By David E. Hubler
‘. . . it was time to see some of the rest of New York’s 30.2
If you were born and raised in any of the five boroughs, you’re a New Yorker, no need to expand on that; few will ever question whether you mean City or State. In fact, it might jar your sensibilities to hear someone actually refer to New York City when speaking of Gotham, the Big A or Manhattan.
Now, after many years of bearing up to hear out-of-towners (anyone with less than three decades living in a New York apartment) speak of “New York City,” I felt it was time to see some of the rest of New York’s 30.2 million acres, especially as I no longer live in the City.
As a long-time lover of trains, Lionel and IRT, my wife and I took Amtrak’s Empire Service to Niagara Falls, Ontario, one lovely autumn day last year. It was just about as far as you could travel by rail and remain in New York State and the U.S. The next major stop is Toronto.
For the uninitiated — that includes the many Manhattanites who rarely venture off the island — there are actually two Niagara Falls, one in the U.S. and the other just across the border in Canada.
After a slow-moving line to clear Canadian Customs and Immigration, for which we needed a U.S. passport, while still in Manhattan we boarded the train at Penn Station. So much for the historic “open border” between the two North American allies. Times have indeed changed.
Unlike air travel, business class tickets on Amtrak put you and some dozen or so other passengers in the rear end of the last car of the train, the club car. It’s done by design because soft drinks, coffee and tea are complimentary for those of us willing to shell out a few additional bucks. The concession attendant can easily distinguish us from the 150 or so other passengers because only business class travelers can approach him from that end of the train.
Clearing the Labyrinth of Tunnels
Once clear of Penn Station and the labyrinth of tunnels under the city, we emerged in the Bronx on the edge of the Hudson River. The tracks run parallel to the river all the way to Albany, passing through the northern edge of the Bronx, aka Riverdale to the locals, who insist on estrangement from the only one of the five boroughs that is actually connected to the mainland. Well, why not boast a bit? The Bronx is home to the nation’s first public golf course adjacent to Van Cortlandt Park, where the NYC Parks Department once erected the only ski slope within the City limits. Alas, it did not make the cut as a Winter Olympics venue.
Around Poughkeepsie the river widens dramatically. No wonder that that stretch of the Hudson was the site of the annual Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships in the 1920s and ‘30s. It was a huge sport then, eclipsing collegiate football and basketball attendance, perhaps because spectators had unobstructed views of the length of the race lanes. Railroad flat cars running parallel to the course equipped with temporary bleacher stands carried the most avid rowing fans from starting mark to the finish line and back again, like being in an outdoor, movable Madison Square Garden.
It was on this stretch of the Hudson that nine members of an upstart crew from the University of Washington won the 1936 IRA Championship and earned a sail to Germany, where they beat Hitler’s pride but not so much joy in the Berlin Olympics (The Huskies’ triumph is recounted in Daniel James Brown’s riveting book, The Boys in the Boat.)
At Albany the train makes a left turn and we head northwest into the heart of Upstate New York, making stops at Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. We had hoped to catch the fall change of colors around the Adirondacks area, but autumn was going to be late this year. Everything was still lush and very green.
Several hours later, we made the final stop in the U.S. at Niagara Falls, N.Y., where we were all told, “We’ll be here for a while, folks, might has well get off and stretch your legs.” The stop turned out to be longer than those at Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo combined. When we all reboarded and got underway, the last leg of our nearly nine-hour journey was all of ten minutes when we pulled into the Niagara Falls, Ontario, train station. You can’t see (or hear) the Falls from the station, a small disappointment. Seeing and hearing the roaring falls in films and on TV, they sound like thunder, audible for many miles away. But we were greeted with a small town silence like arriving in Ottumwa, Iowa, at 4 a.m. in a non-presidential primary year. I was surprised too that no one was there to check our passports, and then I remembered the long, early morning line at Penn Station.
What is it about water that drives us to it? Sure, water is necessary to sustain life. But that’s the existential answer. There are other, often unfathomable reasons why we love to be near water, to erect homes beside water that can turn into mighty flood waters in a minute and wash a lifetime away. In a few words, water fascinates us, calms us and mystifies us, perhaps nowhere more than at Niagara Falls.
Falls Viewing from All Sides
We participated in just about every Falls-related attraction available, viewing it from above in our hotel room, on the water decked out in plastic raincoats, behind the falls in dank, hollowed-out stone viewing areas and even on the serene shoreline of Lake Ontario in the village of Niagara-on-the-Lake before the placid water gathers speed and plunges some 167 feet into a roaring, roiling, mist-rising gorge. The world’s largest natural jacuzzi.
I’ll admit, the Falls mesmerized us. We couldn’t stop looking at what basically was simply water falling off a cliff. Of course it had been doing that for countless millennia. Breakfast, lunch and dinner – all meals enjoyably eaten before an unforgettable vista.
Not a bad way to get out of the City for a few days.