The Niagara region’s original inhabitants were the Ongiara, an Iroquois tribe named the Neutrals by French explorers, who found them helpful in mediating disputes with other tribes. The name Niagara” is said to originate from an Iroquois word meaning “thunder of waters”.
Iroquois legend tells of Lelawala, a beautiful maid given by her father to a brave she hated. Rather than marry, Lelawala chose to sacrifice herself to her one and only true love He-No, the Thunder God, who lived in a cave behind the Horseshoe Falls. She paddled her canoe into the swift current of the Niagara River and was swept over the Falls. He-No caught her as she fell, and together their spirits are said to live forever in the Thunder God’s kingdom behind the Falls.
There is some confusion over which European gave the first written, eyewitness account of the Falls. Samuel de Champlain was in the area as early as 1604. Some of his party reported to him on the incredible waterfalls, and he wrote the reports in his journals but probably never actually seen them for himself. Others credit Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm with the description, written during an exploration of the area early in the 18th century.
However, it’s generally agreed that Father Louis Hennepin saw and described the Falls in 1677, after exploring the area with explorer Rene Robert Cavelier and Sieur de la Salle, and that he was the one that brought them to the world’s attention. Hennepin was also the first to describe the Saint Anthony Falls in Minnesota. He alse claimed that he traveled the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, however that was discredited and it cast some doubt on the truth of his writings and sketches of Niagara Falls. There is a county in Minnesota named after Father Hennepin.
In the 1800’s tourism became popular, and was the area’s main industry by mid-century. Napoleon’s brother visited with his bride in the early 19th century. There was a large demand for a way over the Niagara River, so in 1848 they built a footbridge and then Charles Ellet’s Niagara Suspension Bridge. In 1855 German-American John Augustus Roebling’s Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was built then in 1886 Leffert Buck replaced Roebling’s wood and stone bridge with the mostly steel bridge that carries trains over the Niagara River even today.
In 1897 the first steel archway bridge near the Falls was completed. Today it is known as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, it is the bridge that runs between Canada and the U.S. just below the Falls. The Rainbow Bridge was built in 1941 by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, it carries both foot and vehicle traffic.
After World War One, tourism took off again. Automobiles made getting to the Falls a lot easier. In 20th century Niagara Falls the main goal has been to gather the power of the falls to turn it into energy and to control the rapid development on both the Canadian and American sides that threatens the area’s natural beauty.”