Observations of Observational Towers

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If you have never been to Niagara Falls Ontario, Canada, it’s much like any modern, medium sized city…with of course the obvious exception that it sits across the border from the United States of America and happens to have an amazing view of a waterfalls.  If working with Live History has taught me anything, it’s that in every city there are amazing historical stories that many if not most have never heard of.  

We’ve been lucky enough to perform at the Battleground Hotel Museum several times. It really is a very unique venue for a variety of reasons…for one thing when you walk in, it’s like walking into an 1850’s tavern.  In fact, it’s an example of early tourism in the area.  The original owner, Adam Fralick bought the property in 1836 and built an observation tower on the property in 1850.  The towers overlooked the battlefield of the war of 1812, tourists would go up them to look across the formerly bloody battlefields and imagine a time.  

His tower was actually the third such tower. The first  was built in 1845 by Captain Anderson who actually fought in the battle of Lundy’s Lane.  In 1846, Donald Mackenzie built his own tower, and finally in 1855, a final tower known as the “Durham Tower” was built.  It was acquired and managed by John Durham.  Despite the purpose behind them being to observe the past battlefields, it was actually possible to watch some early battles in the Civil War from the top of it.  The towers themselves all generally had observation decks.  Some had features that the other towers did not. Mckenzie’s tower ,for example, had a telescope at the top, and Durham’s tower had a second floor that was often used for community meetings. 

By today’s standard I’m sure it seems like an odd attempt to gain tourists. But ….take a walk back in time. Before Niagara Falls was the city it is now.  If you aren’t familiar with it, Niagara Falls, Ontario Canada is a major tourist destination. On  Lundy’s Lane today, just a few minutes from the Battleground Museum there is what’s known as Clifton Hill, which is kind of an entertainment hub. It features wax museums, arcades, various eateries, minigolf, and a 4D cinema. Almost anything to entertain kids of any age. All situated across, more or less from the falls.  But there was none of that in 1850. No tall buildings, no paved roads, no 4D cowboy movie.   The only real attraction that drew people to the area at the time were  the falls themselves.  I’ve been there and they are spectacular, but once you’ve seen them you’ve seen them.   

The idea of building a tower overlooking a recent battlefield may seem morbid but it is also genius. What a great way to observe history by being in its shadow.   Of course, any good idea has imitators, which saw more towers built.  And as we know, competition doesn’t always bring out the best of people.  In 1851, the Makenzie tower burnt down on the evening of July 4th. There is some speculation as to who was behind the fire.   Was it rivalry? Was it an accident? History has secrets we will never unlock.  This very question made an entire show last year at the museum, and the year before, as we explored the relationship between Fralick, Mackenzie and their family.  I don’t want to give too much away, but there is a rumor that one of them made the fire…uh…work. Fireworks. That’s it. 

No matter where you are in the world, if you close your eyes can almost hear sounds of the best that was there.  I wonder what the early pioneers of Niagara Falls Tourism would think of what the city has evolved into as a tourist attraction.  The Battleground Hotel Museum remains and is an amazing part of Niagara Falls histories.

Thanks for reading, we’ll see you in the past!

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