Time Travel: Niagara Falls, 1883

Journeys in space and time with The Atlantic. Today: A couple returning to where they got married struggles to accept change and modernization.

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In the May 1883 issue of The Atlantic, William Dean Howells recounts a married couple's journey back to the place they got married: Niagara Falls. 12 years after saying their I-do's the couple returns with their children, hoping to "find their lost second-youth on the track" and introduce their children to the wonder they had discovered years before.

As the family travels by train from Boston, the couple struggles to balance nostalgia with disappointment, noting how things have changed as they've aged. It turns out the it's-not-what-it-used-to-be syndrome that travelers often feel is nothing new:

It scarcely seemed to Basil and Isabel that their fellow passengers were so interesting as their fellow-passengers used to be in their former days of travel. They were soberly dressed, and were all of a middle-aged sobriety of deportment, from which nothing salient offered itself for conjecture or speculation; and there was little within the car to take their minds from the brilliant young world that flashed and sang by them outside. The belated spring had ripened, with its frequent rains, into the perfection of early summer; the grass was thicker and the foliage denser than they had ever seen it before; and when they had run out into the hills beyond Fitchburg, they saw the laurel in bloom. It was everywhere in the woods, lurking like drifts among the underbrush, and overflowing the tops, and stealing down the hollows, of the railroad embankments; a snow of blossom flushed with a mist of pink. Its shy, wild beauty ceased whenever the train stopped, but the orioles made up for its absence with their singing in the village trees about the stations; and though Fitchburg and Ayer's Junction and Athol are not names that invoke historical or romantic associations, the hearts of Basil and Isabel began to stir with the joy of travel before they had passed these points.

Their experiences throughout the trip elicit both joy and disappointment. The Niagara River's rapids have dwindled, the surrounding area has succumbed to commerce, and fewer couples have come to marry. Still, once the family reaches the Falls, the water's power is impressive:

They drove directly to the cataract, and found themselves in the pretty grove beside the American Fall, and in the air whose dampness was as familiar as if they had breathed it all their childhood. It was full now of the fragrance of some sort of wild blossom; and again they had that old, entrancing sense of the mingled awfulness and loveliness of the great spectacle. This sylvan perfume, the gayety of the sunshine, the mildness of the breeze that stirred the leaves overhead, and the bird-singing that made itself heard amid the roar of the Rapids and the solemn incessant plunge of the cataract, moved their hearts, and made them children with the boy and girl, who stood rapt for a moment and then broke into joyful wonder. They could sympathize with the ardor with which Tom longed to tempt fate at the brink of the river, and over the tops of the parapets which have been built along the edge of the precipice, and they equally entered into the terror with which Bella screamed at his suicidal zeal. They joined her in restraining him; they reduced him to a beggarly account of half a dozen stones, flung into the Rapids at not less than ten paces from the brink; and they would not let him toss the smallest pebble over the parapet, though he laughed to scorn the notion that anybody should be hurt by them below.

Continue reading Howell's piece, "Niagara Revisited—Twelve Years After Their Wedding Journey."

Image: Library of Congress

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Rebecca Greenfield is a former staff writer at The Wire.

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