Lincoln, Churchill & Niagara Falls

In August 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Niagara Falls in northwest New York. President Franklin Roosevelt had invited Churchill to the Roosevelt home Hyde Park on the Hudson River. The British prime minister decided to detour to so he could show his 20-year-old daughter Mary the natural phenomenon.

At the falls, the two Churchills were surrounded by journalists. “I saw them before you were born. I came here first in 1900,” Churchill told a reporter. “Do they look the same?” a journalist persisted. “Well, the principle seems the same. The water keeps falling over.”

Americans had not fallen over each other to attend Churchill’s first lecture tour to United States December 1900 and January 1901. Just 26 at the time but already famous in Britain, Churchill had written five books in the last three years – based on his military experiences in India and Africa. Churchill’s reputation attracted larger crowds in Canada than he had in the Northeast. Crossing the border, Churchill had stopped to visit Niagara Falls.

The young British army officer was sufficiently celebrated that the American vice president-elect, Theodore Roosevelt, invited him to a meeting in Albany. TR subsequently stated repeatedly “I do not like Winston Churchill.” Years later when asked the reason for the animosity, his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth said they were “so alike.” The writer Samuel Clemens also had differences with Churchill. Mark Twain introduced the former British officer to a Boston audience; he also inscribed a set of his own works as a gift: “To be good is noble to teach others how to be good is nobler, & no trouble.”

Over five decades earlier in September 1848, Congressman Abraham Lincoln had visited Niagara Falls on his way home to Illinois after campaigning in New England for Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor.

Lincoln’s law partner, William H. Herndon, subsequently traveled east and also visited the falls. On Herndon’s return, he spoke with Lincoln about the falls in their Springfield legal office: “As I warmed up with the subject my descriptive powers expanded accordingly. The mad rush of water, the roar, the rapids, and the rainbow furnished me with an abundance of material for a stirring and impressive picture. The recollection of the gigantic and awe-inspiring scene stimulated my exuberant powers to the highest pitch.”

Then like the World War II reporter, Herndon asked Lincoln: “What made the deepest impression on you when you stood in the presence of the great natural wonder?” Herndon recalled: “I shall never forget his answer, because it in a very characteristic way illustrates how he looked at everything. ‘The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls was, where in the world did all that water come from?’”

Like Churchill, Lincoln was a practical man. Lincoln had a lifelong appreciation for the power and utility of water – having traveled down the Mississippi on a raft twice as a teenager and young man. In an undated manuscript, Lincoln actually recorded some observations about his experience: “Niagara-Falls! By what mysterious power is it that millions and millions, are drawn from all parts of the world, to gaze upon Niagara Falls? There is no mystery about the thing itself. Every effect is just as any intelligent man knowing the causes, would anticipate, without [seeing] it. If the water moving onward in a great river, reaches a point where there is a perpendicular job, of a hundred feet in descent, in the bottom of the river, – it is plain the water will have a violent and continuous plunge at that point. It is also plain the water, thus plunging, will foam, and roar, and send up a mist, continuously, in which last, during sunshine, there will be perpetual rain-bows.”

Lincoln-the-observer, Lincoln-the-scientist, and Lincoln-the-analyst merged: “The mere physical of Niagara Falls is only this. Yet this is really a very small part of that world’s wonder. It’s power to excite reflection, and emotion, is it’s great charm. The geologist will demonstrate that the plunge, or fall, was once at Lake Ontario, and has worn it’s [sic] way back to it’s [sic] present position; he will ascertain how fast it is wearing now, and so get a basis for determining how long it has been wearing back from Lake Ontario, and finally demonstrate by it that this world is at least fourteen thousand years old.”

Lincoln’s lifelong fascination with rivers had begun as a teenager. “A philosopher of a slightly different turn will say Niagara Falls is only the lip of the basin out of which pours all the surplus water which rains down on two or three hundred thousand square miles of the earth’s surface,” Lincoln observed. “He will estim[ate with] approximate accuracy, that five hundred thousand [to]ns of water, falls with it’s full weight, a distance of a hundred feet each minute – thus exerting a force equal to the lifting of the same weight,, through the same space, in the same time.”

Clearly, Niagara’s impression on Mr. Lincoln had not evaporated quickly. From Buffalo, Mr. Lincoln and his wife moved on to Chicago by ship. Like Churchill, the Lincolns would return to Niagara Falls – visiting in 1857 on a trip to New York City. Like Churchill, Lincoln would learn to put the power of water to work….in order to win a war.

Posted in Essays