Water and diplomatic historian Dan MacFarlane
has written a fascinating book on a fundamental debate in environmental history: What is a natural
landscape? Fixing Niagara Falls: Environment, Energy, and Engineers at the World’s Most Famous Waterfall (UBC Press, 2020)
argues that one of the world's most famous natural attractions is not wholly natural but is an engineered landscape. Though the falls have been altered, it's designers seemingly found a balance between preserving its wonder and utilizing its power, MacFarlane argues.
The first people to record their reactions to the falls in North America were fascinated by its beauty and power. By the end of the nineteenth century, the falls had drawn the attention of both Canadian and American industrialist who saw in its majesty a great potential for energy generation. Since the falls is located on the border, it provoked conflict and negotiations between these two countries over how much water could be drawn upon by each. Utilizing the falls for power generation provoked another conflict over the extent to which power generation might hinder the natural beauty of this thriving tourist attraction. These two conflicts—one about power the other about natural appeal— would continue into the twenty-first century.
The book unravels the details of these conflicts while at the same time drawing the readers' attention to the often unseen changes being made in, around, and behind the falls. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are those that explain technocrats' debates over, and explorations into, how water reduction might change the natural look of the falls. Exposing these engineered elements of Niagara encourages readers to reimagine this popular natural attraction, and others like it.
Jason L. Newton is a post-doctoral fellow in the history of capitalism and the environment at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His book manuscript, Cutover Capitalism: The Industrialization of the Northern Forest, 1850-1950, is a history of the changing types of labor performed by people, trees, and the landscape in the American Northeast as that area industrialized. He has also published on nature, race, and immigration. He teaches classes on capitalism and the environment.