Clifton Hill History: A Tour with Sherman Zavitz


Reading Time:  7 minutes -

*Pictured Above: The Zimmerman/Bush Estate on Clifton Hill (1858-1938)*
This past Sunday, September 7th, I was fortunate enough to attend a guided tour by the Official Historian of the City of Niagara Falls, Sherman Zavitz.¬†¬†He has written widely about local Niagara history and made extensive radio broadcasts on the subject, so I jumped on the chance to learn a little bit specifically about Clifton Hill history. Currently, we all know Clifton Hill as the “Street of Fun by the Falls”; a street jammed with tourists in the Summer and marked by attractions, restaurants, hotels and motels. But how much do you know about its historic significance to Niagara Falls? That’s what I wanted to find out. It was an informative 90-minute tour and I would like to share a few tidbits of information that he presented to us on this tour.
Clifton Hill history
*Pictured Above: Sherman Zavitz at the Oakes Garden Theatre*
Clifton Hill’s location essentially started out because of a man named Samuel Zimmerman.¬†Samuel Zimmerman was an American who came to Niagara in 1842 and was a very gifted contractor, and quite possibly one of the best of his time. He made a fortune on projects such as the Second Welland Canal, and was the man behind the building of the Great Western Railroad from Hamilton to Niagara Falls.¬†He was also a primary supporter of the first railway suspension bridge to be built across the Niagara River Gorge.
The “Village of Clifton” was initially a piece of property owned by a man named Captain Ogden Creighton, and the village started laying out buildings and streets in approximately 1832.¬†It was Creighton who gave this future settlement the name ‚ÄúClifton‚ÄĚ, derived from the town of the same name in England. Upon his death in 1837, his wife sold the property to Samuel Zimmerman. He later had the Erie and Niagara Railway routed through this town.
In 1848, Zimmerman purchased land in the “Village of Elgin” (which he named after Lord Elgin, the Governor General of Canada) after the first suspension bridge was built and houses started to span out with its first settlers in the area. This was the area of Niagara Falls that contained Queen Street, Park Street, Huron Street and Morrison Street.¬†In 1856, the boundaries of the Village of Elgin were expanded to include the area of the Table Rock.
In view of this expansion and its subsequent increase in population, the Village of Elgin now had enough citizens to become a town rather than a village. Because the name Elgin had been previously used, the name of the newly formed town was changed to the Town of Clifton in 1856 (it amalgamated with the Village of Clifton).
In October of 1881, at the request of its residents, the former Town of Clifton received permission from government to change it‚Äôs name to the Town of Niagara Falls. By 1881, the population of the Town of Niagara Falls was 2,623 citizens — a far cry from its population today at approximately 83,000 inhabitants.¬†
Clifton Hill history
Zimmerman created an estate property along the south side of Ferry Hill (now Clifton Hill) that he called ‚ÄúClifton Place‚ÄĚ. On his estate, Zimmerman undertook to create many gardens and several large fountains. He planned to build a mansion that he hoped to live in once it was completed. His estate was bounded by Clifton Hill, the¬†Niagara River,¬†Robinson Street¬†and Ferry Road (now known as Victoria Avenue). Today this property is owned by HOCO (Sir Harry Oakes Company). Unfortunately,¬†Samuel Zimmerman saw only the foundations of his mansion built before he was killed on March 12th¬†1857 in the¬†Desjardins¬†Canal Railway accident. The train derailed and plunged into the canal killing 59 persons including Samuel Zimmerman.
Clifton Hill history
*Pictured Above: “Clifton Place”. The grassy area in the foreground now stands all the attractions on the south side of Clifton Hill (HOCO property)*
Clifton Hill history
*Pictured Above: The south side Clifton Hill’s current attractions that now reside on what was once was Zimmerman’s property*
The first buildings that Zimmerman built on his estate were four gatehouses. Each gatehouse was large enough to be a home in itself. A gatehouse was located at each of the four entrances to his 52 acre estate.
Zimmerman also built a large stable for his horses and carriages of imported English yellow brick. The stables continued to exist until the mid 1950’s when the new Park Motor Hotel (currently the Clifton Hill Niagara Falls Hotel) was built. On this tour, Sherman Zavitz pointed out a section of the Comfort Inn Clifton Hill that still has a portion of the foundation of the Clifton Place stables still standing, which visibly shows the same circular small stable windows.
Clifton Hill history
*Pictured Above: The Bush Estate Clifton Place stables in 1946 (built in 1856 by Samuel Zimmerman)*
Clifton Hill history
*Pictured Above: Sherman Zavitz pointing out the circular stable windows on the Comfort Inn Clifton Hill that still remain (one visible here)*
Upon Zimmerman‚Äôs death in 1857, his estate was then taken over by U.S. Senator John T. Bush (the estate included the ownership of the first Clifton Hotel). It was Bush that completed the restoration of the mansion, and even though the Zimmerman/Bush mansion no longer stands, the “Zimmerman Fountain”, a¬†large stone fountain¬†built by Samuel Zimmerman¬†below the moraine¬†(now Queen Victoria Park), remains today:
Clifton Hill History
Clifton Hill history
Senator Bush and his family lived in the mansion for the next 50 years. The view of Niagara Falls was available from the many windows on the upper floors, the balconies and from a little stone turret built into one wing of the mansion.
Following the death of Senator Bush, his daughter Miss Josephine Bush continued to live in the mansion until 1927. In 1928, Miss Bush sold the Bush Estate to Sir Harry Oakes, and the mansion was later torn down by June 1, 1937 (to read all about Sir Harry Oakes click here).
By the time that Sir Harry Oakes purchased this land, tourism was beginning to boom in Niagara Falls and Oakes knew to capitalize on that. Oakes was a Parks Commissioner who donated the piece of land in which the Oakes Garden Theatre currently resides to the Niagara Parks Commission, in exchange for another plot of land located just above the park, which is today the south side of Clifton Hill, with the current large chain of attractions, restaurants and retail outlets still owned and operated by the Oakes family.
Before he made the exchange though, Oakes wanted to create something beautiful. He began to hire individuals such as architect Dunington-Grubb, Stensson, and William Lyon Somerville to create an intricate design of gardens and stone sculptures in 1937. The garden was officially open to the public in 1937 and in memory and in honor of Harry Oakes the garden was named Oakes Garden Theatre to pay tribute to all the hard work and dedication he put into the creation of this new beautiful spot in Niagara to visit. It officially opened on September 18, 1937. Oakes Garden Theatre is fan-shaped, with the stage placed with the Niagara Falls as a natural backdrop.  
During our tour we made our way to the Oakes Garden Theatre located at the foot of Clifton Hill and the Niagara Parkway. Zavitz informed us that the two open pavilions were deliberately designed so that one was perfectly aligned on the axis of the Horseshoe Falls, and the other with the American Falls.
Clifton Hill history
*Pictured Above: A tiny glimpse into Oakes Garden on September 7th, 2014*
Across from the Oakes Garden (on the south side of Clifton Hill between Falls Avenue and River Road), you can’t help but notice the large beautiful monument that pays tribute to all the veterans from Niagara Falls that lost their lives during WWI, WWII, and the Korean War. This national monument was originally unveiled in 1927 to honour those that died fighting in the First World War, and then was updated in 1982 to include the Second World War and Korea. There are 136 names inscribed on this monument. Zavitz stated that it is important to note that while that number doesn’t seem large, during the time of the First World War, Niagara Falls had approximately 1100 people serve in the war — thus telling us literally on such a large-scale how many men sacrificed their lives that came from Niagara Falls.
Here is a photo from the original unveiling:
Clifton Hill History
Clifton Hill History
Clifton Hill History
There is so much Clifton Hill history to tell, but these are just a few aspects of the tour that were touched upon. If you wish to learn a little bit more about Clifton Hill, along with Niagara Falls history in general, click here for a section within our website that touches on our origins, facts about Niagara Falls, daredevils and even some trivia!
It was a privilege to take part on this tour with Sherman Zavitz, and stay tuned for information on his next tour in Spring 2015.

Christine on "The Daredevil"

Christine Lynn

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