As a little boy, I first viewed Niagara Falls with great, wide-eyed wonder at the size and sheer power of the cataract. I was taught much about it in school, and its long history was especially amazing because it was nearby and part of our own local history.
I wondered what it must have been like in times gone by, when only the American Indians were here to see it, and then when the first Europeans came under its magnificent spell. It was not possible to know what natural Niagara was like, or so I thought, because of all the changes brought by industry and commercialization.
I realized how wrong that assumption could be when I first gazed upon an old, cast-off artwork I found one day. It showed Niagara Falls with nothing but trees! No buildings, no people, just unspoiled, natural beauty. How could this be? It was never in any of my history books, and I had no idea such an image existed. Yet there it was in all its glory to behold.
I did some research through an inscription on the back that read "C.K.R. got it from P. Gagnon 1888." From this, I learned that C.K.R. was Cyrus Kingsbury Remington, a Civil War veteran from Buffalo who was a historical author. He bought the work from Phylius Gagnon, another historical author and antique dealer from Quebec.
The painting was later owned by Peter A. Porter, grandson of Peter B. Porter, well-known local historical figures. So when I sought help to identify the unknown artist who executed this fine painting, I was quite surprised to learn I might not be able to figure it out.
The curator of the American Art Gallery at the Smithsonian stated it was probably done by a British Army officer around 1790. Armed with this scrap of information, I searched through books and on the Internet for years. I learned that the most likely painter of this wonderful work was a British Army officer named James Peachey.
I found that he was stationed in Quebec and did a lot of work on behalf of the king of England all over North America, painting places in the New World. He also worked for the Holland Land Company as a surveyor.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence I can point out to attribute the painting to Peachey is the fact that the University of Michigan has an unsigned work of Fort Niagara, painted from Fort George in 1783. The curators there believe that painting was done by Peachey as well.
Our local history is a fascinating subject that can still teach us some new things if we dig for the facts.
I learned, for example, that the French explorer LaSalle built the first European sailing vessel on the upper Great Lakes on the banks of the Niagara River. It sank mysteriously and is still missing, but may have been found recently. The Great Lakes Exploration Group is researching a shipwreck in Lake Michigan that it believes to be the Griffon.
Another thing I learned while researching this painting is that this area was covered by a very thick old-growth forest. There is not much left of this -- a small pocket near Lake Erie in Evans, and a little more at Zoar Valley in Gowanda. To have an accurate image of this old-growth forest with one of the wonders of the world in the background is an amazing bonus I will always treasure -- no matter who painted it.