Niagara Wax Museum of History: Lincoln's Haircut Chair
Niagara Falls, New York
Many of the exhibits in the Niagara Wax Museum of History date from its opening in 1968 -- roughly the same time that the city of Niagara Falls, New York, bulldozed most of its tourist district in an ill-fated attempt at urban renewal.
Some may find the museum's vintage unappealing; we think it's great. Over on the busy bee Canadian side of the Falls nothing would've lasted this long, but here it's safely frozen in time (it's a history museum, after all) offering a view of Niagara Falls glories and calamities that would have otherwise been forgotten, and a roster of tourist celebrities who are nearly all dead.
For fans of wax dummies the museum is a treat, with examples ranging from the frighteningly lifelike (Mother Teresa) to the just plain frightening (Mark Twain). The wonky eyes and wild wigs on some of the mannequins suggest the goggle-eyed wonder and hair-tousling power of the Falls -- at least that's what we told ourselves.
Owner Doug Brown, nephew of the museum's founder, gave us a quick rundown of the surprisingly large (46 galleries) museum. A local Native American mask with a half-scrunched-up head, he said, was a human who had challenged the gods, "and they got mad at him, so they moved a mountain with his face." When we asked why the museum has a wax dummy of Mother Teresa but not Marilyn Monroe (both visited the Falls) Doug answered that Marilyn "would get touched a lot" while "most people aren't trying to grope Mother Teresa."
The reason Niagara Falls even has a Wax Museum of History is the Falls, which tumble only a few hundred feet from the museum entrance. Almost all of the museum's exhibits relate in some way to its watery namesake, from the diorama on the Devil's Hole Massacre of 1763 (with many bloody dummies) to the chair in which tourist Abraham Lincoln got a haircut in 1848.
The high-concept "King of Power, Queen of Beauty" display contrasts the Falls' hydroelectric potential with waxy likenesses of Princess Di, Julia Roberts, and the previously noted Mother Teresa. According to Doug, the exhibit replaced a fire station display; its checkers-playing firefighters now sit in another part of the museum, "since it happened around 9/11, as a tribute to the firemen." It is one of the oddest 9/11 memorials we've seen.
"People wonder, what are they doing there?" said Doug of the fireman. "But there is a reason for all of this stuff."
Dioramas and displays devoted to newsworthy Falls events range from the Ice Bridge Tragedy of 1912 to the Old Scow Rescue of 1918. A life preserver from The Maid of the Mist, prominently featured, is one that rescued seven-year-old Roger Woodward after he'd been swept over the Falls in 1960 and somehow survived without even a broken bone.
Going over the Falls in a barrel (or something similar) receives a satisfying amount of attention in the museum's Daredevil galleries. There's an exact replica of the very first barrel as well as a full-size dummy diorama of its dazed occupant, Anna Taylor, moments after her plunge. Bobby Leach's industrial boiler barrel is exhibited (he later died when he slipped on an orange peel), as is the big rubber ball built by "Smiling Jean" Lussier, who successfully rode it over the Falls in 1928.
"The inside is filled with inner tubes," said Doug. "Jean was notorious afterward for buying old tubes, cutting them up, and selling them as pieces of his barrel -- but that's Niagara Falls for you."
The marriage of Niagara Falls and the barrel is so enduring that the museum's last display is an old barrel-over-the-falls photo-op that once stood in an outdoor photo-for-a-buck booth on the Falls overlook. The museum rescued it before the city could sweep it away, and although visitors now take their own pics using technology that would have dazzled the old-timers, they still make the same goofy faces they did when the barrel was new in the 1950s.
Niagara Falls attracts eight million visitors a year, and passport restrictions guarantee that a sizable number of Americans will never make it to the Canadian side -- so the Niagara Wax Museum of History will always have potential customers.
Will visitors appreciate its recreation of the bloody Haunted Well at Fort Niagara, or its display of a pair of disembodied hands that hold a section of the rope used by Jean Blondin to walk across Niagara Falls "blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, with a man on his back"? We hope so.