Fragment on Niagara Falls (September 25, 1848)

Contributing Editors for this page include Bob Frey

Ranking

#102 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“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.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, September 25, 1848

Close Readings

Bob Frey, “Understanding Lincoln” blog post (via Quora), September 30, 2013

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How Historians Interpret

“. . .They briefly visited Niagara Falls, which inspired Lincoln to momentarily rhapsody: ‘Niagara is strong, and fresh to-day as ten thousand years ago.  The Mammoth and the Mastadon—now so long dead, that fragments of their monstrous bones, alone testify, that they ever lived, have gazed on Niagara.  In that long—long time, never still for a single moment.  Never dried, never froze, never slept, never rested’—and here his pen stopped as he recognized that he was not good at this sort of thing.  Later, when Herndon asked him what reflections he had when he saw the falls, he remarked solemnly that he wondered where all that water came from.”

—David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 132

“Herndon told a story that illustrated Lincoln’s remarkable capacity to focus on what he considered the essentials of any matter. Herndon visited Niagara Falls some time after Lincoln had seen the falls in 1849. Telling Lincoln his impressions of this wonder of nature, Herndon waxed eloquent in typical nineteenth-century romantic fashion, declaiming of rush and roar and brilliant rainbows. Exhausting his adjectives, he asked Lincoln what had made the deepest impression on him when he saw the falls. ‘The thing that struck me most forcibly,’ Lincoln replied, ‘was, where in the world did all that water come from?’ Herndon recalled this remark after nearly forty years as an example of how Lincoln ‘looked at everything…. His mind, heedless of beauty or awe, followed irresistibly back to the first cause…. If there was any secret in his power this surely was it.’”

James M. McPherson, “The Hedgehog and the Foxes,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 12.1 (1991)

NOTE TO READERS

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Searchable Text

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 such as any inteligent 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 jog, 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. 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 way back to it’s 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. 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. 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. And then the further reflection comes that this vast amount of water, constantly pouring down, is supplied by an equal amount constantly lifted up, by the sun; and still he says, “If this much is lifted up, for this one space of two or three hundred thousand square miles, an equal amount must be lifted for every other equal space, and he is overwhelmed in the contemplation of the vast power the sun is constantly exerting in quiet, noiseless opperation of lifting water up to be rained downagain.
 
But still there is more. It calls up the indefinite past. When Columbus first sought this continent—when Christ suffered on the cross—when Moses led Israel through the Red-Sea—nay, even, when Adam first came from the hand of his Maker—then as now, Niagara was roaring here. The eyes of that species of extinct giants, whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara, as ours do now. Co[n]temporary with the whole race of men, and older than the first man, Niagara is strong, and fresh to-day as ten thousand years ago. The Mammoth and Mastadon—now so long dead, that fragments of their monstrous bones, alone testify, that they ever lived, have gazed on Niagara. In that long—long time, never still for a single moment. Never dried, never froze, never slept, never rested,
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