“I have seen Niagara!”

Lavinia Goodell, September 20, 1861

Although people tend to think of Lavinia Goodell as a very serious woman who devoted her life to working to advance causes such as women’s rights, temperance, and prison reform, she also had a much lighter side that is not well known. Lavinia had a delightful sense of humor, and she also had a sense of adventure. She loved to experience new things. She read the popular books of the time. She kept up on current fashion trends. And she enjoyed travelling and seeing new places. She particularly relished seeing the country’s natural wonders. In the autumn of 1861 she had the unexpected pleasure of seeing one of the nation’s most spectacular attractions: Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls, c. 1860. (Stock photo. Does not depict Lavinia)

In the early months of the Civil War, twenty-two year old Lavinia and her parents were living in Brooklyn. William Goodell was the editor of the weekly anti-slavery newspaper, the Principia. (Read more about Lavinia’s work at the paper here.) In the late summer of 1861 Lavinia and her cousin, Sarah Thomas, travelled to Arcade, New York, to visit Lavinia’s sister, Maria Frost, and her husband and two young children. Before returning home, Lavinia and Sarah visited Buffalo where they stayed with a Mrs. Fiske (according to Lavinia, she was “Sarah’s Aunt – Mr. Plumb’s sister”). Mrs. Fiske’s son persuaded the visitors to stay an extra day, and he treated them to a surprise visit to the Falls.  Lavinia described the event in a September 20, 1861 letter to Maria:

Ria – what do you think? Wednesday we went to the Falls! Yes: I have seen Niagara! Glorious, beautiful Niagara! When have I spent such a sunny, joyous, happy day. How can I tell you of it? Language is quite inadequate to describe Niagara, besides there is no need, for you have seen it. We arrived there at 9 A.M. and left at 5 P.M. We went all around; reviewed it from every point. Of course we were obliged to make a hasty circuit – one could spend months there and still find new beauties. We ferried over to the Canadian side, where we spent about 3 hours, viewed the Falls from heights and depths – descended and meandered along under table rock – or the remaining portion of it – as far as we could venture; … even took a hasty look over quite a fine museum, where everybody seems to be expected to visit. Registered our names there, saw the signature of the Prince of Wales, Abe Lincoln, Jenny Lind…. By the way, I wrote my name in stone under table rock. We ventured so near the falls as to become quite enveloped in the spray. We then rode up in a carriage to Suspension Bridge (2 miles) on the Canadian side, walked across the Bridge & rode down on the cars on the American side.

Niagara Falls suspension bridge, c. 1860

We had brot a nice lunch of sandwiches, crackers, cake, and grapes for dessert, which we took over to Goat Island, and finding a pleasant, shady spot, camped out and enjoyed a silvan dinner, with the roar of Niagara on either side. Wasn’t that grand? We thot so, at least. After a nice rest we descended to the “Cave of the Winds,” and went almost under the falls…. This is the place where can be seen the circular rainbow. We could not go quite far enough to complete the circle. As it was, I found myself nearly drenched on emerging…. When we returned we ascended the tower which you remember is so conspicuous, on Goat Island…. Every position I took I could scarcely be persuaded to leave. The day was very beautiful and sunny – made on purpose to see the Falls in, I am sure. But the brightest day must have an end and so had ours, and we returned to Buffalo very much tired out in body, but in high spirits.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (September 14 and 20, 1861); Clarissa and William Goodell’s letter to Lavinia Goodell and Maria Frost (August 5, 1861); William Goodell’s letter to Lavinia Goodell (September 9, 1861).

1 comment

Beverly Wright

This seems to reveal her so personally. I’ve copied it for my records and can’t thank you enough for publishing it!

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