There she'd be in her chicken wire and crepe paper canoe, poised on the very brink of the paper mache cataract, smiling, waving, throwing wooden nickels.
I met a man in a bar who told me a story about the city of Niagara Falls, which is the story I think of whenever I'm trying to explain Niagara to myself. He told me that the mayor of the city gets two things-- a $30,000 salary and a license plate for his car. The license plate reads NF number one-- Niagara Falls number one.
A couple years ago, there was a mayor in Niagara who got voted out of office, but was so mad about being ousted that he refused to give the license plate to the new mayor. They argued back and forth and back and forth, the new mayor insisting the old mayor give the plate up, the old mayor refusing. Finally, said the man in the a bar, the new mayor came up with a plan. He hired some men to steal the plate off the car of the old mayor. This, I should say, is unlikely. The new mayor was a policeman for 31 years, and he absolutely denied taking the plate. But the man in the bar said that he and many of his friends didn't believe the mayor. He said, this is the kind of town Niagara is. It's the kind of town where the new mayor steals the license plate off the old mayor's car.
Don Glynn is a newspaper man who's worked at the Niagara Gazette for 37 years, not including his time as a paper boy. He takes me on a tour of the city. We drive through downtown Niagara. There's not much driving to do. It's mostly a grid of empty lots. So we circle the same streets over and over, past the convention center, past the old Niagara Hotel, past the Wintergarden and the Rainbow Mall, past the convention center, past the old Niagara Hotel.
You see this big building here, the flashcube, we call it. That's the Occidental Chemical center. There's very little occupancy in there anymore because, well, Occidental has moved out for the most part. And the largest tenant in that nine story building-- this says something about the city of Niagara Falls-- the largest tenant is the Small Business Disaster Assistance office.
All these places on both sides of the street for two or three blocks are just bars. And a lot of them are in Chapter 11. In fact, I often thought it would be neat to open a bar and just call it Chapter 11. It'd probably be packed with all the people that can't pay their bills.
Niagara was an industrial boomtown from the '20s through the early '50s, but in the late '50s and '60s, the electrochemical companies which lined the river found cheap power, nonunion labor, and lower taxes in other states. They left, and people left with them. Then in the late '60s and early '70s, things got so bad that Niagara elected a flamboyant mayor with a plan.
The mayor was E. Dent Lackey, and the plan was urban renewal. It was a simple plan which had three parts. Part one, the city would buy up all the property on the 82 acres of land which constituted Niagara's downtown area. Part two, the city would tear down all the property on the 82 acres of land which it had bought. And part three, developers from across America would flock to buy the empty lots, and they would build a new city.
This plan is part of the reason it doesn't take very long to go on a driving tour of Niagara Falls. They only made it through parts one and two.
Everything was just kind of like leveled, and they thought that all these developers would come in and rebuild. And that didn't happen, because the developers weren't standing in line like this mayor thought they would be. They just didn't want to come here, and they didn't want to invest.
So it was this one administration that just kind of leveled the city.
I thought he had a lot to do with it, Mayor E. Dent Lackey, for whom the plaza is named, by the way. You tear down a city and they name a plaza for you.
Don turns a corner and drives us past the Lackey Plaza, a large concrete square with a shallow white wall around it in front of Niagara's convention center. He points to the corner of the wall, where there's a smooth bronze plate.
See that marker there on the end there? See that little plate there? It looks like just an empty space.
Somebody stole the plaque. That's the Lackey Plaza, and that was the only proof that that was the Lackey Plaza, and someone stole it. It's been gone for like half a dozen years, the Lackey Plaza plaque. Does that tell you something about the city? Isn't that pathetic? I mean somebody felt that strongly about it that they removed the plaque. But that tells you something.
We drive up the street a ways, past two enormous parking complexes a couple of blocks from the falls. They are pristine structures, four-story garages which take up two entire city blocks and dwarf everything around them.
We've got these ramp garages, and they've never really been filled. They've never been used, and they're free. You notice that? Yeah, because it was foolish to try to charge. Finally they put a fee on this one here, but that's only because they're trying to take advantage of the people that work in the office building across the street. But the one closest to the falls is free. You can walk in there, and all the levels are free. It doesn't cost anything. And yet all the booths are in place there and the electronic system and the cars. They spent a lot of money on just setting up the mechanisms, and they don't use it.
You got to remember that this is probably the capital of pipe dreams. I don't know why that is. You could go over to Navy Island, which is close by. It's around five miles away. That was one of the sites suggested once for the home of the United Nations. I mean, that's big thinking and big planning, right? Of course it never happened because the Rockefellers donated the land in New York. But they actually thought they could get the United Nations here.
More than half of Niagara's population has left since the '50s. With industry gone, Don tells me about 2/3 of the population of Niagara Falls is on some form of public aid, and almost 60% of its population is elderly.
Young people do not stay here. They move out.
So in another, let's say, 20 years, you're going to have an entire city full of 80-year-olds. This is going to be like a huge retirement village or senior citizen's village.
Absolutely. No question. I think you're right. Young people just don't come in here and don't stay here.
And then, 25 years from now, it's going to be a ghost town, isn't it?
Well, it has all the makings of that, yeah.
Coming up, two weddings and a funeral, plus tape recordings made by someone inside a barrel as he went over the falls. Guess which Bon Jovi song he was listening to as he went over the brink. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of stories on that theme. Today's program, Niagara. Stories from documentary producer Alix Spiegel, who visited the falls, and from David Kodeski, who grew up there. In one sense, the story of Niagara Falls is the story of how we as Americans relate to nature. We revere it and romanticize it on the one hand, and we try to exploit on the other.
It's no accident that one of our country's most famous ecological disasters, Love Canal, where so many toxic chemicals were dumped that residents had to be evacuated, is just a few minutes' drive from the falls. Those chemicals were there because so many factories grew up near the falls, near the cheap hydroelectric power provided by the falls. And that's where our story continues.
Cheap, plentiful hydroelectric power lured the electrochemical industries of the world to Niagara. My father worked 40 years or so for DuPont in the sodium facility there. My uncle Ray worked for Carborundum, my cousin Paul for Union Carbide, my cousin Carl for Goodyear Tire and Rubber, my uncle Matt for Occidental Chemical and Petroleum, formerly known as Hooker Chemical.
The factories line the Niagara River not far from the falls themselves. When I was driving tours that summer, we were instructed to direct the attention of our guests toward the river to point out the wideness of the river, to point out the relative calmness of the water. We were instructed to keep the attention toward the river and away from the chemical factories belching yellow and white smoke. None of this would appear in the official tour guide training manuals, of course, but the veteran guides who trained us reminded us that we were working for tips. And who would tip a tour guide who pointed out a ravaged and polluted landscape?
Someone whose attention had drifted to the east might ask, what are those factories? And we were then instructed to explain how during the war effort these plants had supplied the armed services to aid in beating the Axis powers and those nylons GIs were plying Euro cuties with were made right here in Niagara Falls.
The summer I turned 17, there was a great deal of family talk about which plant I should work for, just for the summer, see if I like it. The money's good. The money is very good. But I did not want to work in any one of the factories under any circumstances. They seemed deadly. I knew that my grandfather retired early because of his failing health. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1966.
My grandfather was a chemical operator. He ran what they called caustic, caustic and chlorine. They make drain cleaner out of it, detergents, soap too. They use it to purify water. My relatives say dioxin was in the air there. They say that when they made caustic, the vapor would go up and it would turn into caustic dust. They say it was everywhere, even in the place where they ate. They say you could write your name in the dust on the table. You'd leave your coffee cup on the table, and there'd be a mark.
I spent a lot of time sitting on the front porch of my parents' house staring at the factories on the horizon-- towers, ironworks, smokestacks. You could also see the mist of the falls from there, but you couldn't be sure if it was the mist you were seeing or the smoke from the factories. Near my parents' house, kids would play on the sites of abandoned factories and dump sites. They called them the whites because everything there was thick with white ash. It's hard to say what this did to people. If you look at the studies, Niagara's cancer rate is higher than other areas, but just a little.
He went in and out of the hospital for months. One night when Tom was home from the hospital, we were all watching a movie on television, Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror, the one where she gets chased around her apartment by that little Zuni fetish doll. And Tom had to go to the bathroom. And we helped him down the hall and into the bathroom, and he had a seizure. He went limp. He passed out on the bathroom floor, and his eyes rolled back into his head. We all started to cry.
That summer, Tom was given radiation therapy, cobalt treatments. We had to watch him. We had to take care of him. Sharon was taking care of him one afternoon, and they were playing with some toy soldiers in the yard. Sharon believes that Tom knew that he was dying. He was killing the already fallen soldiers, shooting them over and over. And Sharon said, why are you killing them like that? Well, he said, well, they won't suffer like that.
Death and love-- that's what Niagara represents-- the nexus of death and love. Suicides on the one hand, honeymoons on the other. When I told a friend I was going to Niagara Falls, he asked me if I was getting married. Four different people asked me that question. I told them all I had no immediate plans. Then I called 1-800-785-L-O-V-E, the Niagara wedding chapel at the Radisson Hotel in Niagara Falls, New York.
The Niagara wedding chapel offers what they call a full-service wedding, which means that in addition to a ceremony with flowers, preacher, complimentary bottle of champagne, license, and wedding video, I'm entitled to a day of beauty at the hair salon next door and a discount on a room for my wedding night at the Radisson. Niagara, I was told, is the honeymoon capital of the world. The Niagara wedding chapel performs over 2,000 weddings annually.
At the end of our conversation, the man on the phone, who identified himself as the owner's brother, suggested that he and I get married. He told me he was single and I had a nice voice. I actually have his proposal in my notes of our conversation. There it is. Right under the information about the 24-hour waiting period, I wrote with a blue ballpoint pen, "Will marry me."
It's Catherine and A.J.'s first time, which is a little unusual for the Niagara wedding chapel. Most of their market is second marriages. Catherine and A.J. have driven to Niagara from Pittsburgh with 30 of their friends and family, and are now waiting together with their maid of honor in the welcome area outside the chapel. They all look happy and nervous. They're laughing and joking, talking about the kinds of things you talk about right before you get married.
A.J., you still have time to back out.
He's calmer than me.
I know. He's so calm. That's cool.
I should have gone to the bathroom.
Chris, the owner and manager of the Niagara chapel, comes in to tell Catherine and A.J. that even though two of their guests haven't arrived, the wedding must start. He's got a 4:30. He can't wait anymore. Everyone hurries to their places while Chris makes a brief announcement to their guests. They're allowed to take pictures, but everyone must remain in their seats until the end of the ceremony. I barely have time to wonder why this last instruction is necessary before--
[MUSIC - "BRIDAL CHORUS" BY RICHARD WAGNER]
Catherine starts crying as soon as she enters the chapel. She cries her way to the altar, cries as she takes her beside A.J., cries as the justice reads through the opening of the ceremony, cries more when the justice asks her if she'll love her husband through sickness and through health. The bareness of her emotion infects everyone in the room.
I see three people in the front row hunch their shoulders and bring their hands to their faces, then the man in the second row next to the wall, then the woman sitting next to him. It jumps the 12-year-old boy sitting next to her and moves to the third row, then the fourth. Now I am crying. We are all in the room crying. Everyone happy and flushed and sure that everything, everywhere is going to be OK after all.
And then, six minutes and 47 seconds after it begins, it's finished. A.J. and Catherine are now husband and wife.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you Mr. and Mrs. [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
In another 10 minutes they're gone. All evidence of the couple is removed, and the only sound in the chapel is the hum of fluorescent lights. Chris pops in a new video for the next couple and resets the video machine. He sets out a new bouquet and checks to see if the bride's dressing room is clean. Then his 4:30 arrives, Rod and Lori, just the two of them. No friends. No family. Lori goes to the bride's dressing room to check her makeup, and I try to talk to Rod. This is not an easy thing to do.
Where are you coming from?
Oh, all the way up from New Jersey?
What brought you up here?
She wanted to come to the falls?
Had you heard about it?
Yeah, I think. You know.
He's very quiet.
Lori comes out, and she and Rod are introduced to the minister. There are handshakes and some uncomfortable laughter. Then--
[MUSIC - "BRIDAL CHORUS" BY RICHARD WAGNER]
No one cries at this wedding. The two of them walk alone to the altar. The chapel is empty, just rows and rows of chairs. Rod and Lori stand stiffly as the preacher reads on and on. Rod seems perpetually awkward, not visibly happy at all. Lori isn't visibly happy either. As I've said, there's no one in the room, just a bunch of chairs and some video cameras. And it's hard not to wonder why they've chosen to engage in this exercise at all. It just seems so sad.
I look around the little stage that serves as a wedding altar, where all day long it's a series of these dramas in 30-minute intervals, one couple after another, some happy, some not. Then eight minutes after it began, it's over. Rod and Lori are husband and wife. No one's there to applaud.
Niagara, home of the two-tank honeymoon-- one tank up, one tank back. That's what Chris tells me. He hands me a card which says, Niagara, honeymoon capital of the world. But Niagara isn't the honeymoon capital of the world. It hasn't been for a long, long time. It held this title between the 1840s and the 1940s when the railroads made Niagara a cheap and easy weekend getaway for newlyweds in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, all up and down the east coast.
But the railroad was discontinued decades ago, and affordable air travel makes destinations like Hawaii much more popular with newlyweds today. But the idea of Niagara as honeymoon capital remains in a hundred old movies and songs. And those movies and songs are a powerful force.
Chris tells me he gets calls from Florence Italy, London England, from Japan. In the office in the back of the chapel, there's an entire wall of pictures of happy couples who have been married by Chris. I look at the pictures. Chris gets ready for his 5 o'clock.
Here's another story we would tell as tour guides. This one happens to be true.
Annie Edson Taylor was a 73-year-old school teacher from Bay City, Michigan. She arrived in Niagara sometime in the summer of 1903. She was alone, some say an old maid. She was penniless. She was desperate. She'd made up her mind that she would be the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live. She designed and had built a special barrel. She hired a manager, one Frank M. "Tussy" Russell. Russell announced to the world that the 73-year-old Taylor was a widow, 42. Taylor met the press saying, I might as well be dead as remain in my present condition. It will be fame and fortune or instant death.
At half past 1:00 on October 24, 1903, Annie Edson Taylor squeezed into her barrel. Cold water inside the barrel sloshed around her ankles. Annie could feel the pull of the river, the swiftness of the rapids. Her barrel banged and scraped against the rocks above the falls. Annie, deafened by the roar of the river, prayed aloud. The barrel neared the crest of the mighty Horseshoe and hung there at the lip, seemingly stuck, hanging over the boiling chasm. The crowd gasped, held its breath, and then she dropped into the cataclysm, into the chasm, into the roiling tempest below. She was pulled out of the barrel below the falls, dazed, bleeding, but very much alive. A cheer went up from the assembled crowd. The woman is alive!
While Annie recuperated in a Canadian hotel, Frank M. "Tussy" Russell disappeared with Annie's barrel. He made his fortune with it and a beautiful young woman posing as Annie, queen of the falls.
Annie had another barrel built, posed for photos with it, told and retold her story to tourists for pennies. She wrote her autobiography. She aged on the streets of Niagara, told tourists she was a widow, 52. She became scary, died alone, a lady of good breeding and refinement.
This is a story of my hometown. The prevailing symbol of the town used to be the beautiful Indian Maid of the Mist, when really it ought to have been bad luck, down at the heels Annie Edson Taylor, a lady of good breeding and refinement who never got an even break.
You have to become one. I remember when the guys were working on my barrel, I used to stand back, stand aside and just psych into it. I used to do a lot of work on it myself. And that's the only thing keeping you from death. You become one. You actually acquire quite a relationship with a barrel, a piece of metal, that one will not understand unless they're there. That is saving their life. So you can imagine the psyching in and the unity that you have with this vessel.
Peter DeBernardi lives half a mile from the falls, so close that his windows sometimes rattle from the roar. One night in 1987, Peter was lying in bed listening to the falls, and it hit him. He would make history by going over the falls in a barrel built for two men, the first time ever two people would go over together.
He found a partner, a guy named Jeff, and together with a crew of men they built a 3,000 pound deluxe steel barrel with inner tubes inside to cushion their fall, two windows of bulletproof glass so they could see out as they went over, and a stereo system so they could listen to tunes. They also installed a recording system so they could document the whole experience on tape. It took them 19 months to build. And then, as Peter will tell you, there was the mental preparation.
As far as psyching in, I used to sit out here on the front porch sometimes up to 3:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning, because it's just me and the falls. It's rumbling. Like I said, I'm only a half mile away. And it was so quiet. Now sometimes if the wind is right, the breeze is right, it carries the mist all the way down the gorge. You can see it's like a white wall that goes down the gorge. OK? I'm sitting there. And all of a sudden, there was this little finger of mist that left the mainstream of the mist, came over, and it hovered over the small [UNINTELLIGIBLE] across the street here. And it looked like two little fingers. And it was pointing-- believe it or not-- pointing right at me sitting there.
It stayed there for about 10 minutes. Then it finally, like a finger, as if you're just bending your finger back to the palm of your hand, it joined the rest of the mist. And that was it. Talk about getting in deep with this. It was trying to send me messages. And oh, god, what I went through mentally on this.
The night before, I came home. I was out doing a normal job during the day, and then I came home, had something to eat, went to bed, fell asleep, and woke up the next morning. I didn't wake up, nothing like that. I guess I was so mentally prepared, psychologically prepared, that it didn't bother me. As a matter of fact, around my bed, I used to have pictures of Niagara Falls. I used to stare into them to fall asleep. I never had any bad nightmares or nothing like that.
But next morning I got up, and Jeff was down. So we got everything together, the whole crew together. And the vessel was up at the crew chief's house. It was a great big state truck. And the barrel was on a special crib system on the truck. And I remember we climbed into it. And I will never forget the sound. And to this day, that sound remains in my mind. Them pounding those metal dog lathes. It was like being sealed into a metal coffin. And that was like, yeah, this could be it. This is your coffin.
So here we are. We're going down the road. That was the shortest two-mile trip ever in my life. We could hear each gear shift, each stop, each turn. I knew exactly where we were turning. And they went down Murray Hill and along River Road.
Feels like we're going down Murray Hill. Uh-oh.
OK. She's straight now man.
OK, good. Guess what?
We're [BLEEP] on River Road, I think now.
Yeah, there we go.
And the truck pulled in, backed up. And they released the barrel, and they pushed it. And that's when it crashed into the water.
Uh-oh, Peter, we're there. We're there.
When you hit that water, this barrel weighing that much-- a ton and a half, when we hit that river bed-- it was about five feet of water-- it slammed into the floor of it so hard that it, like, jolted the mind. It was benumbing to the mind. And I thought, oh, my god, we didn't even go over yet. We just hit the river.
Then I'm looking out of the glass. And here's a bunch of seagulls floating over. And I'm looking out through the bulletproof glass. And what's in my mind immediately is that, oh, no. No, no, no. This barrel is freshly painted. There's people here with cameras and stuff. Please don't crap all over this barrel. That was in my mind. Meanwhile we're on a 25-second second countdown-- 25, 24--
Sounds in the barrel were of course the two-way communication we had with our crew. Our crew chief had the radio, and he was telling us how many feet away we were from the brink. He was giving us a description of everything that was happening. And we had a stereo. That's a story itself. I'll tell you later on the story of how these fellows programmed the music.
Well, I can say it. My barrel partner, Jeff, he says, guy, we got to have tunes in there, you know? And he's just quite a fellow. He said, you got to have tunes in there. And the tunes were, believe it or not-- the guys did a good job programming the tape. They should be music directors, I swear, at a radio station. As soon as I hit the river, the first song was "Riverboat Fantasy." Then the next song was "Dead or Alive" by Bon Jovi. You know, after we go over. I mean, these guys, what a warped sense of humor.
We're going down, Peter.
We're going down.
Now, prior to doing the falls, I always thought it'd be something like a fast elevator ride, super fast. You know that feeling you get inside, real queasy, like, whoo. No, not at all. Not at all. And we did a 360 back flip, and I didn't believe what I was looking at because it felt like you lied down on the couch and went to bed, lying perfectly horizontal. And it was peaceful. It was so peaceful. The serenity, even with the music-- for three and a half seconds.
After three and a half seconds, though, we hit, yes, that rock that was the size of a house. Hit the side of that. Water blew in at the same time. Then we went under the surface, hit two more times. And I can remember it shifted the barrel. It twisted it like a 180 in a circle. I remember we hit two more times. Everything went kind of translucent, white, darkest color. Then of course we hit two more times, then it surfaced. And then it was all over.
I remember Jeff yelling out, we did it. We did it. There were a few profanities here and there, which I won't say right now.
Whoo-hoo! Whoo! We're OK! [BLEEP] right we're OK! Peter, what a [BLEEP] buzz, eh?
We [BLEEP] made it, man.
Put her there bud!
But when we came out of the barrel, I can tell you, we were able to climb out of that thing right at the base of the falls, right at the bottom of Table Rock, the lower observation deck. And I tell you, because you're so sealed in that thing, when those hatches were opened up, that was a nice vision seeing the crew chief's face sticking in the hatch and it was opened up. And what a feeling when you climb out of that thing. And of course people are applauding all around, and the crew's got big smiles on their face. And you're literally looking straight up-- we were that close to the base-- at what you had just done and went over that magnificent beauty.
After the stunt, I had never went down there. Six years, seven years. I live no more than a half a mile from it too. That's ironic about this, that it's hard for me to believe that I've done that, bottom line. It seems like a dream, like that wasn't me that went over. It was somebody else.
You know, to this day, though, I don't try to act like a smart ass, like, yeah, we did the falls. Yeah, wow, super stunt men here. No. Not at all. I have the admiration that, thank you for letting it happen because it let us through. Whatever forces there were, whatever happened, I was allowed to do that. And she let me do it.
Well, the program was produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself, with Nancy Updike and Julie Snyder, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Laura Doggett. Original music by Carrie Biolo and Jen Paulson. David Kodeski's stories were adapted from his one-man autobiographical show, Niagara. He's now working on a play called, I Can't Explain the Beauty.
If you'd like to buy a cassette of this or any of our shows, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. Or if you don't want to write down the phone number, just visit our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can order a tape or you can listen to our programs there for absolutely free. That's right, free. Again that's www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. This American Life comes to you from the city of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, Mayor.
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It was like being sealed into a metal coffin.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI. Public Radio International.