Last month I wrote about the Chicago Portage, the route used by American Indians, explorers, and others to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, and the reason Chicago became one of the greatest cities in the world.

I took my family on vacation to Niagara Falls this past summer, and, knowing that originally men traveled the interior of our country on water, I could not help but wonder what it would have taken to get from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Can you imagine paddling a canoe up the Niagara River, encountering rapids along the way, and then seeing this in front of you?

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

The waters of Lake Erie roar along for thirty-five miles through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario, descending from 571 feet above sea level to 245 feet, a drop of 326 feet. Niagara Falls plunges 170 feet into a pool estimated to be 100 feet deep. The remaining drop of 156 feet is made over a series of rapids and around many islands in the river on both sides of the falls. Much of the river is impassable, and had to be portaged. And yes, portage routes were known and traveled, first by Seneca Indians, and as early as 1615 by French traders.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The portage began about six miles below the falls, at a Seneca Indian Village, later called Lewiston, on the American side of the river. From there, travelers climbed three elevations that they called “three mountains” to arrive a mile or two (historically debated) above the falls. The Seneca were “in charge” of the route. Travelers had to appeal to them to travel it, and hire them to do the work.

By 1719 French fur trade was prospering, and the Joncaire Trade Post and landing were established at the village, then called Frenchman’s Landing. The French cut a road through the portage to make the work easier.

In 1759 the English took control of the route and “improved” it, constructing in 1764 what was the first “railway” built in North America. It consisted of two parallel-running cars (or trams), each on a separate pair of wooden rails supported on stone pillars. A cable linked the cars, and when loaded with equal weight it required little effort to bring one car up while gravity pulled the other down. This allowed heavy goods to be passed up and down a 75-foot gulley along the route.

In 1796, the Jay Treaty established the international boundary separating the United States from Canada at the river. The earliest portage routes were on the American side, but after the treaty another route was developed within the borders of Canada. 

After the War of 1812 ended in 1815, construction began on the Erie (opened 1825) and Welland (opened 1829) Canals, and with their opening, both American and Canadian portage routes were abandoned, leaving today little if any trace of their existence.

Most of this information came from articles written by Philip Vierling. Phil was largely responsible for the preservation of the Chicago Portage and the creation of the Chicago Portage Ledger. He provided careful research of early Chicago, personally cut footpaths, installed interpretive signs, and built a dam to hold water in Portage Creek, among many other accomplishments, even cutting vegetation with scissors and carrying in 1400 pounds of concrete bag by bag on his back! I was fortunate to be able to talk with Phil this spring, and regret I did not have the chance to know him better, as he passed away in August of this year. He will be well remembered and missed by all who knew this remarkable man.

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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