NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. – At the end of the day today, workers will start packing up the ponchos for the final time at the small dock near the base of the Rainbow Bridge on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. This is the last day the Maid of the Mist boats will set sail from here.
The company has operated the attraction in Canada and the United States without interruption since 1885, and has been under the management of the Glynn family of Lewiston since the ’70s. Its departure from the Canadian side of the river comes with Ontario’s Niagara Parks Commission’s signing of a new contract with a California company to run its tour boat concession – and the change is not without hard feelings.
Niagara Parks issued a statement on Wednesday thanking the Glynn family “for its 41 years of dedicated service,” and noted, “For more than a century, privately owned tour boats have operated from NPC lands ... and since 1972, NPC has been pleased to work with the Glynn family and Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. ... ”
Management at Maid of the Mist did not return the niceties. It contended Niagara Parks was downplaying its place in building Falls tourism, and expressed its “disappointment” by issuing its own statement:
“Maid of the Mist Steamboat Co. is one of the oldest companies in Niagara Falls, Ont., and the only company to have ever operated below Niagara Falls, doing so for 128 consecutive years. This great history cannot be reduced to 41 years of ownership or by being referred to as simply ‘privately held tour boats,’ ” the statement said.
Hornblower Cruises of San Francisco won the rights through competitive bidding in early 2012 to operate boat cruises on the Canadian side of the falls – the side where the boats have traditionally been stored over the winter – starting next year. Under the 30-year contract with Hornblower, the Niagara Parks Commission will make $300 million more than it did from its long-standing deal with the Maid of the Mist. Hornblower reportedly will bring in new boats with “dry zones,” restrooms and on-board concessions and add a viewing deck with a dining area to an existing administration building.
But Maid of the Mist is not sailing into the sunset. Under a deal reached with New York State in December, the company has kept its contract to run the excursions from the U.S. side of the river and agreed to pay for construction of a $32 million storage facility for its vessels at the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Station.
The company also will increase its annual rent payments to the New York State Parks office to $105 million over the remaining three decades of the contract.
Hornblower objected to the company’s deal with the state and has said it was willing to pay the state $100 million more than the Maid over the same period. It challenged the agreement in court, but in August, a state judge dismissed the suit. Hornblower has said it plans to appeal.
Maid of the Mist spokesman Kevin Keenan on Wednesday said that construction of the storage facility is on schedule and that it will be ready to hold two of the 600-passenger Maids when they are removed from the water a few days after the season on the New York side ends Saturday. The two older, smaller Maid of the Mist boats will no longer be used by the company, he said.
Ridership on what is usually called “the American side” of the falls has increased in the past decade since tighter border-crossing regulations have gone into effect, and the U.S. departures cost less than on the Ontario side because of Canadian taxes and park fees.
“With the construction of a new drydock and maintenance facility in New York, the state and the Maid of the Mist will now have total control over operations,” Keenan said in an email. “In addition, the prospect of the enhanced hiking trails, public observation deck and possible future rock-climbing and rappelling that will be offered at the site will be unique to the New York side, as will the iconic Maid of the Mist boat rides.”
The company owns its world-famous name, which it announces every day as its boats pull away from the dock with decks full of passengers in blue plastic ponchos. They come from all over the world, and the behind-the-scenes drama means little to them compared with the vista they are heading into.
On Wednesday, riders took turns capturing water-spotted images of each other with the cataract plunging in the background.
Unaware they were becoming part of the company’s history, tourists from California, Japan, France and Toronto were more interested in making history of their own.
Among them were newlyweds Daniel and Kelli Hardin of Springfield, Ky., who were thrilled as they stepped off the boat.
“It was amazing, it was incredible,” Kelli Hardin said.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Daniel Hardin agreed. “It definitely made our honeymoon better than anyone’s.”
Earlier this week, Maid of the Mist leadership announced that it will extend its season by two days on the U.S. side this year as a “thank you” and will offer free rides from Niagara Falls State Park from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday.