The history of European swordsmanship is often presumed to be the story of white, cisgender men. But people of all genders and races have played leading roles in this story.
On April 23rd, 2023, Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site partnered with the Musicians of Ma’alwyck (including Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz , Norman Thibodeau, and André Laurent O’Neil), actor Devin Funnye, and historical fencer Reily Mumpton, to present The Match!, a celebration of the stories of two 18th century individuals who exemplify these contributions: Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Chevalière d’Éon.
Saint-Georges and d’Éon were both considered celebrities in late-18th century London, and were part of the entourage of the Prince of Wales (through which they made the acquaintance of Schuyler Mansion’s very own Angelica Schuyler Church, of Hamilton fame!). On April 9, 1787, when the Prince of Wales hosted a fencing tournament at his personal residence, contemporary accounts hailed the match between Saint-Georges and d’Éon as the capstone of the event.
In addition to being immensely respected fencers, Saint-Georges was a celebrated musician and composer, while d’Éon had a thrilling past as a soldier and spy in secret service to King Louis XV of France. If this were not enough to capture the interest of their contemporaries and modern audiences alike, neither figure fit neatly into societal assumptions about the identities of aristocratic 18th century courtiers and fencers: Chevalière d’Éon was a trans-woman, while Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a biracial Afro-Caribbean man.
Possibly born intersex, d’Éon had been assigned male at birth and raised as a son of the French nobility. Her espionage career eventually led to exile, forcing d’Éon to protect herself by threatening to publish incriminating documents about the king of France. In 1777, at the age of forty-nine, d’Éon agreed to return to France and turn over the documents on several conditions: that she be legally recognized as a woman, be given a full feminine wardrobe suitable to her status, and be allowed to wear her military honors earned while presenting as a man. Desperate to avoid scandal, the king agreed. From that point forward, d’Éon was able to live publicly as a woman.
Saint-Georges, on the other hand, was born not into nobility, but into slavery on the plantations of Guadeloupe. His life story is featured in Searchlight Pictures film, CHEVALIER, which hit theaters on April 21, 2023. The son of a white French planter and an enslaved African mother, he was sent to France at the age of seven, where he was legally free. There he studied many topics, including music and fencing. The specter of racism still followed him, however, as the Code Noir (“Black Code”) limited his freedoms. He likewise faced personal prejudices from fellow fencers and musicians. He did not back down to his detractors, however, besting many of them with sword or violin, and eventually secured the patronage of Queen Marie Antoinette herself. He later became an important voice in the French abolition movement, and an officer in the French revolutionary forces.
Saint-Georges and d’Éon are stirring examples of Black and LGBTQ+ excellence in a history from which such voices are often sidelined by traditional narratives. Both openly celebrated who they were, excelling in every area of their lives, even when met with social opposition. They are important reminders that people from these groups have always been part of our shared stories, and that the contributions of marginalized individuals and groups today are part of a living tradition with very deep roots.
236 years later after they crossed swords before the Prince of Wales, visitors of all ages and backgrounds gathered to hear performances of some of Saint-Georges’ compositions by the Musicians of Ma’alwyck (as well as music by contemporaries who drew inspiration from the Afro-Caribbean virtuoso), and to witness an exciting live recreation of Saint-Georges’ and d’Éon’s 1787 fencing match! We are honored to have been able to help share their stories, and look forward to continuing to amplify the many, many voices that make up our whole history.
– Written by Ian Mumpton, Historic Site Assistant at OPRHP Schuyler Mansion
Event photographs courtesy of Madeleine Goodman, Excelsior Service Fellow at OPRHP
Inside Grant Cottage State Historic Site, where former President Ulysses S. Grant died of cancer on July 23, 1885 after spending his final weeks penning his memoirs, national grief remains frozen in time in the form of flowers.
Now nearly 140 years old, five different Victorian-era funerary floral displays in the parlor draw different reactions from visitors, ranging from “amazing” to “creepy.” But given that relatively few examples from that era survive today, these displays are also a rare look into the past.
While flowers have long been part of burial rituals, it was the tragic death toll of the American Civil War that ushered in the golden age of arranged floral tributes, when such displays became common for soldiers’ funerals.
Upon Grant’s death, such expressions of mourning for a leader who meant so much to Union victory began arriving at the cottage, which is located on Mount Macgregor in Saratoga County, about an hour by car north of Albany. One tribute still on display in the parlor was in the form of an oversized pillow, provided by Union veterans in Philadelphia from the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) that Grant had commanded two decades earlier.
A reporter noted, “Almost every train which arrived at Mt. McGregor has brought beautiful floral mementos from Grand Army Posts and other organizations, and also from personal friends…” making the modest cottage “fragrant with flowers.”
Perhaps the most impressive piece was the enormous six-foot-high “Gates Ajar” tribute which rested in front of the fireplace. Likely custom-built, it was sent by family friend Leland Stanford of California – a native of Watervliet, Albany County who went on to become California Governor and later a U.S. Senator from that state. Its design depicted the gates of heaven, a popular theme of tributes in that era.
For decades, these displays have remained untouched and undisturbed in the cottage parlor, losing their fragrance and much of their color faded, but otherwise intact, other than being understandably dusty. Last year, these artifacts came to the attention of historical florist expert Robert Treadway (co-author of A Centennial History of the American Florist), who visited in August 2021 to inspect under the supervision of conservators from the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites and site staff.
Treadway immediately cleared up two common misconceptions about the displays _ that they were prepared using fresh flowers which dried over time and had been coated in wax as a preservative, neither of which were the case.
Treadway also found that the most prevalent flowers used were immortelles (Helichrysum), a species in the sunflower family also known as everlastings for their long-lasting nature, which had been dried before use. In the Victorian era, immortelle flowers symbolized remembrance and hope in everlasting life, especially to the families of the deceased.
Everlastings were frequently shipped to the United States from Europe and dyed various colors for use by florists. Bunches would be wired to a small stick and inserted into moss which filled a wire framework to create the tributes. It was a painstaking process that involved numerous assistants. Since the displays for Grant were designed only for short-term use, wax coatings on the flowers were deemed unnecessary and not used, according to Treadway’s inspection.
Given that the delicate nature of these artifacts, Treadway and State Parks staff discussed how to best protect and preserve such historic objects for the years to come. Various options were discussed, including coatings, enclosures, and environmental controls, each method with its benefits and drawbacks.
Representing a nation’s mourning over the loss of a war hero and leader, the arrangements reflect a uniquely Victorian outlook on death and the hereafter, each with its own specific meaning.
The “Gates Ajar” symbolized the gates of Heaven, reassuring the grieving that their lost loved one was destined for a better place that, with the gate left ajar so they could follow and be reunited. The pillow set piece represented peace, relief, and eternal rest from the trials of the physical world.
Two floral pieces feature a cross, commonly used as symbols of Christian tenets of grace, forgiveness, and salvation. Two pieces incorporate an anchor, another favorite Christian symbol representing hope amid trial with God being the “anchor of the soul.” One piece features a heart along with the anchor and cross. The heart symbolized the everlasting love of Christ but also the love of those in mourning for the deceased.
Two pieces – the pillow and one of the crosses – also feature a sword, which reflected General Grant’s military career, as well as the virtues of justice, fortitude, and courage.
Victorian set pieces showcased the artistry and creativity of florists during that period. One of the best-known florists, Adolph Le Moult, operating out of New York City, created one of the largest floral pieces ever made for an event in Grant’s honor during a visit to Philadelphia in 1879. Le Moult also created elaborate floral tributes for Grant’s funeral in New York City in 1885.
The goal of florists in the 19th century was not just making impressive arrangements but also ensuring they would last. Florists boasted in advertisements with statements such as, “I can so perfectly preserve even the most delicate flowers that they will last forever.”
Preserved funeral mementos from the Victorian era can be found in public and private collections throughout the world. For example, wax-coated and encased floral pieces from the 1881 funeral of James Garfield are displayed at his home in Mentor, Ohio.
What truly makes the tributes at Grant Cottage unique is their sheer scale and survival to the present despite never have been coated in wax, encased or otherwise protected from the onset or in the decades since. Treadway indicated that the two largest pieces are larger than any others known to exist.
Flowers continued to be used in tribute to Grant by his widow, Julia. While staying at the family’s Long Branch, New Jersey cottage, she continued remembering her greatest love through this mourning ritual:
“On an antique cabinet… is a bust in plaster of the brave old soldier… Behind it hangs a wreath of white immortelles -a widow’s first tribute to memory- with a circlet of white ribbon still clinging to it, typical of wedded love. A slender glass filled with geraniums… Every morning this tiny bouquet is gathered… by the lonely wife who kisses the blossoms and tenderly places them before the face of her hero. The faded flowers are dried and, mixed with their own fragrance, go to make those memory-bags so highly prized by the friends on whom they are bestowed.”
For now, these treasures at Grant Cottage will continue to transport visitors to a moment when family, friends, and a nation were in mourning for an American icon. They are tributes not only to a man, but to the character and ideals he lived by. These aging blossoms speak to humanity’s enduring need to grieve and desire to memorialize those they love and respect.
Post by Ben Kemp,Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage Operations Manager
These , our Earth’s perennial flowers—
The fadeless blooms by Poets sung,
Songs, that from Homer’s Age till ours,
Down the aisles of Time have rung—
In many an emblem do we weave
For passionate Remembrance’ sake;
And howe’er we joy, howe’er we grieve,
Sacred pilgrimages make;
For Loss and Grief, the Asphodels
On our graves we mourning lay;
For Memory, the Immortelles—
Our loved ones live for us always.
Death in Life, Life in Death—how we
This, Love’s Faith, keep reverently.
By Laura G. Collins’s from Immortelles and Asphodels (Everlastings) (1898)
More About Grant Cottage
Located immediately below the summit of Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, the cottage and 43-acre site was recently named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.
The cottage is kept as it was during the Grant family’s stay. Open to the public seasonally by the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage, visitors can tour its first-floor original furnishings, decorations, and personal items belonging to Grant.
Tours are scheduled to resume for the season on April 30, 2022. Other artifacts on display include the bed where he died on July 23, 1885 and the mantel clock stopped by Grant’s son Fred at the moment of his father’s death.
Grant Cottage first opened as a historic site in 1890 when it was supported by funds raised by veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The grounds surrounding the Cottage served as a tuberculosis sanitarium beginning in 1914, which in 1945 was converted into a veteran rest camp, until 1960 when it was repurposed and annexed as the Rome State School for disabled children until 1976. The Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage was formed in the fall of 1989 to provide programming and tours, and partner with New York State Parks on site stewardship.
When Ann Rutland Schulze goes to the historic 30 Mile Point Lighthouse at Golden Hill State Park on Lake Ontario, she feels at home.
Inside one of the rooms are black-and-white pictures of a former lighthouse keeper and his family who once lived there. Some show their granddaughter, a little girl named Beverly who grew up to become Ann’s mother.
Not too far away, along the banks of a creek, a teenage boy who was fishing got teased by a friend about that girl who lived in the lighthouse with her grandparents. The boy’s name was Richard Rutland, and he later married Beverly. They had Ann and two other children, Julie and Richard.
Now, Schulze , her husband Martin, and their sons Tyler and Shaun, run a family-owned vineyard and winery about a half-hour away from the lighthouse in the Niagara County town of Burt, where visitors can hear stories of a time when a family of six lived in isolation and simplicity in the lighthouse on a bluff overlooking the lake.
One of their wines even features a picture of the lighthouse.
“My mother certainly enjoyed growing up here, and she was so pleased that this place wasn’t just let go after it was closed,” said Schulze. “This lighthouse has been so beautifully preserved as an emblem of the history of this region. It is the official town seal of Somerset. The downstairs of the lighthouse is the way it was when they lived here. It has what the park has named the “Beverly Room,” which has a wicker crib, a rocking chair, and pictures of Beverly and my great-grandparents.”
The 30 Mile Point Lighthouse, so named because it is 30 miles east of the Niagara River, was built in 1875 to help warn passing ships of dangerous shoals in the lake. It was decommissioned by the federal government in 1958 and its light removed, and in 1984 the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the lighthouse to Golden Hills State Park. The limestone structure is now on the Federal and State Registers of Historic Places.
During the decades that passed in between, the lighthouse was a residence for 13 different keepers and their assorted families whose job it was to keep the light lit. The longest tenured of those, Glenn R. Seeley served from 1903 to 1945 with support from his wife, Cora. The couple had four children and also raised Beverly, their granddaughter, after their daughter passed away in childbirth.
“My mother said it was wonderful place to grow up. She remembered her grandfather whitewashing the lighthouse once a year so it could be better spotted by passing ships and making her a concrete pond so she could have goldfish. Her grandfather would walk her to the nearby one-room schoolhouse. And she remembered that the lighthouse got the first telephone in the area,” said Schulze.
Beverly lived there until age 15, when her grandfather retired and moved the family to the nearby village of Olcott. She later went to college, became a public health nurse, and had a family of her own.
All through her life, Beverly remained connected to the lighthouse, coming there with her family for picnics or other events. “My three boys were in the Boy Scouts, and the troop came to the lighthouse when the U.S. Post Office issued a stamp for it in 1995. She was at the ceremony for that,” Schulze said.
A year later, the not-for-profit Friends of the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse group was formed, to support the preservation of the lighthouse. And in 1998, the light, which had been removed four decades earlier, was restored.
In her handwritten note cards, Beverly recalled the family doing its laundry in a washtub that was originally a copper boiler, and initially having no inside bathroom, only a privy that was cold in the winter. They later got the first inside toilet and telephone in town. She wrote how the children of the assistant keeper, who lived there in a separate residence with his family, taught her how to “swim and fish and play cards.” And that she was so afraid of the massive lightning storms that would cross the lake that she would hide in a closet under the stairs until the crashing passed.
Eventually, Beverly’s health began to fail, and such nostalgic trips to the lighthouse became impossible. Beverly passed away in 2010 at age 80.
Visitors who want to get a taste of lighthouse life can rent the second floor “cottage” of the facility for overnight stays. The former assistant keeper’s quarters, the cottage has a living room with an electric fireplace, bath with an old-fashioned tub, three bedrooms, and an awesome view of Lake Ontario.
Guests will notice the craftsmanship of the building, especially the original wooden double doors, with ornate knobs and lock set. All rentals are made through the website https://newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com/ or by calling 1-800-456-2267.
Click through the slideshow below to get a look inside…
Renters are provided with a private picnic area with a barbecue grill and picnic table. This vacation rental offers a private entrance, kitchen with refrigerator, electric stove, microwave, coffee maker, cooking utensils, silverware and dishes, living room with electric fireplace, couch, two chairs and a writing desk, full bath with an old-fashioned bathtub, three bedrooms with queen size beds and pillows and a view of Lake Ontario that is stunning.
Visitors looking at the lighthouse’s “memory book” will see some entries written by Beverly herself. The lighthouse cottage is more than just a place to stay. It is place of beauty, reflecting lives filled with long nights, hard work, rough waters, violent storms, joy, heartbreak, and family bonds that don’t break.
Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks
About Golden Hill State Park
Located in Niagara County, this park along the Lake Ontario shoreline covers 510 acres. Created in 1962, the park has 59 campsites, six yurts, two pavilions, a new playground, a volleyball court, softball field, two picnic areas, hiking trails, a disc golf course, and a boat launch.
Vacationing in New York has not always been easy for African Americans. For most of the 20th century cultural segregation was the norm. While Jim Crow laws in Southern states were explicit, here in New York there also were known rules of discriminatory racial separation in accommodations that could make finding a cool place on hot summer days challenging.
About an hour’s drive north of New York City, the popular mountain resort area of Greenwood Lake in Orange County near the border with New Jersey dated to the 1870s and for years had been off-limits to Blacks, Jews, and Italians. But in 1919, a change happened. Wanting to relax in this beautiful mountain setting and enjoy themselves without racial hassles, a group of prominent African American families, spearheaded by nine members of the Carlton Street YMCA in Brooklyn joined together to create the first African American vacation resort in the New York State.
Sterling Forest Farms Incorporated purchased 143 acres of land high in the mountains surrounding Greenwood Lake and named it Greenwood Forest Farms. The ‘Colony’ as it came to be known was to become the summer place to be for African Americans well into the 1960s.
By the mid-1930s, Greenwood Forest Farms was well on its way to becoming the place to be seen during the summer months. A July 1938 headline in the Black-owned New York Amsterdam News boasted “Greenwood Lake May Become East’s Most Fashionable Summer Colony.” A full-page story covered details of the site’s founding, and reporter Thelma Berlack-Boozer was given tours of several cottages, gardens, and all the amenities. At the time there were twenty-eight cottages set in beautifully landscaped gardens with thirty-five other lots in development. The writer described the wonderful natural forest surrounding the location, the luxurious summer furnishings on expansive porches and lovely interiors, the corporation’s plans, and how those who happened to not own cottages still could enjoy time there.
The corporation built a club house called the ‘Farm House’ where vacationers could enjoy live music, dancing, and a restaurant. For those who did not own a cottage, the Farm House was one of three locations where vacationists could rent rooms. The other two were private cottages which rented bedrooms during the summer, with one of those, the Justice House, opened during the winter for those interested in hunting. An August 1941 ad offered lodging at the Farm House for $15 per week or $4 for the weekend, with a car shuttle leaving from Harlem on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays to make traveling upstate easy. The plan was completely upscale, to the point that in the 1940s the colony generated its own electricity. When completed the Colony had a man-made lake, tennis, and hand-ball courts, and a nursey school for everyone’s use.
New York’s Black elite both owned the properties and visited their friends. Luminaries like Cecil McPherson (Cecil Mack) the famous lyricist and music publishing magnate, and his wife Dr. Gertrude Curtis, New York’s first African American woman dentist owned a cottage there. The poet Langston Hughes was among several literary figures who summered there with friends. Civil rights giants James Farmer, Harold W. Cruse, and Robert J. Elzy, the head of Brooklyn’s Urban League were among the property owners and guests.
If people wanted to know where to find the cream of the crop during the warmer months, society columns in the New York Amsterdam News kept people up to date. In 1933 the paper’s Brooklyn Society column informed all that the Elzys could be found at their cottage ‘Rob-Lou,’ and that Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Webster, and their weekend guests from Baltimore motored up to the Greenwood Forest Farm House on Sunday. Mrs. Willard J. Price and her daughters spent the week as guests of Mrs. Walter Taylor of Greenwood. The Jamaica News and Social Briefs shared that Mrs. Gordon Jones and her daughter, were at Sterling Forest Farm for the summer but had returned to Jamaica.
By the late 1960s as the older generation died, and options for vacation locations expanded for African Americans with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the opening up of public accommodations, fewer people ventured up to Greenwood Forest Farms. In the 1970s the famous Farm House was lost to a mysterious fire, but many families continued to vacation and live there year-round.
In 2007, the Greenwood Forest Farms Association, Inc was created by descendants of original property owners to preserve the legacy of the colony. Although diminished, Greenwood Forest Farms today remains a proud hamlet of the Town of Warwick and has a few multi-generational residents.
Today, New York State Paths through History signs can be found along Nelson Road in the Town of Warwick commemorating Greenwood Forest Farm’s amazing story of resilience and joy. And this historic place is now preserved for the people of New York.
On January 11, 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a 130-acre expansion of Sterling Forest State Park, with a portion of the land belonging to Greenwood Forest Farms. Now with the designation of this land as a State Park, awareness of the legacy of the area will grow.
As State Parks celebrates Black History Month, we are reminded that this property tells the story of a time when racial segregation in the North was found around Greenwood Lake. It reflects part of a long journey to today, when State Parks is committed to the message that “All Are Welcome Here.”
Cover Shot – Historic marker for Greenwood Forest Farms (Photo credit – Woodham, Rebecca. “”The Colony” Historical Marker (Greenwood Forest Farms).” Clio: Your Guide to History. December 27, 2017. Accessed Jan. 20, 2022. https://theclio.com/entry/53333)
Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, Bureau of Historic Sites, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Read this 2005 article from the Warwick Historical Papers newsletter.
Learn about upcoming Parks programming on Black History Month. Events include the lighting of Niagara Falls red, green, and black to honor Black History Month on February 13th. The colors will be displayed every 15 minutes hourly between 6 and 11 p.m.
Learn more about Black history in New York State in previous posts on the the NYS Parks Blog:
Established in 1998, Sterling Forest State Park covers nearly 22,000 acres of nearly pristine natural refuge amidst of one of the nation’s most densely populated areas, a remarkable piece of woodland, a watershed for millions, and a tremendous outdoor recreation area. This unbroken deep-forest habitat is important for the survival of many resident and migratory species, including black bear, a variety of hawks and songbirds and many rare invertebrates and plants. Hunting, fishing and hiking opportunities are available.
The park’s Senator Frank R. Lautenberg Visitor Center overlooks the nine-mile long Sterling Lake and features exhibits about the local environment as well as an auditorium for related presentations.
The park has more than 80 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail. It offers opportunities for horseback riding (permit required), hunting (permit required), fishing, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ice fishing.
The park also is part of the Sterling Forest Bird Conservation Area, and includes such species as Peregrine Falcon (endangered), Pied-billed Grebe (threatened), Least Bittern (threatened), American Bittern (special concern), Osprey (special concern), Sharp-shinned Hawk (special concern), Cooper’s Hawk (special concern) Northern Goshawk (special concern), Red-shouldered Hawk (special concern), Common Nighthawk (special concern), Whip-poor-will (special concern), Red-headed Woodpecker (special concern), Horned Lark (special concern), Golden-winged Warbler (special concern), Cerulean Warbler (special concern), and Yellow-breasted Chat (special concern). Numerous other species contribute to the diversity of birds within the BCA including Broad-winged Hawk, Acadian Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, Worm-eating Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Pine Warbler, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Hooded Warbler, Canada Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and Purple Finch.
Greenwood Lake May Become East’s Most Fashionable Summer Colony, Thelma Berlack-Boozer, The New York Amsterdam News, July 23, 1938, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, pg. 10.
Brooklyn Society, Elzys ‘Rob-Lou,’ The New York Amsterdam News, September 6, 1933; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, page 11.
Brooklyn Society, Mr. & Mrs. Webster, The New York Amsterdam News, July 12, 1933; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, page 11.
Jamaica News and Social Briefs, The New York Amsterdam News, July 23, 1928; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Amsterdam News, page 9.
A custom energy-efficient LED lighting system that produces a rainbow of colors nightly at Niagara Falls State Park is a far cry from the simple technology used at the start of the Civil War when the falls were illuminated for the first time in honor of a visiting English prince.
The evening of Sept. 14, 1860, the falls were lit up for a short time using so-called Bengal lights, which were a centuries-old type of chemical flare that burned with bluish light. While it worked for the prince’s visit, this short-term and cumbersome method of lighting the falls was not to be used again.
A few years later, a new technology developed during the recently concluded Civil War came to the world-famous falls. Spotlights used then were powered by heating up piles of calcium quicklime until it glowed brightly, which is the origin of the phrase of putting something “in the limelight.” Union forces had used such spotlights during the war to illuminate Confederate positions at night.
The emerging technology of electric lights arrived at the falls in 1879 to herald the arrival of an official couple from the government of Canada. More than two decades then passed before Walter D’Arcy Ryan, an innovative lighting engineer with Schenectady-based General Electric Co., designed a massive new searchlight system in 1907 that used colored gelatin films changed by hand to project different colors onto the face of the falls.
For 30 nights in a row in 1907, Ryan used 44 searchlights with colored filters, and powered with steam engines, to illuminate the entirety of Niagara Falls for the first time. Following this acclaimed success, he was named head of GE’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratory, the world’s first institution for research into lighting, created the following year in Schenectady.
According to the New York Tribune of Sept. 5, 1907, Niagara Falls looked far more dramatic lit up at night such that “words fail to describe the magnificence of the spectacle”. Another observer wrote: “It was a riot of glorious beauty, so new, so strange, so marvelous – so like some unearthly and unexplained magic that it held the spectator startled, then spellbound, speechless and delighted.”
Ryan’s system was incredibly powerful for its day, producing more than 1 billion candela (a measurement of luminous intensity). That was the equivalent to more 8.3 million standard 110-watt lightbulbs!
By then, the illumination of the falls was proving to be an increasingly popular attraction, and in 1925 a joint U.S.-Canadian group was formed to manage and operate lighting – the Niagara Falls Illumination Board. The five-member board saw to it that new, even more powerful electric lights were installed for a ceremony that year. Lights were upgraded again in 1958, 1974, and 1997.
Today, visitors to Niagara Falls State Park are witnessing the work of an array of energy efficient LED lights that was installed in 2016. This $4 million custom system produces any color desired and has twice as much illumination as the previous lights, producing an enormous 8 billion candela. (For the lighting techies, that is more than eight times more powerful that the turn-of-the-century GE system, equivalent to the illumination from 66.6 million standard 110-watt lightbulbs!)
The array contains 12,600 LED lights, evenly divided among red, blue, green, and white. Red, blue, and green are the primary colors of light in physics and adjusting the ratios of each produces the full palette of colors. When all three colors are equally combined, that produces white light. The system at Niagara is powerful enough to span the 1,900 feet needed to reach the both the American and Horseshoe Falls.
Click this slideshow below to see aspects of the LED array, including a close-up of the lights, their appearance once grouped, and use in action.
This unique custom system was designed by a consortium of companies including ECCO Electric Ltd., Salex Inc., Mulvey & Banani Lighting Inc., Sceneworks, and Stanley Electric. To test whether the LEDs could cast beams of light the distance needed, the crew successfully tested mockup systems across a lake in Ontario and along an abandoned aircraft runway!
The lights are operated via computer but can also be operated by two staff members who watch guard over the lights each night. They can even be programmed to perform shows such as “Inspired by Nature” which features colors and movements inspired by nature, including the sunrise, aurora borealis, rainbows and sunset.
Today the world-famous falls are lit up every night of the year in an ever-changing light show, the colors chosen to reflect a wide variety of causes, events, and people, all of which reviewed and approved by the board.
On June 15th, 2021, for example, the falls were illuminated in the official New York State colors of blue and gold in celebration of reaching 70 percent of New York adults receiving their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
In 2016, when Queen Elizabeth turned 90 on April 21, the falls were colored purple in her honor. It did cause a bit of unintended confusion. The musician formerly known as Prince, who was closely associated with purple, died the same day so many people mistakenly thought the lighting was for him!
Other recent illumination highlights might be less well-known, including highlighting of the Republic of Bashkortostan, Wrongful Conviction Day, and Dress Purple Day, Bullying Prevention Month, Latvian Independence Day, and Dysautonomia awareness.
The falls have been illuminated blue to mark playoff appearances of the NFL Buffalo Bills, purple and gold to mark the tragic death of NBA star Kobe Bryant, a combination of red, white, and gold to honor the Canada’s gold-medal Olympic women’s soccer team, and blue and green for the Canadian professional basketball team Niagara River Lions.
The falls also have been lighted green for St. Patrick’s Day, rainbow colors for Pride Month, blue to mark the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and red to welcome Chinese New Year.
One night a year, March 26, the falls go dark for an hour in honor of Earth Hour, a global initiative aimed at drawing attending to ongoing human-induced climate change. Click on the slideshow below to see some of Niagara Fall’s amazing colors!
With the ability to shine light through mist and flood both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls with every color under the sky, the nightly illumination is the highlight of any visit to Niagara.
Hours of illumination vary by seasonal timing of nightfall, starting between 4:30 and 8:30 p.m., and wrapping up from 1 to 2 a.m. With the earlier nightfall in winter, the falls are illuminated earlier in the evening. When the falls freeze in the winter, creating massive ice formations, the lights take on another beautiful dimension.
The Illumination Board is an example of international cooperation between the U.S. and Canada, with its membership consisting of New York State Parks, Niagara Parks (Canada), the New York Power Authority, Ontario Hydro (Canada) and the cities of Niagara Falls in both the U.S. and Canada, which pay annual dues to cover the expenses associated with this special attraction.
The group is also charged with fulfilling requests for lighting for charitable organizations, special causes, global events, and other special occasions. As the Falls is such a global icon, hundreds of requests are received each year.
Under board rules, requests cannot be considered for commercial purposes, personal occasions like birthdays or marriage proposals, religious or political events, and institutions, such as hospitals and schools.
Be sure to include an overnight on your next visit to Niagara Falls to catch the illumination. Pro tip: The best viewing from the American side is from Terrapin Point or Prospect Point.
Check out the schedule of lightings and learn more about the nightly illumination here.
Post by Angela Berti, Marketing and Public Affairs Coordinator, Niagara Region, NYS Parks
Watch this Youtube video below by Mulvey & Banani Lighting to learn more about how the Niagara Falls are illuminated…
Learn more about the color of light from the American Museum of Natural History.
Click below for a slideshow of historic Niagara Falls’ postcards showing its illumination…