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NIAGARA FALLS – The visitors were as impressed as the politicians Friday, as some $5 million worth of improvements in Niagara Falls State Park officially opened.

The work improves access to Luna Island, which separates the American Falls from the Bridal Veil Falls; the Three Sisters Islands in the waterway itself; and the passage to the Cave of the Winds.

“It’s beautiful. I think the Americans did a good job. They built the railings right up close to the edge of the water,” said Tony Rodrigo of Toronto, who was making his first visit to the U.S. side.

That’s exactly the point, according to Kathryn Wolf, the Ithaca landscape architect who designed most of the work.

She said it was an effort to emphasize the main strength of the American side of the falls – access to the water.

“Everybody talks about the view from Canada, but there’s no place on the Canadian side where you can have this kind of visceral experience,” Wolf said.

On the Three Sisters Islands – small specks of land in the rapids just above the falls – plenty of brush was removed to make the churning water more visible. That was the biggest hit on Friday’s tour.

“I never thought I’d say it, but I love it,” Falls historian Paul Gromosiak told reporters on the Third Sister. “They have preserved what they need to preserve. It’s much easier for senior citizens and people with mobility issues, and the third island is a lot safer. They chose all the best views.”

“You will see incredible water you couldn’t see before. That’s what people come here to see, the water,” said Mark Thomas, Western District State Parks director.

“This is wonderful. They pulled a lot of stuff out,” said Mary Johns of Troy, Mich., an annual visitor to the Falls, who walks with a cane. “I did come down the steps, but there is a ramp. Really gradual,” she said.

The new railings are based on the original designs of 19th century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

“Safety-wise, I think it’s absolutely huge,” Morreale said of the work.

The islands feature wider slate walkways. Also, efforts have been made to replace invasive plant species with native plants. The plantings were put in during the past few weeks and the results won’t be fully apparent for two or three years, officials said.

Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president of Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, gave his stamp of approval to the work.

“It is a good balance between the Olmsted principles of creating a naturalistic experience while at the same time accommodating 8 million visitors a year,” he said.

State Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey said Olmsted designed the park to accommodate 200,000 visitors a year.

“It is a little tired. It’s been loved. And it was a little shabby,” Harvey said.

Shabby might have been a nice word for the passage from the elevators to the Cave of the Winds. “It kind of had the feel of a dirty basement,” tour guide Frank Accardo said.

Harvey said the new ceiling panels are designed so the condensation runs down the walls instead of dripping on the heads of the visitors.

Ground also was broken for $4.3 million worth of improvements at Prospect Point, the main viewing spot on the mainland. The landscape restoration and rerouting of the park’s trolley path to enhance pedestrian safety will be done in phases through 2015.

The funding for the work came from the New York Power Authority, which by terms of the renewed license to operate the Niagara Power Project, must pay $9 million a year toward the Niagara River Greenway and local state parks improvements.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com