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Niagara Falls

The , one of the three Niagara Falls.
The Horseshoe Falls, one of the three Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls is a group of massive waterfalls located on the Niagara River in eastern North America, on the border between the United States and Canada. The Falls comprise three separate waterfalls: Horseshoe Falls (sometimes called Canadian Falls), American Falls, and the smaller, adjacent Bridal Veil Falls. While not exceptionally high, Niagara Falls is very wide, and is by far the most voluminous waterfall in North America.

Niagara Falls is renowned for its beauty, and is both a valuable source of hydroelectric power and a challenging project for environmental preservation. A popular tourist site for over a century, the Falls are shared between the twin cities of Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario.


Formation of the Falls

The historical roots of Niagara Falls lie in the Wisconsin glaciation, which ended some 10,000 years ago. Both the North American Great Lakes and the Niagara River are effects of this last continental ice sheet, an enormous glacier that crept across the area from eastern Canada. The glacier drove through the area like a giant bulldozer, grinding up rocks and soil, moving them around, and deepening some river channels to make lakes. It dammed others with debris, forcing these rivers to make new channels. It is thought that there is an old valley, buried by glacial drift at the approximate location of the present Welland Canal.

After the ice melted back, drainage from the upper Great Lakes became the present day Niagara River, which could not follow the old filled valley, so it found the lowest outlet on the rearranged topography. In time the river cut a gorge across the Niagara escarpment, the north facing cliff or cuesta formed by erosion of the southwardly dipping (tilted) and resistant Lockport formation between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. In doing so it exposed old marine rocks that are much older than the geologically recent glaciation. Three major formations are exposed in the gorge that was cut by the Niagara River.

When the newly established river encountered the erosion-resistant Lockport dolostone, the hard layer eroded much more slowly than the underlying softer rocks. The aerial photo clearly shows the hard caprock, the Lockport Formation (Middle Silurian), which underlays the rapids above the falls and approximately the upper third of the gorge wall. It is composed of very dense, hard and very strong limestone and dolostone.

Immediately below, comprising about two thirds of the cliff is the weaker, softer and more crumbly and sloping Rochester Formation (Lower Silurian). It is mainly shale, though it has some thin limestone layers, and contains large quantities of fossils. Because it erodes more easily, the river undercut the hard cap rock and created the falls.

Submerged in the river in the lower valley, hidden from view, is the Queenston Formation (Upper Ordovician), which is composed of shales and fine sandstones. All three formations were laid down in an ancient sea, and their differences of character derive from changing conditions within that sea.

The original Niagara Falls were near the site of present day Lewiston, New York, but erosion of their crest has caused the waterfalls to retreat several miles southward. Just upstream from the Falls' current location, Goat Island splits the course of the Niagara River, resulting in the separation of Horseshoe Falls to the west from American and Bridal Veil Falls to the east. Although erosion and recession have been slowed in this century by engineering, the falls will eventually recede far enough to drain most of Lake Erie, the bottom of which is higher than the bottom of the falls. Engineers are working to reduce the rate of erosion to retard this event as long as possible.

The Falls drop about 170 feet (52 m), although the American Falls have a clear drop of only 70 feet (21 m) before reaching a jumble of fallen rocks which were deposited by a huge rock slide in 1954. The larger Canadian Falls are about 2,600 feet (792 m) wide, while the American Falls are 1,060 feet (323 m) wide. The volume of water approaching the Falls during peak flow season is 202,000 ft³/s (5,720 m³/s).1,2 During the summer months, when maximum diversion of water for hydroelectric power occurs, 100,000 ft³/s (2,832 m³/s) of water actually traverses the Falls, some 90% of which goes over Horseshoe Falls. This volume is further halved at night, when most of the diversion to hydroelectric facilities occurs.

Historical background

The name "Niagara" is said to originate from an Iroquois word meaning "thunder of waters". The region's original inhabitants were the Ongiara, an Iroquois tribe named the Neutrals by French settlers, who found them helpful in mediating disputes with other tribes.

The , a civil liberties organization, first met here in 1905
The Niagara Movement, a civil liberties organization, first met here in 1905

Some controversy exists over which European first gave a written, eyewitness description of the Falls. The area was visited by Samuel de Champlain as early as 1604. Members of his party reported to him on the spectacular waterfalls, which he wrote of in his journals but may never have actually visited. Some credit Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm with the original first hand description, penned during an expedition to the area early in the 18th century.3 Most historians however agree that Father Louis Hennepin observed and described the Falls much earlier, in 1677, after traveling in the region with explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, thus bringing them to the world's attention. Hennepin also first described the Saint Anthony Falls in Minnesota. His subsequently discredited claim that he also travelled the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico cast some doubt on the validity of his writings and sketches of Niagara Falls. Hennepin County in Minnesota was named after Father Louis Hennepin.

During the 19th century tourism became popular, and was the area's main industry by mid-century. Demand for passage over the Niagara River led in 1848 to a foot bridge and then Charles Ellet's Niagara Suspension Bridge. This was supplanted by German-American John Augustus Roebling's Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge in 1855. In 1886 Leffert Buck replaced Roebling's wood and stone bridge with the predominantly steel bridge that still carries railroad trains over the Niagara River today. The first steel archway bridge near the Falls was completed in 1897. Known today as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, it carries vehicles, trains, and pedestrians between Canada and the U.S. just below the Falls. In 1941 the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission completed the third current crossing in the immediate area of Niagara Falls with the Rainbow Bridge, carrying both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Especially after World War One, tourism boomed again as automobiles made getting to the Falls much easier. The story of Niagara Falls in the 20th century is largely that of efforts to harness the energy of the Falls for hydroelectric power and to control the rampant development on both the American and Canadian sides which threatened the area's natural beauty.

Impact on industry and commerce

The enormous energy of the Falls was long recognized as a potential source of power. The first known effort to harness the waters was in 1759, when Daniel Joncairs built a small canal above the Falls to power his sawmill. Augustus and Peter Porter purchased this area and all of American Falls in 1805 from the New York state government, and enlarged the original canal to provide hydraulic power for their gristmill and tannery. In 1853, the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Mining Company was chartered, which eventually constructed the canals which would be used to generate electricity. In 1881, under the leadership of Jacob Schoellkopf, enough power was produced to send direct current to illuminate both the Falls themselves and nearby Niagara Falls village.

When Nikola Tesla, for whom a memorial was later built at Niagara Falls, invented alternating current, distant transfer of electricity became possible. In 1883, the Niagara Falls Power Company, a descendant of Schoellkopf's firm, hired George Westinghouse to design a system to generate alternating current. By 1896, with financing from moguls like J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor IV, and the Vanderbilts, they had constructed giant underground conduits leading to turbines generating upwards of 100,000 horsepower (75 MW), and were sending power as far as Buffalo, twenty miles (32 km) away. Private companies on the Canadian side also began to harness the energy of the Falls, employing both domestic and American firms in their efforts. The Government of Ontario eventually brought power transmission operations under public control in 1906, distributing Niagara's energy to various parts of that province. Currently between 50% and 75% of the Niagara River's flow is diverted via four huge tunnels that arise far upstream from the waterfalls. The water then passes through hydroelectric turbines that supply power to nearby areas of the United States and Canada before returning to the river well past the Falls.

The most powerful hydroelectric stations on the Niagara River nowadays are Sir Adam Beck 1 and 2 on the Canadian side, and the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant and the Lewiston Pump Generating Plant on the American side. All together, Niagara's generating stations can produce about 4.4 GW of power.

Ships can bypass Niagara Falls by means of the Welland Canal, which in the 1960s was improved and incorporated into the Saint Lawrence Seaway. While the seaway diverted water traffic from nearby Buffalo and led to the demise of its steel and grain mills, other industries in the Niagara River valley flourished with the help of the electric power produced by the river.

The twin cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York are connected by three bridges, including the Rainbow Bridge, just down river from the Falls, which affords the closest view of the Falls. Nearby Niagara Falls International Airport and Buffalo Niagara International Airport were named after the waterfall, as were Niagara University, countless local businesses, and even one celestial body.4

Preservation efforts

For the first two centuries after European settlement of the area, land on both sides of Niagara Falls was privately owned. Development and commercial ventures threatened the natural beauty of the area, and visitors sometimes had to pay entrepreneurs a fee to view the Falls through holes in a fence. In 1885 both American and Canadian authorities began to purchase the adjacent lands with a view toward preservation. In New York, artist Frederick Church and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted headed up the Free Niagara movement which persuaded New York state to begin to buy land from developers, under the charter of the Niagara Reservation State Park. In the same year, the Canadian province of Ontario established the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park for the same purpose. Both organizations have proven remarkably successful operations that have restricted development on both sides of the Falls and the Niagara River. On the Canadian side, the Niagara Parks Commission governs land usage along the entire course of the Niagara River, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

Until the modern era, the Falls were receding southward due to erosion from two to ten feet (0.6 to 3.0 meters) per year. This process was slowed initially by diversion of increasing amounts of flow from the Niagara River into hydroelectric plants in both the United States and Canada. On January 2, 1929 Canada and the United States reached an agreement on an action plan to preserve the Falls. In 1950, the two countries signed the Niagara River Water Diversion Treaty, which more specifically addressed the issue of water diversion.

In addition to the effects of diversion of water to the power stations, erosion control efforts have included underwater weirs to redirect the most damaging currents, and actual mechanical strengthening of the top of the Falls. The most dramatic such work was performed in 1969. In June of that year, the Niagara River was completely diverted away from the American Falls for several months through the building of a temporary rock and earth dam (clearly visible in the photo at right), effectively shutting off the American Falls.5 While the Horseshoe Falls absorbed the extra flow, the US Army Corps of Engineers studied the river bed and mechanically bolted faults which would otherwise have hastened the retreat of the American Falls. A plan to remove the huge mound of talus deposited in 1954 was abandoned due to cost, and in November 1969, the temporary dam was dynamited, restoring flow to the American Falls.

Even after this undertaking, Luna Island, the small piece of land between the main waterfall and the Bridal Veil, remained off limits to the public for years owing to fears that it was unstable and could collapse into the gorge at any time.

The Falls in entertainment and popular culture

In October 1829, Sam Patch, who called himself The Yankee Leaper, jumped over Horseshoe Falls and became the first known person to survive the plunge. This began a long tradition of daredevils trying to go over the Falls and survive. In 1901, 63-year-old Annie Taylor was the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel; she survived virtually unharmed. Since Taylor's historic ride, 14 other people have intentionally gone over the Falls in or on a device. Some have survived unharmed, but others have drowned or been severely injured. Survivors of such stunts face charges and stiff fines, as it is illegal to attempt to go over the Falls. Magician David Copperfield more recently added his name to the list of these daredevils, successfully travelling (or perhaps, appearing to travel) over the Falls in 1990.

Other daredevils have made crossing the Falls their goal. Starting with the successful passage by Jean François "Blondin" Gravelet in 1859, tightrope walkers have drawn large crowds to their exploits. Englishman Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the English Channel, drowned in 1883 after unsuccessfully trying to swim across the whirlpools and rapids beneath the Falls.

Already a huge tourist attraction and favorite spot for honeymooners, Niagara Falls visits rose sharply in 1953 after the release of Niagara, a movie starring Marilyn Monroe. Later in the 20th century, the Falls was a featured location in 1980s movie Superman II, and was itself the subject of a popular IMAX movie. The Falls, or more particularly, the tourist-supported complex near the Falls, was the setting of the short-lived American television show Wonderfalls in early 2004. With the recent influx of more international tourists, annual visits exceeded 14 million in 2003.

Seeing the Falls

Peak numbers of visitors occur in the summertime, when Niagara Falls are both a daytime and evening attraction. From the Canadian side, floodlights illuminate both sides of the Falls for several hours after dark.

From the American side, the American Falls can be viewed from walkways along Prospect Park, which also features an observation tower. Nearby, the Cave of the Winds trail leads hikers down some three hundred steps to a point beneath Bridal Veils Falls. The Niagara Scenic Trolley offers guided trips along the American Falls.

On the Canadian side, Queen Victoria Park features well manicured gardens, platforms offering a spectacular view of both American and Horseshoe Falls, and underground walkways leading into observation rooms which yield the illusion of being within the falling waters. The observation deck of nearby Skylon Tower offers the highest overhead view of the Falls, and in the opposite direction gives views as far as distant Toronto.6 With the Konica Minolta Tower, it is one of two towers in Canada with a view of the Falls. Along the Niagara River, the Niagara River Recreational Trail runs the 32km (50 miles) from Fort Erie to Fort George, and includes many historical sites from the War of 1812.

The Maid of the Mist cruises, named for an ancient Ongiara Indian mythical character, have carried passengers into the whirlpools beneath the Falls since 1846. The Spanish Aerocar, built in 1916 from a design by Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, is a cable car which takes passengers over the whirlpool on the Canadian side, below the Falls.


  • 1 "History of Power", below
  • 2 By comparison, the spectacular Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River has a volume of 38,400 ft³/s (1,090 m³/s)
  • 3 "Finnish Alliance", below, and wiki-link
  • 4 Asteroid (12382) Niagara Falls was named for the Falls.
  • 5 This effect also obtained once as a result of natural forces, as an upstream ice jam stopped almost all water flow over Niagara Falls on March 29, 1848.
  • 6 "Let's Go," below


External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 13:34:07
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