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The Olmsted Plan Condensed


Note: This revising, paraphrasing, and condensation of the Olmsted and Vaux plan has been carried out in response to suggestions made by several individuals that the 1887 sentence structure, extreme diplomatic conventions, and unusual, sometimes archaic, diction makes the original plan something less than readily accessible to the harried contemporary reader. While we have attempted to present the essentials here, to remain true to the philosophy of Olmsted and Vaux in their passionate defense of the natural world, and to retain some of the flavor of their plan, we may have inadvertently omitted ideas of significance or misrepresented others. If we learn about where we have fallen short, we will attempt repairs. For those readers who find even this version taxing to the extreme, we offer the following bottom line: Trees good, manmade stuff bad, except where absolutely necessary. Bob Baxter, February 2000.


Sir: Work done by the State on the Niagara Reservation should not be done because it is easier in the short term, but for long term satisfaction. Everything needs to be done according this general plan, which we've prepared with careful consideration.

What follows here is an overview:


Presently, about one seventh of the Reservation is degraded by objectionable artificial sights, most of it associated with road or building operations. The plan proposes these disturbed portions be restored to a permanently agreeable natural state.

While the plan aims to provide for sufficient roads and walks, platforms, and seats at important viewing areas, and for restroom facilities, these should not intrude harshly upon the natural scenery, should protect it from injury, and safeguard its healthy growth.

If shortcuts are taken in these recommendations, they will be more expensive to maintain in the long run.


People visit Niagara for two reasons: to be astonished (these people have been generally disappointed in spite of the commissioners removing various man-made ornaments and structures near the Falls) and for the enjoyment of the beauty to be found in natural scenery. No man-made improvements can increase the astonishing qualities of Niagara.


Niagara should be listed among the great treasures of the world for its natural scenery. The commissioners have made some improvements by removing artificial additions which detracted from the natural environment, but more needs to be done.


The number of visitors to Niagara will certainly increase, and even though many past visitors have not thought of Niagara in terms other than its power production, this has already begun to change. Evidence of this is demonstrated by the very formation of parks commissioners as caretakers. There remains a danger, however, of giving in to the public demands of the moment, creating projects which would be destructive of the Reservation forest.


Consider two observations to determine the plan's sufficiency:

The more people are distracted by artificial features, the less likely they are to be affected by the natural features.


The lack of artificial features or objects of a "foreign" character in the Reservation will result in a more even distribution of visitors enjoying the natural features. The carrying capacity of the Reservation is thus increased.


The plan opposes establishing common garden works in the Reservation, both ordered floral plantings and decorative details on the necessary footbridges and other constructed objects. The motives of the reservation might from time to time be misunderstood by the impulsive who might ask the following: Why shouldn't visitors be given pleasure from floral plantings and decorative details usually found in public resorts?


The answer is: The purpose for which the Reservation has been established leaves no room for choice in this respect. Although laws do not dictate the purpose, the limits are nevertheless fixed in a perfectly binding way. These limits have been set by the following process.


The plan for the Reservation was derived from a six-year discussion involving the Governor, the State Legislature, many leading figures, and the general public. These discussions examined the popular conceptions of "landscape," and "park improvements," defining them as presenting objects for admiration that were calculated to weaken respect for natural scenery. Such objects were described as the antithesis to charming natural conditions, as artificial as Japanese embroidery or Florentine mosaics.


These sorts of so-called improvements may be found elsewhere in public resorts, such as the one at a popular sea coast beach. Here the superb beach has been superceded by a display of garden finery on an extensive embankment of logs and stone that people are invited to enjoy from plank walks. This is as far from helpful to enjoying ocean scenery as anything that can be imagined.


But it is thoughts such as these that helped to form opinion against the idea of a 

Reservation at Niagara. People had in mind the following.


At the Falls on the American side a sizeable area of land known as the Grove had been thus "improved," which led to its being renamed "Prospect Park." Originally the land had been a generally sloping topography with moderate undulations, leading to the edge of somewhat grand natural crags, an outlook across a great chasm, and one of the most impressive water scenes in the world. All of this was complimented by its general atmosphere, that of a place of secluded natural greenery, equaled in its beauty by varied vegetation naturally growing from the crannies and crevices of the rock.


All this was "improved" by specimens of ordinary rock gardens, a wall-sided stream of water, with a decorative bridge and an island with fake mossy ruins on it, fake rustic constructions, pseudo-wild gardening, terraced slopes, flower beds, "ornamental trees," a monument, a cast iron fountain, several pavilions, an "archaeological collection," a "Gallery of Fine Arts," a variety theatre, and a quantity of theatrical machinery for decorating the great Fall with red, white and blue lights.


The purpose of these "improvements" was to attract visitors to make money from them and to occupy them so they wouldn't wish to leave. This was so successful that it was boasted that even people coming from great distances to see Niagara, for the first time in their lives, often returned home without having looked for a single moment beyond the field of artificial "improvements."


Also significant is the fact that the largest numbers of visitors ever drawn to Niagara took place when (along with the previously mentioned "improvements") grotesque performances by charlatans, with fireworks and music, were staged.


Discussions of the Reservation plan revealed that great numbers of people experienced a sense of humiliation over the aforementioned conditions, which led to indignation and a fear that the plan would lead to more of the same, diverting even more attention away from the distinctive natural scenery.


It took two years of an extensive education campaign to convince the general public that this was not the intention of the plan, which was successful in part because the early purchase of Goat Island intensified and focused the discussions.


This history is how the Reservation came to be, with its main idea of defending the natural scenery, though there will undoubtedly be those in the future who will regard the plan as too restrictive.


The Board of Commissioners is to be commended for taking the only allowable view of how the natural scenery should be protected--and for removing mills and other industrial constructions and illuminating apparatus, for preventing the intrusion of a railway, and for prohibiting exhibitions in or over the waters of the Reservation.


Because there will be differences of opinion about how the specifics of the plan should be carried out, it is our duty to more exactly define our views.


When natural causes (river-bank landslides, damage to trees from insect pests or ice) cause regrettable damage, provisions should be made for remedy. Native vegetation should not be replaced, however, with growth alien to the Reservation, no matter how beautiful. This would be as irrelevant and disturbing as ornaments of stained glass, plaster and paint, cut stone, and other objects the commissioners have been removing.


The conservation of natural scenery at Niagara is the primary purpose of the Reservation. The less space taken by, and least showy character, therefore, of the necessary walks, roads, bridges, seats, stairways, and standing places, the better. But this idea needs to be balanced against the danger of making such necessities too small, and subsequently leading to more damage to the natural scenery.


We offer the examples of the Sister Islands and of Luna Island.


Recent admission fees to Goat Island being abolished led to much heavier visitor traffic to the Three Sister Islands. When the regular people-mover system is put in place, with a station at the entrance to the footbridge leading to the Islands, it is expected that visits will be more frequent and more dense. Damage had been done to the natural scenery even before all this. A large part of the ground cover had been killed, for example, leaving mud or dust. A large part of the rock has had its interesting surface character erased by the heels of visitors. The rare, luxuriant, low massive foliage has suffered much, worried by the unrestricted movements of visitors until the wearing away of surface soil has exposed roots, and the plants have lost their vigor. Our native yew, a shrub supplying the darkest green and brightest red of our forest, is less in evidence.


Luna Island, much smaller, has suffered more. Half of the dense foliage has disappeared, and much of the remainder is feeble and shabby. Unless stringent measures are taken, Luna Island will, in a few years, inevitably become a barren rock.


Measures that would otherwise be condemned must be taken to protect the natural scenery. Knowing this, it becomes even more important to limit the introduction of the artificial on the Reservation, no matter how valuable it might be elsewhere, or at what a bargain it can be obtained.


If, for example, something like the Statue of Liberty be given to the State with the condition it be set up on Goat Island, it should be refused as certainly as would an offer to stock the Island with poison ivy, wolves, or bears. If proposals are made to replace the little old eating house with a finer, larger establishment, it should be refused. The State should avoid competition with the business of Niagara, whose restaurants are but five to ten minutes away. No building can be placed on the Island which will not displace, obscure, and disturb the distinctive natural scenery.


Other projects should be similarly ruled out: militia parade grounds, towers at Prospect Point, mirrored devices that reproduce external scenes for tracing. Other suggestions for the Reservation have been: geological museums, a library holding the history of the region, refreshment places; they should also be rejected: while the museum and library might be desirable, they would be as much commercial as scientific, scholarly, and educational, and much better located off of, but near, the Reservation. As far as refreshment places, people should be condemned to something of a hardship in this regard, and should take their refreshments elsewhere in order that the natural scenery be preserved as much as possible.


The same philosophy should apply to carriages that carry visitors to and around the Reservation. In every case these conveyances should take second place to the visitors traveling on foot.


The most enjoyment of the Reservation is to be obtained by wandering from one place to another on foot. In no instance should carriages occupy space where visitors might stand to obtain a view, in no instance obstruct a view by moving between foot visitors and the scenery, in no instance come so near behind them that their movement is a distraction. As a general rule, no carriage road should be within fifty feet of the river bank. No trees should be trimmed or planted to improve views for those traveling in carriages.


The following circumstances have in some sense dictated the formation of the plan.


In some respects the Reservation of New York has advantages over the Reservation of the Providence of Ontario. It has incomparable greater beauty involving the natural elements of scenery, proximity of illumined spray and mist and fleeting waters, the intricate display of leaves, overlaid with an infinitely varied play of sunlight and shadow, reflections, and much more, the undefineable relationships between water, air, and foliage.


But there is no place within the New York Reservation where the full-faced or panoramic view of the Falls can compare with that from Ontario, Canada, where for at least a mile along the lower river banktop, the view is unsurpassed.


Since it is impossible to provide extensive pleasure-driving opportunities on Goat Island without threatening the secluded woodland beauty, provisions for people-conveyances should be made with great care to avoid injury to its forests, and especially to its forest borders. In all instances these roads should be painstakingly planned for those who are willing to find their enjoyment at the expense of some walking.


Attempting to build something that will improve the view from the American side, if it is built on a large scale, will be grandiose, useless, and wasteful.


Niagara Falls has been the most celebrated resort on the continent, perhaps in the world, but as the natural scenery has become degraded, not as popular as it could be. As man-made "improvements" have been reduced, however, more visitors have been noted, and they have stayed longer.


More than 10,000 people have visited in a single day and provisions for their enjoyment and safety must be considered. Where large crowds of visitors are apt to crowd near gorge edges for a view, safety is a concern. Natural collapse and recession of rock formations has been well documented.


As the numbers of people who visit Niagara grow, we recommend as follows.


[Ed. Note: From here on the plan is very specific about the remedy to situations as they existed in 1887. The following brief comments attempt to capture the spirit of more detailed discussions.]


That the Upper Grove, where no view of the falls is available, be the location of interpretive and guidance offices, restroom facilities, and other conveniences. Outside these buildings rainy weather shelters, partly open, partly closed, should be provided. Those who have brought lunches or other provisions may eat in these shelters. Taking food onto other parts of the Reservation shall be forbidden by ordinance. The Superintendent's office, nearby storage, tool, and repair rooms should be under one roof, one story high, with a basement.


In the Lower Grove, where a view of the falls can be had, trees will suffer damage from freezing spray rising from the waterfall. It is even more important that artificial elements be removed here. The stone walls of the little cottage near the Suspension Bridge should be covered with creeping vines. The Inclined Railway shall be relocated when extensive repairs are needed, to a place less obtrusive. The present stone parapet intrudes, being artificial in its rigid lines. Removal is advised, replacing it with a wall of field stone. A safe railing would be better, intruding less on the visitor's perception of space. The wooden balcony at Hennepin's View should be replaced with a less conspicuous iron one. The great iron structure housing the railway should be painted a shade closer the color of the rocks.


The mainland above the groves should be restored as close to natural as possible with all traces of mill runs, cribwork, and other man-made structures removed. Pockets in restored riverbank walls should hold soil for waterside plants of the region.


The drive on the mainland should be as much out of sight of those on Goat Island as possible. Walks on the mainland should be provided with seats of stone and darkly stained slat-wood, fortified with metal at points to discourage whose who would deface them with writing and carving.


Tree plantings should be those of the forest, where individual tree beauty is less important than the beauty of groups, passages, and masses of foliage. The undergrowth is to be allowed to grow in naturally. The artificially cleared ground on Goat Island should be refurnished with trees. The west bank will be planted with bushes and plants that grow naturally below the line of sight. None can be found anywhere in the world more beautiful than those native to the island. From Bath Island, where the artificial shores will also be remedied, the view of the Goat Island shore will be attractive, dark and exceedingly beautiful under overhanging foliage.


The bridges should be maintained, scroll work removed. The footbridge to Luna Island is a disagreeable artificial object which degrades the scene. It should be shifted a short distance upstream, out of sight from Stedman's Bluff and mostly shielded by foliage. No additional bridges to other islands in the rapids should be constructed.


The road around Goat Island should be as narrow as it can be, varying slightly to pass between trees. Numerous trails through the woods will be little more than trodden footpaths. At two points in the forest will be roofs supported by rough stone piers, shelters from sudden showers. Restroom facilities should be at the end of each of these shelters.


The wooden staircase by which visitors descend to the Cave of the Winds is contrary to the philosophy of the Reservation, crossing from top to bottom one of the grandest features of the falls, its natural cliff face. We propose a tunnel, if it can be constructed without injury to the scenery, and an elevator to the Cave of the Winds. The buildings and other protective shelters at the base of the cliff at the Cave should be constructed of unpainted timbers and partially covered by trees and bushes.


In the control of crowds the State has two duties: 1) by using approved police regulation, to make sure that visitors are not placed in danger. 2) to make sure visitors shall be guided in ways so that the natural scenery is not injured.


In general, we believe none of what we have suggested can be left out of any comprehensive plan for the judicious development of the Reservation--and that when the work is completed no further construction need be done. Maintenance will be, strictly speaking, all that is required. The Board of Commissioners may recommend to the State after its own fashion, but we hope the major road work is completed first, mainly because the sooner it is accomplished, the sooner the forest can begin the natural healing and restoration by fresh growth.

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Niagara Heritage Partnership

MPO Box 1495

Niagara Falls, New York 14302-1723