It all just floats on…

I love to walk by the Niagara River. Yesterday, as I was headed to the Holiday Inn to go swimming, I looked intently at the water, which reflected the vast blueness of the sky. It was a delight to watch the ducks paddling around in the water. It’s fun to watch them dive headfirst into the water, with their little backsides wobbling in the air, as if they were straight out of the comics. I saw the geese parading along the shoreline. I saw people, too, riding on their bicycles, walking their dogs, mowing their lawns, checking their mail. It’s a real gift, these sunny October days. We know that the air is just going to get colder and that only the stubborn walkers, such as I, will be left to walk along the shores of the river and wonder what’s beneath all of that ice.

So. The Niagara River. It is beautiful, powerful, and the stuff of legend. When I walk in Buckhorn Island State Park, there is a spot from which I can see the mist that rises from Niagara Falls. It is an amazing thing to see this gigantic mist rising from across the river. Niagara Falls, of course, is even more awe-inspiring up close. Niagara Falls has its share of stories and legends. There have been many stories of people climbing into barrels and going over the falls. I suppose that would be an exciting way to spend an afternoon although just the thought of it is enough to inspire feelings of motion sickness in me!

One of these legends about Niagara Falls concerns a young maid of the Neuter tribe, Lelawalo. She was the chief’s daughter, and she was sacrificed by being placed in a canoe filled with food, which was then sent over the falls.  To keep her from smashing into the rocks, one of the sons of a god caught her in his arms. In her new world, the maiden was told by one of the sons of a god that a malevolent snake lived in this watery world and that the snake was poisonous and that he was going to poison all of the drinking water. The people would keel over and die! Eventually, men killed the snake with spears. The snake died in the shape of a horseshoe. Apparently, that is the story behind the Horseshoe Falls being in that particular shape.

You’re probably wondering why I mentioned this legend.

Well, I’m mentioning it because of the story about a malevolent snake, that became poisonous and threatened to poison all of the drinking water. Many years later, the poisonous snake must have appeared in human form or in the form of industry. Until fairly recently, the river was full of toxic substances, dumped, not by legendary snakes, but by chemical companies and other industries. The dangerous compounds in the river included PCBs, mercury, dioxin, arsenic, lead, and pesticides. It was a pretty toxic soup. The Niagara River connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Lake Erie, for sure, has had its own environmental problems as well. At one point, it is alleged that Lake Erie caught on fire. There is some dispute about that. Some people say that the lake caught on fire, while other people say, no, it was just some junk in the lake that caught on fire. Still. Stuff doesn’t usually catch on fire when it’s floating in water so there must have been something flammable (or inflammable??? why do they mean the same thing???) in the water that shouldn’t have been in there.

I’ve been reading about efforts to clean up the Niagara River. Back in 1987, the United States and Canada worked together on a cooperative transboundary management plan to reduce the emissions of toxic waste into the Niagara River. And, indeed, the amount of contaminants in the river has been lessening to the point that there is fish in the river once again.These efforts at cleaning the river continue to this day.

When I walk through Buckhorn Island State Park, I pass people with fishing rods, hoping to catch something in the river. Sometimes, I walk close enough to the water to see schools of tiny fish swimming in the river. I’m not sure that I would eat the fish that came out of the Niagara River but you never know. Perhaps it is edible. I’d like to think that is so. I’d like to think that we have come a long ways since the days when chemical companies located along Buffalo Avenue in Niagara Falls felt that it was OK to build pipelines and dump untreated waste directly into the river. I’d like to think that the latter-day malevolent snake of the river has been tamed and that it is no longer poisoning the water because water is supposed to maintain life, not to bring about death..

Soon it will be winter. There will be ice in the river and ice chunks going over the falls. It will be beautiful. And, I hope,that it will be, if not this year, then at some point in the future, safe and not contaminated with that malevolent snake’s poisons.

Note: This post is part of Church World Service’s blog action day. Check it out at:


Archaeology in your Backyard

Last Thursday, the featured speaker at the Grand Island Historical Society was Peter Jablonski, a teacher and an owner of an antique store. During his copious free time (I once had a teacher who liked that phrase a lot!), he searches out the sites of old privies, and he does archaeological digs.

Peter explained that, in the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as regular garbage pickup. When stuff got broken, people threw it down the hole in the outhouse (also called the privy).  Just about everything went into the hole, including glass jars, pottery, broken toys, smashed mirrors, and other stuff. When people switched to indoor plumbing, the privies were torn down. Peter described how the privies are located. You take a spring-handled metal rod and stick the probe into the ground. In Niagara County, the privies were usually stone-lined and, thus, easy to locate. Buffalo privies were usually wood-lined, and those linings were more likely to decompose than were the stone-lined privies.

The objects that were found in the privies told the story of a time gone by. These objects included decorated stoneware with a salt glaze. Most of the stoneware were decorated with birds or flowers. Any stoneware with other types of decorations could be quite valuable. Peter said that a man fixed stoneware decorated with a lion, and he got $8,000 when it was sold at auction. Other objects included:

  • broken dolls
  • clay marbles (“Someone literally lost their marbles,” Peter said.)
  • pieces of a piano
  • pieces of a gun
  • oil lamps (people carried these at night and, on occasion, dropped them down the hole, leaving them in darkness)
  • spittoons
  • chamberpots
  • hairbrushes
  • bone-handled toothbrushes
  • a mixing bowl with seaweed
  • an 1830s piece of mochaware with an earthworm pattern with cat eyes (the mochaware was highly colored pottery)
  • a human tooth with a cavity
  • a cow tooth

Much of the bottles that were found in the privies came from two major Western New York glass houses. One was in Lockport (near the Erie Canal), and the other was in Lancaster (near a railroad line). The glass was made by master blowers, who used a wooden mold and a rod to produce the bottles. Eventually, glass was made by machine, rather than by master blowers. Most of the milk bottles were machine made.

One type of bottle was a soda bottle that was designed by William Hutchinson. When the bale was pushed in on a bottle of Hutchinson soda, it created a popping sound. Hence the term “pop” started being used as a name for “soft drink.”  I always wondered about that. Now I know why we say “pop” when talking about carbonated beverages.

I had thought that “Pop” was just another name for “Dad.” I got that idea from Dr. Seuss’ famous book “Hop on Pop.” (“I like to hop. I like to hop on top of Pop. Stop! You must not hop on Pop!”)

But I digress.

So. Back to the privies. It turns out that the best way to date a privy is by figuring out the ages of the bottles. People kept china for generations before throwing out the broken pieces. Coins, also, might have been kept for years. The bottles, on the other hand, were thrown out immediately after usage.

Some of the bottles were interesting. In Niagara Falls, a suspension bridge collapsed in 1889. Before that disaster, the bridge was quite a sight and something for local companies to use in their own advertising. The owners of a neighboring pharmacy had the words suspension bridge engraved on their bottles.

Another interesting privy story: Peter told us about the Society of Historical Archaeologists’ excavation on Johnson Island in Lake Erie, near Cleveland. Evidence was found that confederate prisoners, who were held there during the Civil War, had tried to tunnel through the privy. They were apparently attempting to escape.

All in all, it was an interesting presentation. Who would have ever guessed that an outhouse could be so fascinating?