NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's visit to Niagara Falls (2024)

Last week Niagara Discoveries looked at the June 1833 visit to Niagara Falls by Fanny Appleton and her family in the wake of her mother’s death earlier that year. Ten years after that trip, Fanny married Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a widower. The Longfellows settled in to a house in Cambridge, Mass., that Fanny’s father had purchased for them. “Craigie House” had also been used by General George Washington as his headquarters during the 1775-76 Siege of Boston. Henry and Fanny had two sons and four daughters, five of whom lived to adulthood. Their domestic happiness was shattered in July of 1861 when Fanny was accidentally burned to death after her dress caught fire on a candle. Henry was badly burned and Fanny’s father, Nathan Appleton, whose health had already been failing, died four days later. These events sent the family into deep mourning. Even after recovering from his injuries, Henry could barely function due to an overwhelming depression.

In June of 1862, just as Nathan Appleton had done 29 years earlier, Henry took his children to Niagara Falls to give them a brief respite from the ever-present reminders of their mother’s death at home. In this case, only the oldest children, Charley and Erny, accompanied their father, along with several other relatives and friends. The girls stayed with Henry’s family in Portland, Maine, his childhood hometown. The Longfellow party left Boston on June 4th and traveled by rail to Utica where they spent two days at nearby Trenton Falls, another popular tourist spot in the 19th century. They arrived at Niagara at nine in the evening on June 7th and checked into the Cataract House, which by then was the premier hotel in Niagara Falls (obviously much improved since Fanny’s visit nearly 30 years before).

Longfellow’s journal is not nearly as animated with colorful commentary as his wife’s, but he did write that the Falls were “lovely in the moonlight” while on a nocturnal walk on Goat Island. The next day, a Sunday, he spent the whole morning alone on the island, commenting that it was “better than a church for me to-day.” He then went “up onto the stone tower, in the midst of the English Fall. It drives me frantic with excitement.” In the afternoon, the Longfellow party went over to Table Rock, the “finest view of the English Fall,” but then Henry added, “In every other particular the American side is preferable.” Quite a contrast to the comments that Fanny had made!

It is interesting to note that Longfellow never mentioned the factories and mills that so disturbed Fanny. However, whereas Fanny lamented that her visit only lasted four days, after two days, Henry was ready to leave. “Niagara is too much for me. My nerves shake like a bridge of wire. A vague sense of terror and unrest haunts me all the time. My head swims and reels with the ceaseless motion of the water. It would drive me mad to stay here a week.”

Longfellow and his party left Niagara on June 10th and headed for Toronto. It is somewhat ironic, and even a bit comical, that after Fanny’s disparaging remarks about the accommodations on the American side of the Falls, Longfellow finds those much superior to what he found in Canada. Upon arriving in Toronto, he wrote, “stopped at the Rossin House, the best in Toronto and the worst we have been in on this journey.” He later added, “home to bed in our gloomy Castle of Otranto, called the Rossin House.” (The Castle of Otranto, written in 1764 by Horace Walpole, is considered to be the first “Gothic novel”). After traveling through Ontario and Montreal, the group finally made it back to Boston on June 16th.

It was shortly after this trip that Longfellow began his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a task that slowly brought him out of his depression and back into the literary world.

In 1880, Longfellow added his name to a petition signed by 700 other well-known Americans and Canadians to urge the New York and Ontario governments to create a park on both sides of Niagara Falls.

Longfellow died in 1882 and did not live to see the Niagara Reservation State Park open in 1885 and the Queen Victoria Park open in 1888.

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Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's visit to Niagara Falls (2024)
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