Like most out-of-towners who come to visit or work in Buffalo, New York, Frederick Law Olmsted visited Niagara Falls while he was called upon to create Buffalo’s incredible park system in 1868.
When he arrived at Niagara, he saw horrific abuses to this natural wonder with factories lining the shoreline, carnivals, and hucksters charging for glimpses of the Falls through wooden boards. This disturbed him, so he gathered many prominent leaders— Andrew Green, Thomas Welch, Charles Darwin, and President Grover Cleveland— to form the Niagara Association and launch the “Free Niagara Movement.”
The group’s goal was to reclaim this land and create a public park that would be forever free and protected. In 1883, legislation was passed in the New York State Legislature, and in 1885, what would become the nation’s oldest state park opened. To this day, it is still free to enter the park, per the wishes of the Niagara Association.
While Olmsted did not design Niagara Falls State Park in detail, he left a vision for what the park should look and feel like. His design concepts were depicted in a “General Plan for Improvements” (dated 1887) and incorporated into the park’s final design, making it a natural place to view a world wonder and a place to find respite and relaxation.
Through the years, Olmsted’s vision was destroyed through the work of Robert Moses. With automobile travel gaining in popularity, people desired to see the Falls from their vehicles, so roadways and huge parking lots were put in along the Niagara River, leading to the brink of the Falls. It is hard to imagine that at one time—not so long ago—you could drive right along the water’s edge and see— but not truly experience— the Falls without even stopping and getting out of the car.
Slowly, the State of New York began working on removing the vestiges of Robert Moses. In 2012, New York State Parks launched the Niagara Falls Landscape Restoration Plan, a nearly $50 million project to bring back the original Olmsted vision to the park. Gone are the trampled and worn overlooks and excessive, deteriorated pavement, random pathways, and flower beds of bright gardenias. In their places are properly landscaped gardens of native plants, more natural surface treatments, and uniform and appropriate park furnishings, creating a more natural and authentic experience… one in keeping with the Olmsted vision.
And so, how do you celebrate the 200th birthday of the man who rescued you and made you what you are? You light Niagara Falls in light green, yellow and light blue! On April 26, 2022, the bi-national Niagara Falls Illumination Board saw it fit to bestow the honor of lighting the Horseshoe, American and Bridal Veil Falls to commemorate this special day. The lighting of the Falls happens every night of the year and often memorializes a special event or cause. Being able to recognize the contributions of Frederick Law Olmsted not only to Niagara Falls and Buffalo but to the entire country and world was extra special for all of us at Niagara Falls State Park.
We invite you to join the celebration this year by visiting Niagara Falls and experiencing Olmsted’s legacy in the nation’s oldest state park.
Mark V. Mistretta, RLA
Niagara Region Director
New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation