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Why I Want the Robert Moses Parkway Removed

By Bob Baxter

From downtown Niagara Falls, New York, you drive into the entrance lane of the Robert Moses Parkway next to the Howard Johnsons, heading north toward Lewiston. There are four lanes of concrete, two north and two south bound, that run west of the city along the top of the Niagara gorge for six and a half miles.  Heading north you pass the Schoellkopf Museum, and then the Aquarium, before you slide past the old growth Deveaux woods to the east, Whirlpool State Park to the west, and then the houses and yards, and the streets of Deveaux that dead end at chainlink fence along the parkway, then past Devils Hole State Park, its gorgetop area reduced by the four lanes to what would be a "pocket" park in some cities, then past high concrete walls on the right, vegetation to the left a withered brown of herbicide-kill behind the gorgeside railing, then between high concrete wall and railing across the face of the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant and out into the open approaching the crest of the escarpment, often called the "hill" locally, and down into a long sloping drive, the Village of Lewiston with its church steeples rising below you, the enormous mound of earth between Artpark and the road to the left, escarpment dropping behind your right shoulder.

You’ve made good time and you’ve had some glimpses of the Niagara gorge and river winding toward Lake Ontario as you went and a view across the countryside from the escarpment top before you started down.  On a clear day you might have seen the lake.  It’s an enjoyable drive—if you put out of your mind that the four lanes of concrete shouldn’t be there in the first place and that the "park way" and the cars—your car—driving on it have displaced the landscape that should be there, and that your very presence has devalued the vestiges of the natural environment that remain.

The Artpark mound is actually a small, man-made mountain, averaging 150 feet in height, with surface contours of nearly 100 acres.  The leveled off top alone is 53 acres—think 128 football fields.   Part of the mound is kept mowed, and part of it provides wildlife habitat, left natural with long grasses and trees and exposed boulders.  Called the "spoil pile" when the Project was under construction, it was created by huge Euclid trucks hauling 24 hours a day, dumping the stone and earth dynamited out to build the underground tunnels, the reservoir, and the open canal that feeds water to the power turbines—over 26 million tons of it.  Upper Artpark buildings, in fact, have been constructed on the spoils, which were also shaped into the roadbed over which the Robert Moses Parkway now runs down the escarpment.

Before the Niagara Power Project was constructed, a two-lane road wound its way down Lewiston hill, hairpinning under a one-track railroad viaduct.  It was a steep road, often dangerous in the winter.   It was a test for an old car: if you made it all the way to the top without downshifting, your car’s engine was in good condition.  Things were bound to change, though.  This type of a road wasn’t acceptable for a region on the rise.   Robert Moses let us know that, and while some of us regretted losing the character of the old hill, and much else, we consoled ourselves by saying "Well, that’s progress."  And I suppose some of it was.

Pre-spoil pile, the escarpment side fell steeply into a deep woods and below that, gave way to fading excavations of an old stone quarry intersected with overgrown dirt roads and trails, grown up with staghorn sumac and young ash trees, crabapple thorn, brush, grasses and wildflowers, inhabited by wildlife, deer, pheasant, cottontail rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, woodcock and other migratory and resident birds, the usual varieties found in Western New York.  It was a secluded, quiet place of nature, vegetation taking over the signs of past enterprise.  Reality, though, must be paid its due: in the center of the old quarry was a garbage dump where the tin cans, bottles, coffee grounds, soiled diapers, egg shells, bread wrappers, and other household discards from the Town of Lewiston ended up.  In another spot a local industry dumped chemical wastes.  So there was a worm in the apple—it was a little bit spoiled even then.

Those blemishes were easy enough to overlook for those of us who loved the place, who spent time there, hiking, trapping, running dogs, and hunting.  There, on a late winter day nearly 40 years ago, I met the future in a way that the truth can be told about it only here. In fiction it’d be too contrived.  I’d hunted alone for several hours, had shot one rabbit that dangled head-down from my belt, field-dressed, a long smudge of blood on the leg of my blue jeans.  Angling across the bottomland, I saw that the wooden surveyor stakes had been replaced by one-inch re-rod, pounded securely into the shale.  Those who wanted to delay the bulldozers couldn’t pull those and toss them into the brush.  I headed up the steep escarpment, slipping in the snow, calling the dogs, who ignored me, working an old rabbit trail.

As I clawed my way up the last incline to the railroad tracks, grabbing onto brush with my free hand, someone standing there called down to me.  "Any luck?"

I struggled to the tracks.  He was dressed casually, work boots, a light jacket, was about my age, early twenties, maybe a year or two older.  He’d probably strolled down the tracks a few hundred feet from the pull-off place.

"One," I said, which had been obvious, hanging from my left-side belt as it was.  I wore a faded, red cloth hunting coat, stained, torn.  On the right side of my belt was a Navy surplus knife, with a six-inch blade in a leather sheath.  This was over-kill, certainly.  I could have field-dressed a hippopotamus with that knife.

I called the dogs whose voices continued to echo from the woods far below, running a ghost rabbit, a dead rabbit, perhaps the one hanging at my side.

He had a leather-cased slide rule, longer than my knife, hanging from his belt, and a carried a rolled up blueprint about three feet long. I had a 12 gauge shotgun, Remington ADL.

"Well, you’d better get what you can soon," he said.  He swung the tube of blueprint by one end through the air in a wide arc, indicating everything around and below us. "A year from now this’ll all be gone."

Even back then I was aware of a dark feeling and I was glad to be so many generations away from my grandfather and his kin who took their living from the woods and who wouldn’t have stood for even a vague threat to what was theirs, or felt to be theirs, from some stranger.

I can’t remember that we said anything more that winter day, but if we did it wasn’t much.  I never went back, that I recall.  Hunting season was nearly over and I didn’t want to see the bulldozers and the first trucks rolling in when the blasting started.  Later, I worked on the Project, down in the hole at what’s now called the Lewiston Pump Generating Station, as a laborer stripping wood forms from the concrete after it hardened, from the interiors of the huge conduits that would channel water from the reservoir to the generators.   When it got too cold to pour concrete, I was laid off and went to California.   Then I got drafted into the Army.  When I was discharged and came home I found that what the young man with the slide rule had said had come to be true.  It was all gone.  For me, though, it had probably happened that day he’d waved that wand of rolled blueprint in the air.  It’d disappeared that moment and I’d gone home and hadn’t returned.

Now, all these years later, the impact of not being able to go home again (when I’d read that novel it never occurred to me), hits with considerable intensity.  The stranger who rode into town, who laid siege to it, was Robert Moses, and his reward was that we named things after him.

Of course, the Power Project was necessary.   Of course, we needed the Power Project.  It provided jobs to people in Niagara Falls, N.Y.  The population soared to over 100,000. Apartments, hotels, stores, restaurants, and saloons were full for years.  Some of us evidently thought the good times would never end.  But they did, of course, and now the population of Niagara Falls, N.Y., is about half what it was when construction was booming 24 hours a day.

Many of the places where I spent time are gone, but not simply disappeared. The open space they occupied in the world, our topography, our familiar landscape, no longer exists.  Below the escarpment, the space that flowed out of the gorge and through foliage doesn’t exist, where pheasants swept through air, where ferns carved the gentle sunlight, where dogs’ voices sounded, where tree trunks and limbs wrote a mute calligraphy, where even the space a hundred feet above where tall oaks and maples grew is now occupied by darkness, millions of tons of earth and stone.  It’s a huge mound, a burial ground for thousands of dead memories, of dreams, of hundreds of thousands of discrete events that may have never happened at all, since there’s no place left where they could have happened.

It’s worth noting that a mere few hundred feet from the northwest slope of the spoil pile there’s another mound, ivy-covered, about 10 feet high and over 200 in circumference.  This is a Hopewell Indian burial mound estimated to be 2,000 thousand years old.  Miraculously, it has survived destruction, though a path of ivy has been killed, exposing the raw earth to erosion, by the tires of dirt-bike riders that pass over it, undoubtedly in search of amusement.   Also at the present time, a scraggly Scotch pine about 12 years old grows from its top, perched there like a silly party hat.  What’s that about?

So part of my desire for Parkway removal can be dismissed as whining, angry, lachrymose nostalgia for the past, a refusal to embrace progress, to accept change as inevitable.  My problem, I’m told, is that I take all of this personally.  Of course I do.  How else?  If all politics is local, all insult is personal.

But far beyond the personal affront I may feel, and even beyond the collective affront of thousands of others, is the insult to the city and to the natural world, the environment.  In spite of the brilliance of Robert Moses, his determination, abilities, vision, and accomplishments elsewhere, he was also ruthless and petty, and he surrounded Niagara Falls, N.Y., with concrete roadways that encourage drivers to skirt the city as if they were people with shiny shoes stepping around a mud puddle.  Main Street, Niagara Falls, N.Y., resembles a set out of Blade Runner.   In the first six short blocks south from Ontario Avenue, over 30 stores are closed, empty, boarded up.  For sale signs and for lease signs preside over empty and abandoned window displays. Desperate hand-lettered signs declare "For Sale $500 Down," "For Sale $850."  What happened here?

People in the city are so bewildered that the usual explanations aren’t sufficient: the flight of industry, ill-conceived investments, urban renewal plans that didn’t mature beyond the demolition stage.   Rumor says that someone offended Robert Moses when he was here, and that the Parkway was how he exacted his revenge.  He knew what would happen.  He’s somewhere smiling, now.  When you’re down, these things sound plausible.

And that is how the Parkway functions.   It also insults the natural landscape along the lower river gorge, its concrete slabs, close-cropped medians and waysides removing over three hundred acres from the Niagara River Corridor, which the Audubon Society has designated an Important Bird Area, significant to migrating birds.  It slices through parks, isolating old-growth forests and plant communities.  Without it these communities could be united, forming healthier environments where rare, endangered and threatened species could enjoy a less precarious existence, where they might be propagated by those interested in reestablishing their populations.  The natural environment already present in the Niagara gorge would be enlarged and protected.  It’s difficult to imagine a more enduring legacy.

Meanwhile, across the river in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, gambling casinos and high hotels metastasize and new development promises a five-plus mile monorail, an imported "half mile of white sand" beach in a theme park, and so on.  A 350-room hotel and casino is to be located on a hill directly across from the American and Horseshoe falls.  "It’s a magnificent site," one of the investors said, according to the Buffalo News.  Of course it is.

On the U.S. side, a group of Parks commissioners lobbies to have an additional $600,000 of State Park money spent ($400,000 spent previously) on illuminating the rest of the American rapids above the falls in the harsh glare of floodlights, and yet another investment group proposes to invest six to seven million to run white-water rafting in the lower river from the Schoellkopf Geological Museum to a site near Stella Niagara.  This latter scheme envisions, at Schoellkopf: a "tram" to get people down to the water, an industrial museum, facilities for summer concerts, "nature" trails and rock climbing on a "portion" of the gorge wall.  Presumably, the wall for rock climbing would be artificially constructed, since the actual gorge walls are inherently unstable.   At the lower river docking in Lewiston (where "trolley-like vehicles" will wait to return people to the point of origin): a fishing station, an historical museum, restroom facilities, two public boat launches, three shelters, 20 picnic tables, and spaces for 30 boaters.  Todd Gitlin had it right when he said: "We live in a culture in which everything that starts out original turns into a theme park."

Although the idea of a "park" embraces a variety of possibilities, such as land kept in its natural state, ballparks, trailer parks, and amusement parks, it’s clear that investors and others typically think amusement park.  The natural environment is seen as an incidental backdrop, as the thing that gets built on or defaced to make money.  Examine this lead paragraph from The Buffalo News:

Imagine checking into a hotel room nearly the size of most luxury suites, and after lingering for a moment to take in the panoramic view of the American and Canadian falls, descending through a sunlit atrium into a huge casino...

There’s little doubt that this passage is meant as laudatory.  There’s no irony intended.  But the words couldn’t have been better chosen if there were.

Because of all this, I’m a member of Niagara Heritage Partnership, whose aims are clearly stated as "concerned citizens who advocate the preservation and restoration of the region’s natural environment and encourage socially responsible development."  This group thinks of parks as places set aside for nature.  It’s currently proposing the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Lewiston and the restoration of the native plants that once grew there.  Initial investigation by the Partnership suggests that over a short span of years Parkway maintenance costs would pay for its removal.  Over five years ago The Niagara Waterfront Master Plan listed the Parkway as "significantly underutilized" and the area’s population has fallen since then.

If we can’t decide, with the help of civic leaders, politicians, and others who are concerned about our degraded and shrinking natural environment, to reclaim this piece of what was taken from us, then the young man with the rolled blueprint was right.  And I’m not ready, even after all these years, to admit that yet.

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I wrote “Why I Want ... Removed” in 1998.  Some pessimists think that the only place the Robert Moses Parkway will be removed is in the sentence before this one.  They may be right.  But the essay was published in the Alt Press and in the Tonawanda News and then found a place on the Niagara Heritage Partnership web site.  What’s happened since then?

Children born in the year I wrote it are starting school.  Horrific and tragic events continue worldwide and we continue with our tiny battles here, convinced that everything’s connected, though we leave making that argument to others.  It may have been the poet Blake who said “Pluck a daisy, alter the path of stars.”  Johnny Cash died. 

The Hopewell Mound now has the suggestion of protective split rails near it, “please keep off” signs and other “interpretive signage” close by.  The pine tree has disappeared from its top.  I don’t take credit for any of this.  It was bound to happen sooner or later.  It only took 40 years, or 250, take your pick.  A large sign, white letters on green, now proclaims this to be the “Lewiston Mound.”  Groundcover has been planted on it to prevent erosion.  It is, unfortunately, “Hardy English Ivy,” classified as an invasive alien species that spreads to choke out native plants and even to kill trees.  Good choice. 

The top of the spoils pile at Lewiston, described variously as the Lewiston Terrace, The Lewiston Plateau, and Plateau Park, has been altered so that half of it nearest the river has become a wildlife refuge with shallow-pond water features, and the other half is “athletic fields” with mowed grass.  A lot of work was done up there, with contributions made by various groups and individuals, environmental and otherwise.  The Niagara Frontier Entomological Society was involved, as well as the Niagara Frontier Wildlife Habitat Council (, Pheasants Forever, and R.O.L.E.  Small creatures have already moved into the wildlife refuge, butterflies, armies of tiny, thumbnail-sized toads, dragonflies.  Shorebirds have been observed at the ponds.  Ground nesting birds, killdeer and at least one Savannah Sparrow have raised young there over the past summers.  Bluebird nesting boxes are in position for spring.  Early bluebird scouts will be arriving in March in search of nesting sites. 

So, wildlife didn’t wait for the grand opening ceremonies before moving in.  These ceremonies took place on 17 October 2003, and the spoils pile was called Plateau Park by then.  Wildlife didn’t care about the name, either.  A few days before the ceremonies, Mayor Soluri of Lewiston promoted the event by talking about the views from the spoils: “the village, ROBERT MOSES PARKWAY (capitals mine) and Canada across the river.”  A lot of people probably attended the event just for the view of the parkway.  In the meantime, topsoil from a questionable site had been brought in to level the athletic fields, and whether or not it was contaminated beyond acceptable levels has still not been satisfactorily answered. 

Previously, on 19 August 2003, a newspaper article reported that the Lewiston Village Board had voted unanimously to permit the Niagara Sunday Fliers to fly radio-controlled model airplanes on the athletic fields next to the wildlife refuge.  No environmental group was consulted.  When Mayor Soluri was approached by Dr. Cooper, who informed him that such activity should not be allowed because it would disturb nesting birds, Soluri told him to put it in writing and to cite more than one authority.  Cooper, past president of the Buffalo Ornithological Society, complied with the request on 27 August.  We assume the Niagara Fliers group has been informed that no flying will be permitted on the plateau during nesting season, between 1 April and 1 September. 

The climbing wall imagined in 1998 has been installed near the gorge at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center, formerly known as the Schoellkopf Museum.  It’s about 30 feet wide, 50 high, a prefab hollow shell manufactured by Entre/prises, Climbing Walls.  Thousands just like it are undoubtedly scattered in the malls and amusement parks across America.  The backside of this wall, braced by three pylons leaning into it, faces Canada like the exposed framework behind a movie set.  Everything is painted black on that side.  It’s only right—people on the Canadian side of the river should have some junk on the gorge rim to look at, too.  The wall is surrounded by a tall black steel fence with pointed upper ends curving outward.  It’s late November, 2003.  The place is deserted, fence padlocked.  A short distance away is a food shack, shrink-wrapped in white plastic for the winter. 

In a memorable newspaper photograph, a smiling Bernadette Castro, NYS Parks Commissioner, poses halfway up the wall during the formal opening of the new Center.  Presumably, she is up there discovering the gorge.  There are no yellow bears in the photograph.  Perhaps they are behind the wall taking a smoke break. 

Re Robert Moses Parkway removal and gorge rim restoration: Fifty organizations with a combined membership easily over one million support the NHP proposal; about 4,000 individuals who have signed paper and electronic petitions also support it, 1,800+ of these online.  These numbers include Ed Begley, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Ralph Nader, Dr. David Suzuki, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (Erie County) and your friends and neighbors, residents, former residents, and people from across the nation and world who value the natural environment and who want to see it restored along the gorge rim. 

Those in opposition say, “But they’re not from around here!”  If all the messiahs and prophets of the world’s religions suddenly appeared on earth at a great conference at Niagara to endorse parkway removal, opponents would repeat the same thing. 

In response to those who asked “What about the parkway lanes across the Power Project.  They can’t be removed,” we proposed a double-tiered, long greenhouse.  This might be warmed by heat generated by the turbines, which is currently released to the atmosphere.  The space could be utilized by area florists and nurseries, horticultural studies programs from Niagara University and Niagara County Community College, and to house a facility for the cultivation of the rare, endangered and native plants of our region.  It should also have a restaurant/snack bar where hikers and cyclists could stop for refreshments, and an elevator to allow handicapped and wheelchair users access to the trail. 

The usual naysayers immediately attacked the idea.  Our answer to them is on the NHP website under “Response to Greenhouse Critics.” 

We have responded (repeatedly) to every opposing argument for parkway retention with what we feel are rational, detailed, and compelling remarks.  Yet no opposing public or political figure has demonstrated over the span of six years a knowledge of the NHP proposal they are so quick to reject—usually in favor of some “compromise” (see “No Compromise” rationale on the NHP web site) or some feeble “make us like Canada” variation. 

The Pilot That Didn’t Fly: About two years ago part of two lanes between Lewiston and Niagara Falls was closed to vehicles as a State Park sponsored “pilot” project.  The other two lanes remained open to commuter traffic and hikers and cyclists were expected to enjoy the closed lanes alongside the commuters.  NHP objected in writing to Tom Lyons, Director of Land Management, in a letter dated 28 March 2001, with over 200 cosigners.  It’s available on our web site.  State Parks has announced the results of the “pilot” study will be released by year’s end, along with recommendations.   

Is total removal as proposed by NHP to be a genuinely considered option?  Will a valuable idea be denied because it doesn’t fit into the parallel universe of political realities?  Would it be the first time? 

America’s freedom of speech and freedom of religion are passionately defended, as they should be.  Equally defended, though not sanctified by the Constitution or Bill of Rights, is the inalienable right of commuters to shave five or six minutes off their drive times.  This is why the concept of REMOVING A HIGHWAY IN AMERICA (unless it’s to be replaced with a longer and wider one) is regarded as blasphemy, sacrilege, evil, a crime against humanity.  Thou shalt not remove a highway may be, in fact, the missing Eleventh Commandment.  That’s part of the objection to the NHP proposal for removing four lanes of that 6.5 miles of Robert Moses Parkway along the Niagara Gorge rim. 

Obviously, supporters of the NHP proposal do not believe removing a highway is a sin and have overcome all the traces of highway removal anxiety.  We advocate RMP removal and the restoration of natural landscapes along the gorge rim, where trees in some areas are allowed to mature into forests, and in other places long grass wildflower meadows attractive to birds are cultivated.  Clearly, we endorse the Frederick Law Olmsted vision for the gorge rim.  We want a hiking or walking trail (miles of which are already present along the railing) and a bicycling trail (which needs to be newly constructed) the entire length.  We believe this would be appealing to residents and tourists, especially to a new population of ecotourists and, furthermore, that traffic using alternative routes would help the economic revitalization of our region, especially Niagara Falls, New York.  Vehicle access would continue at gorge viewpoints for handicapped, wheelchair users and those elderly who require it.  That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? 

We accept the very large ecotourism market as a given, as do those communities who’ve reaped economic benefits from establishing parks in place of removed highways.  Those who doubt these realities can check the web.  Try this for starters:, under “Research.”  (More coming soon.) 

We contend that alternative north-south routes could easily handle traffic currently using the gorge parkway.  Hyde Park Boulevard and Highland Avenue are good alternative routes into Niagara Falls from the north, as well as Lewiston Road.  Further, we suggest that the parkway along the gorge currently encourages tourists to stay in a “down-and-back-river corridor” pattern that functions to discourage exploration of what the rest of the region has to offer.  A gorge rim without the parkway and good, regionally focused tourist attraction maps made widely available would be very helpful in altering this uneven distribution pattern. 

The NHP proposal has generated both ignorant and purposeful misrepresentations of its position, hostility, and desperate fabrications from opponents.  Without going into details here, it’s possible, we conclude, for some people to love a highway beyond reason, even if it does degrade a world famous natural landscape.  The Niagara gorge, carved out by the waterfalls over a twelve thousand year period dating back to the Ice Age, is an environment worthy of protection and restoration.  It deserves the respect of a reclaimed Olmsted park wilderness which nurtures the old growth forest at DeVeaux and provides an enduring natural scene in the midst of an urban area.  It deserves to be free of food shacks and other inappropriate commercial intrusions. 

If you agree with the NHP proposal for a restored Niagara gorge rim, please go to and sign the petition there.  Feel free to leave a comment.  Convince family members and friends to sign, also.  Thank you!






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Niagara Heritage Partnership

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Niagara Falls, New York 14302-1723