The Niagara Parks Commission

On Friday, September 16, 2005, at 11:30 a.m., the Ontario Heritage Foundation and The Niagara Parks Commission unveiled a provincial plaque celebrating the establishment of The Niagara Parks Commission.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    In 1885, the Province of Ontario established The Niagara Parks Commission as part of an international effort to preserve the natural scenery around Niagara Falls. Originally, the Commission included Colonel Casimir Gzowski, Chairman, John W. Langmuir and J. Grant Macdonald, and was responsible for making the park self-financing while keeping admission free to the public. The Commissioners acquired parkland along the river to create Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, which opened on May 24, 1888. Beginning with a 62.2-hectare park, the Commission has grown to administer a world famous, 1720-hectare park along the full length of the Niagara River, nationally and provincially significant historic sites, botanical gardens, a horticultural school and recreation areas, while remaining financially self-sufficient.


    En 1885, la province de l’Ontario créa la Commission des parcs du Niagara. Cette mesure s’inscrivait dans le cadre d’un effort international visant à protéger la beauté naturelle des environs des chutes Niagara. La Commission originale comptait comme membres le colonel Casimir Gzowski, président, John W. Langmuir et J. Grant Macdonald, et avait pour mission d’assurer l’autofinancement du parc tout en permettant au public d’y avoir accès gratuitement. La Commission acquit des terrains situés le long de la rivière Niagara pour constituer le Parc de la Reine Victoria aux Chutes de Niagara qui accueillit ses premiers visiteurs le 24 mai 1888. Sous la gouverne de la Commission, ce parc s’étendant au départ sur 62,2 hectares, est devenu un parc de renom mondial de 1 720 hectares longeant toute la rivière Niagara et comptant d’importants lieux historiques nationaux et provinciaux, des jardins botaniques, une école d’horticulture et des aires récréatives. Le parc continue encore aujourd’hui de s’autofinancer.

Historical background

Establishment of an “International Park” at Niagara Falls

By the 1870s, Niagara Falls was becoming an important destination for tourists, with a quarter of a million people visiting the cataracts annually.1 Visitors to Niagara Falls on both sides of the river, however, were dismayed at the uncontrolled and unsightly private commercial development around the Falls. The Canadian side of the river had become known as “The Front.” Visitors were frequently harassed and views of the cataracts were accessible only after paying exorbitant fees. “Hackmen, curiosity vendors, photographers and others who, in plying their trades, [had] become an acknowledged imposition and nuisance,”2 making it very difficult to view or enjoy the beauty of Niagara Falls.

In 1878, Lord Dufferin — Governor General of Canada — shared his concerns when speaking at an Ontario Society of Artists luncheon in Toronto.

    The pleasure he [the visitor] may have derived from his pilgrimage to so famous a spot, whether as an artist or simple tourist, has been miserably marred and defeated by the inconvenience and annoyance he has experienced at the hands of the various squatting interests that have taken possession of every point of vantage at the Falls to tax the pocket and irritate the nerves of visitors, and by whom – just at the moment when he is about to give up his whole being to the contemplation of the scene before him, as he is about to feel the inspiration of the natural beauties around him, his imagination and his poetic faculties are suddenly shocked and disorganized with a demand for ten cents.3

Lord Dufferin suggested that “the Governments of New York and of Ontario or Canada should combine to acquire whatever rights may have been established against the public, and to form around the Falls a small public international park … under the charge of proper guardians” to preserve the scenery at Niagara Falls.4 Although Lord Dufferin’s original suggestion was for an “international park,” both the U.S. and Canadian sides developed their parks separately and independently.

The Governor of New York, Lucius Robinson, encouraged the New York Legislature to instruct the Commissioners of the New York State Survey to report on the preservation of the scenery at Niagara Falls. The Commissioners engaged James T. Gardner, director of the State Survey (who surveyed Yosemite as a California state preserve in 1864) and Frederick Law Olmsted to examine both the American and Canadian sides of the river. Olmsted was the leading American landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York and Mount Royal Park in Montreal, prepared a management plan for Yosemite and strongly supported preservation of the Falls for a decade. The Commissioners of the New York State Survey proposed a small reservation on the American side and restoration of the natural landscape. They met with representatives of the Province of Ontario who agreed with Gardner’s and Olmsted’s plan for the Canadian side.5 The New York State Legislature passed an Act on April 30, 1883 appointing a board called The Commissioners of the State Reservation at Niagara to select lands for the American park. Two years later, the Legislature earmarked money for the expropriation of the park lands. On July 15, 1885, the 412-acre State Reservation at Niagara, supported by the State of New York, opened to the public with the promise that it would “forever be kept open and free of access to all mankind.”6

In Ontario, Premier Oliver Mowat’s provincial government believed the Dominion Government should acquire land for the park and in 1880 enacted legislation that gave it the authority to expropriate property under provincial jurisdiction.7 The Dominion was disinterested, however, and development of the Canadian park languished. After waiting five years for the Dominion Government to implement the provisions of the Act of 1880, Mowat’s government brought before the Ontario Legislature an Act for the Preservation of the Natural Scenery about Niagara Falls on March 30, 1885, which gave the Lieutenant-Governor in Council the authority to appoint a three-member Board of Commissioners to select lands to be set apart to “restore to some extent the scenery around the Falls of Niagara to its natural condition, and to preserve the same from further deterioration, as well as to afford to travellers and others facilities for observing the points of interest in the vicinity.”8

To carry out the Act's objective, a Commission comprised of three respected businessmen called The Commissioners for Niagara Falls Park was formed, with Colonel Casimir Gzowski appointed as Chairman. The Commission also included John W. Langmuir and J. Grant Macdonald. Langmuir, recently retired from his position as provincial inspector of prisons and public charities, managed the Toronto General Trusts Company. Macdonald managed the London and Canadian Loan and Agency Company. The Commissioners prepared an extensive report that recommended that it was not in the public interest to have the park and its franchise, under any conditions, controlled by a private company (as the government was considering) and strongly recommended that the government establish and maintain the park as the property of the province with its management entirely under provincial control.

On April 23,1887, the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Act was assented to in the Ontario Legislature, creating The Commissioners for the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, which later became The Niagara Parks Commission. The government established the park under two conditions. The first was that there should be no permanent financial burden upon the province, as the park was to become self-supporting as soon as possible. The second was that the park should, as far as possible, be as free to the public as the corresponding park on the American side.

In order to carry out these two principles, the Commission agreed that the public park should be absolutely free to all who enter it, in order to enjoy its natural attractions and obtain the view afforded without artificial aid. They also decided, however, to charge fees for use of structural appliances, guides and artificial or extra enhancements.

Through a series of bonds issued by the Commissioners but guaranteed by the Province, they were able to expropriate the properties along “The Front.” Properties around the Falls were expropriated and most of the buildings demolished. A 62.2-hectare (154-acre) park, named for Queen Victoria, was then developed and officially opened on May 24, 1888 — the Queen’s birthday. The early years were devoted to building pathways, laying out gardens and building a road along the bank. At that time, the Commissioners focused their efforts on developing Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park.

Financial demands on the Commissioners for the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park

Even in the first year of operation, the Commissioners were forced to admit that visitor charges or tolls were an inadequate source of revenue for the self-supporting park. They turned to other revenue generators — an electric railway linking the park to Queenston (where Toronto steamboats could dock) and Chippawa, a restaurant lease and a photographic franchise allowing a photographer to take and sell souvenir pictures.9

The rise in popularity of electrical power and its increasing demand led to a new and unforeseen source of revenue for the Commissioners. The Commissioners negotiated their first contract in 1892 to use the Niagara River for generation and transmission of hydroelectric power (electrical transmission over long distances was still in the experimental stage).10 Leases or rental agreements for the use of Commission property to construct several large-scale hydroelectric power plants and for the use of Niagara River water within the boundaries of the Park for the generation of hydroelectric power assured a steady source of income. The Commissioners’ need for revenue and the desire to undertake large-scale hydroelectric works at Niagara Falls entwined the park with early hydroelectric development in Ontario. Throughout this process, the Commissioners never lost sight of their responsibility to preserve and protect the scenic beauty of Niagara. The amount of water diverted to the power plants was carefully monitored and the construction of the plants was designed to blend in or add to the scenic value of Niagara. It was believed the generating stations would become tourist attractions as visitors flocked to see this new invention.

Historical sites

This stable source of income allowed the Commissioners to turn their attention to areas outside the immediate vicinity of the Falls. They acquired historic properties at Queenston Heights, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie. Over the years, the Commissioners acquired other land and built roads to connect these sites, becoming stewards of the land bordering the Niagara River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. In 1927, as a result of the Commission's expanded holdings, its name was changed from Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park Commission to The Niagara Parks Commission.

Preservation and restoration of the Commission's historic properties began in earnest during the Great Depression as “make work” projects in partnership with the federal and provincial governments. Under the direction of Chairman T.B. McQueston, many projects were undertaken, including: the reconstruction of Fort George, Navy Hall and Fort Erie; restoration of the William Lyon Mackenzie House; continuation of the stone parapet along River Road; and the building of Oakes Garden Theatre. In the 1990s, The Commission acquired additional heritage properties — Chippawa Battlefield and the Laura Secord Homestead.

Accomplishments of The Niagara Parks Commission

The Niagara Parks Commission is significant for its leading role in the international effort to preserve the scenic beauty of Niagara Falls and because of its association with early hydroelectric development in Ontario. Beginning with the 62.2-hectare Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, the parkland held by The Niagara Parks Commission has grown into a world-famous, 1,720-hectare (4,250-acre) park system along the Niagara River. The Commission’s Niagara River Parkway links its holdings — which include Fort Erie Park, Mather Park, Chippawa Battlefield Park, Kings Bridge Park, Queen Victoria Park, Oakes Garden Theatre, Niagara Glen, The Botanical Gardens and School of Horticulture, Queenston Heights Park, McFarland Park and the 56-km (35-mile) Niagara Parks Recreational Trail. Today, The Niagara Parks Commission remains financially self-sufficient while welcoming millions of visitors each year to its parklands, gardens, attractions and restaurants.

The Ontario Heritage Foundation gratefully acknowledges the research of Paul Dilse in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Foundation, 2005

1 1887 Report, p. 3 in Commissioners for the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, Reports of the Commissioners for the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, 1885-86 to 1900 (Toronto: Warwick Brothers & Rutter, 1886-1900 and Toronto: L.K. Cameron, 1901).

2 1885-86 Report, p. 8 in Commissioners for the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, Reports of the Commissioners for the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, 1885-86 to 1900 (Toronto: Warwick Brothers & Rutter, 1886-1900 and Toronto: L.K. Cameron, 1901).

3 William Leggo, The History of the Administration of the Right Honorable Frederick Temple, Earl of Dufferin, K.P., G.C.M.G., K.C.B., F.R.S., Late Governor General of Canada (Toronto: G. Mercer Adam, 1878), pp. 823-24.

4 Ibid.

5 James T. Gardner, Special Report, New York State Survey on the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls ... (Albany, N.Y.: Charles Van Benthuysen & Sons, 1880), pp. 7, 12, 16 and 27; Charles E. Beveridge and Paul Rocheleau, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape (New York: Rizzoli, 1995), pp. 200-13; Albert Fein, Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Environmental Tradition (New York: George Braziller, 1972), pp. 42-47; Mark Swadling and Tim Baker, Masterworks of Man & Nature: Preserving Our World Heritage (Patonga, Austalia: Harper-MacRae, 1992), p. 375; François Rémillard and Brian Merrett, Montreal Architecture: A Guide To Styles and Buildings (Montreal: Meridian Press, 1990), p. 17.

6 “An Act to authorize the selection, location and appropriation of certain lands in the village of Niagara Falls for a state reservation and to preserve the scenery of the falls of Niagara,” Chapter 336, 30 April 1883, Laws of New York, pp. 503-06; “An Act to provide for the payment of the awards made for the lands selected and located by the commissioners of the state reservation at Niagara,” Chapter 182, 30 April 1885, Laws of New York, pp. 337-38; Charles M. Dow, The State Reservation at Niagara: A History (Albany, N.Y.: J.B. Lyon, 1914), pp. 27 & 33.

7 “An Act respecting Niagara Falls and the adjacent territory,” Chapter 13, 5 March 1880, Statutes of the Province of Ontario, pp. 56-58.

8 “An Act for the Preservation of the Natural Scenery about Niagara Falls,” Chapter 21, 30 March 1885) Statutes of the Province of Ontario, pp. 70-75.

9 1888 Report, pp. 11-14.

10 1889 Report, pp. 5-6; 1890 Report, pp. 4-6; 1892 Report, p.4. It is fascinating to read about Gzowski’s visit to the experimental works at Deptford, England.