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By Benjamin Joe
Sara Capen works as the executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. In that role, she leads a small team on tourist-related projects such as the Discover Niagara Shuttle, the Niagara Falls Underground Heritage Center and the Heritage Arts Mural Project, just to name a few.
Capen said the organization’s main goal is to celebrate the rich heritage of Niagara Falls and Niagara County. In 2019, she provided testimony to the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee in support of the National Heritage Area Bill, which would continue the integral placement of National Heritage Areas within the National Parks Service.
“The Niagara Falls National Heritage Area is one of 55 congressionally designated national heritage areas within the nation,” she explained. “We fall under the umbrella of the National Parks Service – like a park such as Yosemite or glacier preserves and iconic landscapes. We preserve a lived-in landscape for its history, its national environment and also its cultural heritage.”
One of the interpretive themes for the region, as assigned by the National Parks Service, is hydroelectric history.
“That’s where you are connected to Nikola Tesla and his vision, his extraordinary patents, his ability to use Niagara Falls as a template to wide-scale electricity,” Capen said.
Other historical themes include indigenous peoples, abolitionism, the Erie Canal, and the completion of Niagara Falls State Park, the nation’s oldest state park.
“We span from the natural geography of the area, which includes our phenomenon like Niagara Falls, with the Cataracts, to the Gorge, to the Niagara River, to the Great Lakes and the fact that there’s 20% of the world’s freshwater is in the Great Lakes system,” Capen said. “We start there, the natural, then we build the storylines that have run parallel to the specific landscape which goes to the indigenous people. It begins with the Haudenosaunee – actually it begins before the Haudenosaunee – but we begin our storytelling with an intention to focus on the indigenous history and then gets into the European encounter with our landscape, which led to conflict.”
Capen said, “Whether it was the French and Indian War, or the Revolutionary War, or the War of 1812 … (all of) which connects to Fort Niagara, another area in our region. We highlight the completion of the Erie Canal as a major transportation connector that changed people’s ability to get to Niagara Falls. It increased accessibility, increased commerce, increased the population here. We talk about building the first suspension bridge … the free flow between the United States and Canada and how that bridge was used by people like Harriet Tubman and freedom seekers to get to Canada.
“The importance of Niagara State Park being the oldest state park in the nation, thanks to the efforts of Frederick Law Olmsted … and at the same time that was happening, you had the beginning of hydroelectric power history.”
The Edward Dean Adams Power Plant, the largest hydroelectric powerplant at its time, was constructed in 1895 and used Tesla’s AC induction motor.
“What that led to was that Niagara Falls became the foremost source of hydroelectric power in North America,” Capen said. “Tesla was a key piece to that. Buffalo became the ‘City of Light’ because of that; that’s where that title comes from.”
According to Capen, Tesla came from the Balkan nations of Europe, whose borders often changed because of conflict, but Tesla grew up with a dream to harness the power of Niagara Falls.
“He came over here, as an immigrant, with thousands or at least hundreds of patents he had,” she said. “He had a focus on Niagara Falls.”
Capen said, “We look at Niagara Falls as a human destination, as a destination with these stories. People came and then these stories emerged. So, whether it’s Frederick Law Olmsted who believed, ‘We have to protect this place,’ or Harriet Tubman saying, ‘This is where I can get people to freedom,’ or Nikola Tesla saying, ‘Hey, let’s turn this into power,’ there’s a human destination here that applies to our tourists today.”
One of the ways to show these “human destinations” is through the Discover Niagara Shuttle, operated by Niagara Falls Heritage Area. The congressional-designated area runs from Niagara Falls to Youngstown to the tip of Fort Niagara. Check out www.discoverniagarashuttle.com/ for more information.
In the shuttle’s first few years of operation, municipalities such as Lewiston were approached to help fund it, as the bus would run through local jurisdictions. That all changed with the inception of a hotel tax.
“We are sustainable now,” Capen said. ”The governor signed three bills that we had pass through the State Legislature. He signed them on Dec. 22. Presently, we’re going to be collecting 1% of the occupancy tax to fund the Discover Niagara Shuttle. We’re looking to expand to Lockport if there’s enough funding for 2020.”
Since 2016, 146,339 people have used the shuttle, Capen said. In 2020, it will be expanding into Artpark. The shuttle has been a community partner in the region by sponsoring events in the region.
“The shuttle itself is a connector,” she said. “It connects to the stories, it gives people reasons to stay longer, which generates more economic impact. If we were able to get everybody who came to Niagara Falls to stay one extra day – to explore the history, to explore the landscape – we’re generating a lot of revenue through sales tax, through occupancy tax, but we’re also generating appreciation for this place.”
“We try to preserve, protect, promote the natural, historic and cultural resources of this landscape,” she said. “We do it through many ways. We do it through economic development; we do it through storytelling; we do it through projects like our mural project that’s outside the Underground Railroad Heritage Center; we do it through building and designing the Underground Railroad Heritage Center with partners.
“Our central focus is celebrating our very rich heritage, here.”
More information can be found at www.discoverniagara.org/.