It wasn't until Daniel M. Dumych left his hometown to pursue a doctoral degree that he fully realized Niagara Falls' storied past.
It was a history rich in notable personalities and monumental moments: Nikola Tesla, Robert Moses, the first long-distance transmission of alternating current -- an effort that paved the way for the widespread distribution of electricity.
Then, of course, there are the falls themselves, a natural spectacle of immense proportions that for decades has inspired acts of daredevilry ranging from tightrope walks to barrel rides -- some more successful than others.
During breaks from his studies at Penn State University, Dumych returned to his parents' LaSalle area home and began researching the story of Niagara. The result: a pair of books in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series, the most recent of which, "Niagara Falls Volume II" was published last month.
A companion volume to the previously released "Niagara Falls," Volume II features more than 200 black-and-white photographs crammed into 128 entertaining and information-packed pages.
The book details just how much (and in some instances, how little) Niagara has changed over the past century, during which it blossomed from a small tourist town into a booming industrial city, and nearly back again.
Through it all, the city flexed its powerful muscles for the creation of the Niagara Power Project, absorbed thousands of people involved in its construction, then suffered their departure along with the industry exodus of the 1970s and 1980s.
Residents mourned the death of the once-bustling Falls Street, the corridor linking the old train station with the Niagara Reservation, which fell victim to the wrecking ball known as "urban renewal."
Dumych documents the metamorphosis of Niagara with wit and insight, adding his personal takes on some of the major issues confronting his hometown and its citizens.
"A hundred years ago we were on the cutting edge of technology with industry," he said. "Now it is computers; back then it was hydroelectric power and the electro-chemical industry.
"Then, of course, having the falls is no small asset. We had a lot going for us."
But the city's decline began as far back as the 1930s, he believes.
It accelerated after World War II, when aging buildings and facilities were frequently relocated -- often down South -- rather than refurbished.
"The facilities were aging, the processes had become obsolete," Dumych said. "Instead of renew in Niagara Falls, companies moved South, where the cost of doing business was cheaper."
Employers like ALCOA -- once the world's largest consumer of electricity, Dumych notes -- retreated to newer plants built to aid the war effort, leaving Niagara Falls in the lurch.
"The same things happened with other plants as the years went by," Dumych said, leaving Niagara and its residents searching desperately for a new identity.
In the book, Dumych said that the opening of the Niagara Power Project signaled "a new age for Niagara. Almost four decades later, its people have yet to find their place in it."
"Somehow, the city's inhabitants have lost their soul," he said. "They're not sure what their place is, and they're just sort of floundering. They're not sure who they are and what they want to do."
Dumych, now a local history specialist with the Niagara Falls Public Library, jammed his latest volume with scores of photos -- many from the library's impressive local history department -- to achieve a sort of scrapbook feel.
"In the TV generation, we like seeing photos in addition to text," he explained. "I would buy up old books on different facets of Niagara Falls history, and before long I realized that the town I had thought was a really depressing place had a rich history.
"It surprised me, judging from what we are now. It really surprised me."
Dumych said his books have been received "very favorably."
"They're very popular locally," he said, "this one even more so, because I have a chapter about Falls Street, and you know how the local people are about Falls Street."
Dumych said he strived for an objective portrayal of his hometown, taking care not to paint history with a sentimental brush.
In his opinion, "our misguided faith in urban renewal" was the biggest problem for Niagarans.
"We thought we only had to build a convention center and all our problems would be solved," he said. But that thinking "was not unique to Niagara Falls. If we had just refurbished, we would have been really impressive now. Today the trend is to recreate that kind of feeling, because we miss it."
For his next project, Dumych -- who lives in North Tonawanda, with his wife, Laurel, and their son, Ian, 12 -- plans a fictionalized account of Niagara's early 20th century exploits.
"I'll fill in the historical blanks with fiction," he said, "and hopefully, too, make it interesting."
Another local history buff and author, Paul Gromosiak, will be signing copies of his latest book, "Daring Niagara," from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Niagara County Historical Society, Lockport.
Refreshments will be served and some of Gromosiak's collection of Niagara Falls memorabilia will be displayed.