Hamburg and Niagara Falls, New York, where I spent my formative years
May 23, 2015
Intrigued by South Creek Road, J. and I set out before breakfast to drive down as much of it as we could. (I wasn’t looking at maps — no need to.) It ends in Eighteen-Mile Creek County Park, which as serves as a state-designated fishing hole. There’s not much of a conventional park here — just a gravel parking lot without even a portable john. A paved trail cuts into the woods, turning into a dirt trail with a side trail that looks like it goes down to the creek. We were going to be late for breakfast even if we hurried back (on the walk to the parking area, I got a friendly reminder call!), so we didn’t make it down. Later I read that Eighteen Mile Creek County Park is (take your pick) (1) abandoned (2) undeveloped. One website said there had been a proposal or plan to turn it into a golf course. No, no, no, a thousand times no . . . the same site also noted that the path we’d found doesn’t go to the creek, but one a tenth of a mile further on does. Reason to return . . . for now, it’s a relatively untamed spot that had drawn several cars to it by the time we left. Although the area is reverting to nature, J. found what to us appeared to be stone gateposts, with upper and lower hooks still attached. If I had known about this spot, I might have made an effort to go there. It would have been a strenuous ride up and down the mild inclines, though. Knowing me, I’d have flown over the rails into the creek. Four miles and twenty minutes to a bit of paradise — I could have managed it then and might even have appreciated it.
What’s a trip to western New York without a visit to Niagara Falls? I hadn’t been there since 1987, when I went late in the afternoon on a dreary day of threatening weather. Today was sunny and getting warmer by the minute, as we’d found on our morning walk. After a luxurious breakfast we left, making a stop at one of the Tim Horton’s along the way. With the help of Google Maps, I steered J. wrong briefly while in Buffalo, but soon we were back en route, and I was seeing familiar sights like the Pillsbury building, the Tifft Nature Preserve (which I’ve never visited), and the Peace Bridge.
Then we came to Grand Island, where the imposing bridges have been painted a blue that almost blends into the sky. The geography, which I’m sure I never understood, was coming back to me. I remember once or twice taking a more scenic route to Niagara Falls, but my guess is that it may have involved crossing the Peace Bridge and driving along the Canadian bank of the Niagara River.
I’d failed to take into account one important detail — with Memorial Day on Monday, the area was crowded with traffic and people, probably more so than usual. Someone in a hurry even managed to take a paint chip off the back on the driver’s side (as often happens, it didn’t register until later, but he heard and felt it). We found ourselves in a distant parking lot, waiting for a shuttle to take us closer to Goat Island. I don’t remember that at all from years ago, but while the populations of Buffalo and Niagara Falls have declined, the number of tourists who want to see this attraction seems to have expanded exponentially.
In my 18 years in New York, I’d never gone aboard any of the Maid of the Mist boats. From what I can recall from my brain’s faulty data banks dating to the 1960s and 1970s, the Maid of the Mist was a popular, modestly scaled service, but today it’s a big operation that moves people with the precision of a factory conveyor belt. I told J. that the people ahead of us disappearing into the bowels of the next Maid in line were destined for some hideous end (Soylent Green?), never to be seen again (the people visible on deck could simply be a regular cast planted there to make you feel complacent). As it turns out, the scale wasn’t my imagination or a distorted childhood memory — the boats I would have seen when I was, say, five years old carried about 100 people, while today’s Maid has a capacity of 600. I wish I’d had a chance to take the trip as a child, even without an iPhone or Nikon to record it.
As an aside, operations on the Canadian side are run by a different company, so when you look down you’ll see a boat loaded with blue ponchos (American side) and a boat loaded with (maple leaf) red ponchos (Canadian side). Rival rain gear!
After passing through the pre-boarding points of the Maid of the Mist experience with assembly-line efficiency, we picked up our own blue ponchos from a giant shed and were shepherded on board, where we found a good spot with a view, not too many heads in front of us, and a bar to cling to. The ponchos are effective at keeping out the spray from the falls — my arm got wet mostly because water ran down the sleeve as I held onto the vertical bar.
The Maid of the Mist stops at the more attractive Horseshoe Falls first, lingering long enough for us to appreciate the beauty and power of the water and its deafening roar. I’m still amazed a boat can approach so closely, to be swallowed by the mist. My dad, more knowledgeable than I, used to find my fear that it would capsize amusing. Today the boat stayed in place seemingly effortlessly as I struggled to take photos while trying to keep the iPhone and camera dry.
Next the Maid swings back toward the American Falls, where the remnants of several rock slides prevent too close an approach and there’s less mist further out to obscure photos. I’d rarely been to Niagara Falls on such a sunny day, when even the lines of the water looked crisp in the bright light.
After leaving the Maid, we spent a long time in the observation area, which has magnificent views. Although I tried, it was hard for me to imagine the real “Niagara Frontier” the way the first people in the area had seen it. (I can’t picture the abomination of the Niagara Mill District, either, even after seeing vintage photos of it.)
By now I was getting tired, it was late in the afternoon, and we needed to get back to pick up my cousin and his wife for dinner, so we skipped Old Fort Niagara when I realized how far away it was and turned south toward Grand Island and the B&B for a brief cleanup and rest stop.
Next we headed into Hamburg and through Water Valley toward Eden. I can’t explain it, but I love the drive through Water Valley, which is little more than a bridge over a dip in the landscape where the creek runs. I always felt like I’d been transported instantly and magically from town to country, from present to a recent past. Past Water Valley, Braymiller’s Market, where we used to stop for ice cream or custard, is still there, looking unchanged.
For a short time there was a European cheese store on Route 62, where my dad willingly stopped so I could buy cheeses and a powdered Swiss drink that came in a jar with a red label and lid and had a robust flavor like a grain. I can’t remember the name anymore, even after I found it once or twice at the old Chalet in Hyde Park.
The shop looked quaintly European to my young mind, and I loved the cool atmosphere inside, dim after the brightness of the outdoors. I was heartbroken when one day we stopped to find it closed — no yelp.com then to warn us of these things. The building is still there, housing a Subway sandwich shop complete with the original Swiss-themed exterior artwork. As of June 2015, the franchise is up for sale for the reduced price of $55,000. How interested am I in franchising?
After dinner at Pegasus in Hamburg, we took my cousin and his wife home, where we visited for a couple of hours. I learned some new stories about both my dad and cousin. He told me the union had leased their hall next to Tony’s (formerly Jim’s) because they didn’t need that big of a space. I said Ford seems to be doing well and keeps its buildings well maintained, unlike some of the rusty plants in south Buffalo (and survived, unlike its neighbor, Bethlehem Steel). He noted, however, that in its heyday the Ford Stamping Plant had up to 5,000 employees, while now it has perhaps 700. It’s no wonder they don’t need that big union hall. He also mentioned what a fabulous place Old Fort Niagara is with all its history, which cemented the idea of going there. After taking a couple of photos and bidding them a very reluctant farewell after 11, we returned to the B&B, which we still couldn’t find in the dark!
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