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The Maid of the Mist Boat Ride

How the Falls boat rides began
Seven generations of boats named Maid of the Mist have served visitors to Niagara Falls for almost 170 years. The vessels, first steamboats and now diesel-powered, have outlasted business reverses, panics and depressions, Civil War and two world conflicts, and continue to provide poncho-wearing visitors with an often wet but always exhilarating sightseeing adventure around the base of the greatest waterfalls in the world. The iconic Niagara Falls experience has been enjoyed by millions of families, lovers and honeymooners and visiting royalty and heads of governments.

The captains and crews of Maid of the Mist numbers I through VII have performed countless weddings, rescued survivors of planned and unplanned trips over the falls, appeared in many films and television programs set at the falls and on occasion braved ice and some of the wildest water in the world at the entrance to Lake Ontario.

The formation of the Great Lakes and the creation of Niagara Falls began when the Wisconsin glaciers receded about 13,000 years ago. During the next millennia, native canoes were piloted through the falls and rapids by the Iroquois-speaking people of the Neutral Nation confederation. With the settlement of New York state and Canada, rowboats came to be used to ferry passengers and cargo across the Niagara River below the falls. In 1846 a two-stack sidewheel steamboat was constructed, large enough to carry stagecoaches and horses, and was named Maid of the Mist, after the most famous Iroquois legend about the falls. Ferry service lasted about two years before a suspension bridge was built across the river that sharply curtailed commercial traffic; rather than close the boat line, Maid of the Mist was rebranded as a tourist attraction for the growing number of visitors coming to see the great waterfalls.

The Legend of the Maid of the Mist
The legend of the Maid of the Mist dates from the earliest times when Neutral Nation peoples lived on both sides of the Niagara River, and was related to French priests who first encountered the tribes in the 17th century and sought to convert them to Christianity. The Neutral Nation peoples periodically sent canoes filled with gifts over the Falls in order to please the Thunder God Hinum, who lived behind the Falls with his two sons. Residents of several villages began dying for no apparent reason, and after burial their graves would be desecrated and the bodies devoured. The tribes decided to send their most beautiful maiden over the Falls once a year in hope of placating the Thunder God. On one occasion the daughter of the chief of the tribes was the chosen maiden, and as she fell from the Falls she was caught by the sons of Hinum, both of whom fell in love with her. They took her to safety behind the Falls and begged her to stay with them; she agreed but asked them to tell her how the great evil that beset the tribes could be overcome, and to allow her to return in spirit form to explain to the people how to stop it.

The two sons of Hinum agreed, and the maiden then reappeared to the people out of the mist of the Falls, and explained that a great water snake lived at the bottom of the river and once a year poisoned the drinking water and then returned to eat the villagers after they died and were buried. She advised the people to drink only spring water, wait for the serpent to return and kill it with their spears when it came to feed. The mortally wounded snake slithered up the waterfall and died at the crest, its twisted body causing the curved shape that the waterfalls still have. The shape of the Falls thereafter reminded the people that the Maid of the Mist was watching them and would protect the Neutral Nations from harm.

The Boats named Maid of the Mist
The first boat named for the Maid operated from 1846 until 1854, and was replaced by Maid of the Mist II, a 72-foot-long paddlewheel steamer with a single smokestack. This vessel operated until 1860, and among its passengers was Britain’s Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. The impending American Civil War and tensions with British-ruled Canada, led to the discontinuation of service and sale of the boat in 1860, but the new owners, based in Montreal, demanded that Maid of the Mist II be brought to Lake Ontario, through the Niagara Gorge Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole Rapids. Although most of the crew refused, Captain Joel Robinson and a few of the men managed to survive the whitewater trip to Queenston, for which the boat had never been designed. There was no boat service in the region from 1861 to 1885, except again for rowboats and canoes.

In 1885, the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Company was incorporated and a new boat built, this one renamed Maid of the Mist I. This 70-foot vessel had a glass-enclosed captain’s cabin and sailed closer to the Horseshoe Falls than had been attempted before; an 89-foot-long vessel was constructed of white oak in 1892, fitted with two engines and put into service as Maid of the Mist II. These steamers served until 1955 and carried the first president to take the ride, Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, as well as composer Gustav Mahler in 1907, India’s Prime Minister Nehru in 1949 and Marilyn Monroe and the cast of Niagara in 1952. The boats survived the winter of 1938, which encased them in ice and destroyed the nearby Honeymoon Bridge, but were destroyed by fire in April, 1955. A 40-foot-yacht, The Little Maid, carried on the service that summer.

Another Maid of the Mist I was built in 1955, 66 feet long and made of steel with twin 200-horsepower engines. Its twin, Maid of the Mist II, was launched the next year, and both vessels could carry 101 passengers at a time. The second Maid rescued Roger Woodward in 1960, when the boy accidentally was swept over the Falls in only a life jacket and became the first survivor since intentional trips in a barrel by Annie Taylor in 1901 and Bobby Leach in 1911. Maid of the Mist II was retired in 1983 and became a missionary boat on the Amazon River, while her sister ship operated until 1990.

Five more vessels were added to the fleet between 1972 and 1997, numbered III through VII. These had 250- and 300-horsepower engines and could handle 200 to 600 passengers. The vessels appeared in the first Superman movie in 1979, carried visiting Soviet leaders in 1967 (Premier Alexei Kosygin) and 1983 (President Mikhail Gorbachev), and hosted Princess Diana and Princes William and Harry in 1991 and former President Jimmy Carter in 1996. Prince Andrew and Lady Sarah Ferguson also rode on one of the Maids, along with a host of celebrities from Stephen Hawking and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to Wayne Newton and Mick Jagger. TheMaids continued to operate in 1969, when water flow over the American Falls was cut off to examine the effects of erosion, and Maid VI was used to shoot a rock music video, Young Cardinals by the Canadian band Alexisonfire, in 2009.

Part of the fleet had been based on the Ontario side of the river, but in 2012 a storage dock was begun for Maids VI and VII at the former Schoellkopf power plant in Niagara Falls, New York. The contract for tour service on the Canadian side was awarded in 2013 to Hornblower Niagara Cruises, a Canadian subsidiary of the San Francisco-based ferry and excursion company that operates cruises to the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz Island. Maid III had been taken out of service in 1997, and Maids IV and V were retired in 2013. Maids VI and VII, which are registered in Ontario, now operate from the New York dock, creating the interesting contrast of an American excursion company sailing from Canada and the Canadian operator sailing from the United States.

The Maid of the Mist Experience
The Maid excursion takes about 20 minutes, and boats leave the New York side every 15 minutes, with parking available in the adjacent lot number 1 of Niagara Falls State Park. It is easy to cross from Ontario into New York, but a passport is now needed to do this. The boats run 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and until 6 p.m. on weekends during May, September and October; between Memorial Day and Labor Day the hours are 9 a.m. until approximately 8 p.m. The last ticket is sold 15 minutes before the last departure, and fares are US$17 for adults and US$9.90 for those 6 to 12. The tickets include the famous blue poncho to wear as the boat goes behind the falls, which must be returned at the end of the rise, and can be purchased at the dock or on the website of the company, which also provides travel directions from your location, weather information and video introductions to the century-old travel experience.