Heritage architecture

Modern architecture

Mayors' Neighbourhood


Parks and trails

Bed and breakfasts

High-rise condos?

Multi-building motels?



Contact us

What’s wrong with this picture? It shows the entrance to a house that fronts on River Road near where Eastwood Crescent dead-ends. Like the other houses on this stretch of River Road, this one sits far up the steep hill from the street. Most have high retaining walls right at the sidewalk, where steps begin up the hill. But not this property. Here there is a good 20 ft, maybe 7 m, of level ground between the sidewalk and the flight of 18 steps. The flat area looks nice in spring, when crocuses are in bloom. But why is it there?

Maybe the photo at right brings the puzzle into clearer focus, without the distraction of spring flowers. What an odd lot grading and drainage plan! Here is the only street-level patch of grass on the west side of River Road for blocks in either direction. Why is it there?

The historic origin of River Road

To answer this question, we go back two and a half centuries, to the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which established the border between the newly independent United States and the remaining British colonies that would later become Canada. The border ran through the middle of Lake Ontario and the middle of Lake Erie – and through the middle of the deep, narrow, turbulent waterway connecting the two lakes, 58 km (36 mi) long, namely the Niagara River. This has been the international boundary ever since.

If the United States were ever to invade Canada (as actually happened in the War of 1812), the shortest route would be across the Niagara River. Britain therefore saw a need to defend this border, and for this purpose reserved to the Crown a strip of land one chain wide – 66 feet or 20 m – all along its side of the river. This was called the “chain reserve.” The idea was to build a road on the full length of the chain reserve, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, on which troops and weaponry could easily move for defense. The chain reserve and the road still exist, controlled since 1885 by the Ontario government through the Niagara Parks Commission. The road is called the Niagara Parkway. The section within the city limits of Niagara Falls is called River Road.

Building the road on the chain reserve was fairly easy on the level ground at the two ends: between Lake Erie and the falls on the south, and between present-day Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake on the north. The hard part was in between: the craggy, uneven, up-and-down, escarpment section from the falls to Queenston, along the gorge. Here the road-builders had to carve out a shelf or ledge for the road, with the gorge precipice on one side, a steep upward slope on the other. This is the ledge River Road still rests on, more than two centuries later, on the long hill ascending from Hiram Street, at the south end of the River Road Heritage Neighbourhood, all the way up to Simcoe Street. As you drive north, you have a sheer drop of 200 feet or more on your right, and on your left, houses at elevations well above street level.

Now for the answer to the question at the start: why the flat stretch of ground in front of the steps leading up to this one house? The answer is that for some years beginning in 1848, tolls were collected for use of this section of River Road. The ledge for the road was widened at this point to make room for a gatehouse. The building is long gone, but the level ground on which it was built remains, a curbside curiosity that is as good an introduction as any to the fascinating history of one of Canada’s oldest streets.

Lag in construction of the neighbourhood

While River Road is older than the towns that were joined in 1904 to create the city of Niagara Falls, the residential area it defines is decades younger. The map below (from the Canadian County Atlas Digital Project at McGill) shows local settlements in 1876. At lower left is the village of Drummondville, centred at the corner of Lundy's Lane and Main Street (Portage Road). At upper right is the larger village of Clifton, what is now the Queen Street business district. Notice, however, that there is not much in between these two villages. River Road runs along the gorge, and you can see the railroad tracks where the Olympic Torch Trail is now, but there is not much sign of a neighbourhood.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, and especially after amalgamation of Drummondville and Clifton into the City of Niagara Falls in 1904, one house after another was built on lots between River Road and Ontario Avenue. The area did not develop as an exclusive neighbourhood. There were mansions, but also cottages, duplexes, and small apartment buildings. Most dwellings were single-family, but some residents operated "tourist homes." In 1905, Lee McGlashan built his large home (since demolished) on River Road at Simcoe St. overlooking the gorge, but his silverware factory, probably the most famous in Canada (see ad below), was just a couple of blocks away on Palmer Avenue, at the edge of the neighbourhood he lived in.

A proper enclave for the rich has to be set apart, isolated from the hoi polloi. The River Road Neighbourhood could never qualify, on account of its principal street being a thoroughfare used by all classes of pedestrians and motorists. Between 1895 and 1935,
moreover, the tracks of an international electric railway, the Niagara Gorge Belt Line, ran down River Road. The photo at left shows the McMurray-Menzie House (built in 1893, it still stands), and on the right a streetcar carrying tourists to the falls. A fact-filled article in Maclean's in 1939, "The City Behind the Falls," applauded the railway's recent demise. The traveller, it said, "may promenade along River Road, developed into one of the world's most beautiful walks, since the old International Railway was abandoned, its tracks torn up and replaced by a wide avenue, with a waist-high native stone wall on the Gorge side."

Dodging the expressway bullet

In the decades after World War II, the population of the River Road Neighbourhood increased with construction of housing on what had been vacant land, railroad right-of-way, on the west side of Ontario Avenue. A handful of small apartment buildings were built, and about 40 single-family homes. This infilling strengthened the neighbourhood, since it brought in more young families.

The main threat to the neighbourhood in the postwar decades was the prospect of widening River Road and turning it into a limited-access, dual-lane expressway. A mania for superhighways swept across North America in the 1950s and 1960s. Established neighbourhoods were bulldozed and paved over in city after city. In 1962, the Robert Moses Parkway opened along the gorge in Niagara Falls, New York, displacing more than a hundred grand old homes.

On this side of the border, the Niagara Parks Commission, the Crown corporation that owns River Road, gave serious consideration to building a similar expressway. You can imagine how relieved residents of the River Road Neighbourhood were in 1964, when the Niagara Falls Review headlined an article, "River Rd. Expressway Rejected." The city's mayor had reported abandonment by the Niagara Parks Commission of its plan to widen River Road, lest the street become a "highspeed expressway." It would instead remain a "scenic drive."

Probably one reason River Road was saved is that two separate governmental authorities share jurisdiction. The Niagara Parks Commission still owns the chain reserve, and on it River Road, but Ontario’s Municipal Act gives ownership of the remaining streets in the neighbourhood, as well as control of utilities, zoning, planning, and so on, to the City of Niagara Falls. Whatever the reason, River Road has remained much as it was in 1939. Meanwhile, the Robert Moses Parkway on the American side is now generally considered to have been a big mistake. Most of it is closed. In 2018-2019, at huge expense, a two-mile stretch of it across from the River Road Neighbourhood has been removed.

Encroachment from the south end

Beginning in the 1960s, a threat of a different kind to the River Road Neighbourhood arose at its southern boundary, Hiram Street. In 1962, local entrepreneurs John and Millicent Gruyich proposed to build a 130-room hotel fronting River Road between Hiram and John Streets. Their project would require rezoning that block from residential to commercial. Their proposal was eventually approved. Named Michael’s Inn in honour of Millicent’s deceased brother, the hotel opened in 1965. It became a fixture of Niagara Falls tourism. It endures to this day, though under new ownership since 2012 and with a new name, the Travelodge Fallsview.

On its way to being approved, the Michael’s Inn project was the subject of a 1962 hearing before the Ontario Municipal Board. The Review covered this hearing in detail. Its headline, “Future of River Rd.,” was apt, because the hearing crystallized two opposing visions. On one side, business interests argued that River Road, beginning at its south end, should be allowed to “go commercial,” that the homes along it were out of date and no longer desirable as places to live. On the other side, homeowners argued that this “is a fine residential area” and that residents “prefer keeping their homes to selling them for commercial gain.”

These two competing visions for the area have been at war ever since. Business interests won the block between Hiram and John, where Michael’s Inn was built. For the next block to the north, between John and Philip, a stalemate has endured even to the present day. The heritage homes in that block were eventually bought by a developer, then left vacant and neglected to the point that in 2014, residents successfully petitioned the city to have them demolished. No new construction, residential or commercial, has taken place. High-rise condo towers have been proposed at least since 2006, with logic similar to that used by business interests in 1962. Residents have organized in opposition, making arguments similar to those set forth by an earlier generation of residents half a century ago.

The neighbourhood's character and charm endure

The 1939 article in Maclean's brings home to the reader how much the city of Niagara Falls has changed over the past 80 years. The population has gone from 20,000 to 90,000, and from overwhelmingly British to a mix of British, Italian, French, German, and many other ethnicities. Geographically, the city has expanded in all directions except east (where the gorge and border remain fixed). Stamford and Chippawa have been annexed. One subdivision after another has been built, and numerous mid-rise apartment buildings. The Niagara Square Shopping Centre, strip malls, and then big-box stores have lured retail sales away from the old downtowns. Most important, as symbolized by the hotel towers in Fallsview, the main basis of the economy has shifted from manufacturing to tourism. In recent years, the city's largest employers have been the two casinos and hotel conglomerates.

In the midst of these revolutionary changes, the River Road Neighbourhood has stayed about the same. Except for Michael's Inn at the south end, River Road and the side streets look today much as they did in 1939. Some heritage homes have been replaced by new ones, and houses now line both sides of Ontario Avenue. The overall character of the neighbourhood, its feel or ambience, remains much as it was 80 or 100 years ago. This character is more special – more distinctive, unusual, exceptional – now than it was then, on account of its contrast with the suburban neighbourhoods and apartment towers where most Canadians live now. Hence the allure of this neighbourhood to anybody, whether resident or tourist, respectful and fond of this city's heritage.

In an important way entirely consistent with its character, this district has changed for the better. Replacement of the old Michigan Central tracks with the Olympic Torch Trail in the first decade of the new millennium has measurably enhanced the quality of life in the adjacent neighbourhoods.

Official status of the neighbourhood

Legally, in terms of the city's Official Plan, this area is called the River Road Satellite District. Its boundaries are essentially the same (see the zoning map below) as those described on the homepage of this website. According to the Official Plan (¶ 4.2.5), this district "shall continue to function as an established residential area with many older homes offering Bed & Breakfast facilities. Alternative accommodations of this nature are appropriate for this area providing the residential character of the neighbourhood is maintained." This plan for the neighbourhood, arising from the city's study of the area in 1980, seems to have stood the test of time. Little if any opposition to it, except for two blocks at the south end, has been voiced in the past ten years.

Current challenges

Other sections of this website address current challenges to the River Road Neighbourhood, notably proposed construction of condo towers on the long-disputed block of River Road between John and Philip, and the "airbnb" phenomenon of vacation rentals and multi-building motels. The purpose here has been to provide an historical perspective in which current challenges can be better understood.

Thanks to our neighbour Debra Jackson and to Niagara Falls's official town crier, Patrick Sirianni, for retrieving historical information used for this webpage. In a more general way, thanks to Sherman Zavitz, John Burtniak, Peter Watson, and others in the Lundy's Lane Historical Society for their books, articles and collections on Niagara Falls history, which have shaped this newcomer's overall understanding of our city's past.

Forward to Parks and trails                           Back to Home