Wilson Foundation Project

history of niagara’s economic development in a changing world

The Niagara Community Observatory and Brock University are excited to partner with the Wilson Foundation to tell the story of Niagara’s economic development from pre-1900 to the present day.

Our interdisciplinary team will focus on five key economic sectors: hydro-electric power generation; manufacturing and industry; marine transportation; tourism; and agriculture and agri-business, plus the emerging sector of information & communications technology. The information and knowledge gathered will be presented through digital media, archives and special collections’ exhibitions, symposiums for researchers and the academic community.

The project will also provide experiential learning and research opportunities for Brock’s student body.

NCO Director, Dr. Charles Conteh, slead the two-year project along with a research team gathered from the university’s Faculties of Social Sciences, Humanities, Education, and Goodman School of Business, as well as Library Archives and Special Collections.

The Brock News announcement from Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

advisory committee
  • Mishka Balsom, CEO, Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce
  • Farzana Crocco, Director, BrockLINC
  • Diana Huson, Chair, Regional Council Economic Development Committee
  • David Hutchison, Faculty of Education, Brock University
  • Ian Potter, President & CEO, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre
  • David Sharron, Head of Archives and Special Collections, Brock University
  • George Spezza, Director, Economic Development, Niagara Region
brock faculty research supervision team

Ongoing Research


Here’s a taste of what our research team has been busy compiling to date, with more to come:

  • Pre-1900 historical analysis across five sectors
  • Vignettes exploring deeper connections with people, places, and actions that transformed the region
  • Timelines detailing key events that shaped Niagara
  • Post-1969 analysis across the five sectors plus the emerging sector of information & communications technology, using documents and interviews
  • Analysis of Niagara Region economic development strategies dating from the 1960s to the present day
  • Geodemographic analysis
  • Comparative lens on 20 years of job trends (2002 to 2022) across the six sectors in Niagara, plus comparative looks with other regions in Ontario as well as the provincial and national numbers.

Stay tuned here for more updates. Our historical research team, for example, now moves into archival research post-1900 to 1969. Meanwhile, we will be moving into design and production phases for much of our completed research. A presentation announcement is soon to come!

Historical Vignettes

As part of our ongoing historical research into Niagara’s economic past, we are developing vignettes to share the stories of the people, places, and actions that shaped our region. An example of our work is below.

The Burning Springs and the Commercialization of Niagara Falls

Time period: 1780s – 1880s

Niagara’s unique physiography has always been the driving force behind its tourism sector and The Burning Springs near Dufferin Islands is one of the earliest examples.

More than 200 years ago, a sulphur-smelling spring with natural gas bubbling to the surface was discovered on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, above the Horseshoe Falls. It originated from a layer of Queenston Shale along the upper Niagara River, more than 600 feet deep and exposed during excavation for the Bridgewater Mills in the 1790s. It quickly became a curiosity mentioned in a number of traveler accounts throughout the 1800s and is said to have been one of the earliest tourist attractions in Niagara Falls.

The mill proprietors Thomas Clark and Samuel Street decided to turn it into a tourist attraction, building a wooden shelter over the sulphur springs as well as a contraption of a barrel with a corked pipe that would collect the gas. Once the audience had gathered round, the cork was removed from the pipe and the natural gas was emitted and ignited, creating the “burning springs”.

The Burning Springs were advertised in various tourist guidebooks published throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Tourists were charged 12 ½ cents by its new keeper M. J. Conklin for a chance to view this natural curiosity. Conklin’s son, and then grandson, inherited the attraction and eventually a new owner in the early 1880s repaired the building, adding gatekeepers, and raising admission fees which included access to the surrounding gardens and picnic areas. More than 25,000 tickets were sold in the summer of 1884 alone.

The attraction was forced to move when the Niagara Parks Commission took ownership of the land in 1887. For some unknown reason, the gas flow had dried up in 1885, but it was discovered during an arbitration hearing that the owner had continued collecting fees from tourists wanting to see the burning springs. Despite this, the Commission still paid the owner $4,200 for the property with an additional $2,000 per year for the rest of his life, determining that to be “fair compensation”.

Entrepreneurs recreated “The Burning Springs” attraction a few times in its history and eventually it ended up in a wax museum during the 1960s, located where the Marriott Hotel bus stop/Fallsview Boulevard hotel district is today. The museum closed in the 1980s.

You can find out more about The Burning Springs from the following sources:
Niagara Falls: A Tourist Destination for 200 Years, Brock University Archives & Special Collections
Curious Canada Postcard History
Steele’s Book of Niagara Falls, Brock University Archives & Special Collections: https://dr.library.brocku.ca/bitstream/handle/10464/2553/steelesbookofnia00parsuoft.pdf?sequence=1

contact us

Charles Conteh, PhD
NCO Director

Nathan Olmstead, MA
Research Fellow

Carol Phillips, PhD
NCO Research Coordinator