Niagara Falls dried up twice in the last 120 years


Published January 14, 2023 at 11:33 am


The majesty that is Niagara Falls has had its, well, less majestic moments over the past two centuries.

In fact, twice the falls have dried up completely – once stopped by nature and the second time 120 years later, it was stopped by man.

Way back on March 30, 1848, the falls went down to a trickle, leaving local American and Canadians citizens on both sides puzzled. Given the limited technology and means of communication at the time – Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone until 1876 – no one knew why it simply stopped.

In fact, it’s unclear how much they even knew about the natural phenomena at the time. While local residents these days know, a number of tourists may not know that Lake Erie is roughly 50 metres higher in altitude than Lake Ontario. All that causes Niagara Falls is simply the water travelling from Lake Erie along the Niagara River and dropping into the much lower Lake Ontario.

That’s why residents along the shores of Lake Erie in the southern Niagara municipalities of Wainfleet, Port Colborne and Fort Erie are more prone to flooding than the folks on the Lake Ontario side in Grimsby, Lincoln, St Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake. (That said, when lakes flood, it matters little what altitude they are. The vicinity of houses to the shores is more relevant.)

Back to 1848. On March 30, the temperature dropped so low that giant chunks of ice, blown by high winds, blocked the mouth of the Niagara River on Lake Erie, essentially created an ice dam. The water simply stopped flowing.

An actual photo of the falls stopping in March 1848. No one, not even area libraries on either side of Niagara Falls, knows who took the photo at the time.

As you can see from the photo above, that lead to curious onlookers actually walking on the bed of the Niagara River. Being that they had no idea why or how long the water had stopped, obviously they are taking a foolhardy risk here. The very second the water restarted, they wouldn’t have the time to retreat to the shore, keeping in mind that 3,160 tons of water per second flow over the falls.

That would, in fact, happen in the wee hours between March 31 and April 1 when the temperature got just warm enough that the ice dam broke and the water poured back with a vengeance, bringing with it huge chunks of ice over the falls. It was, indeed, fortunate that it happened in the middle of the night.

But for 30 straight hours, Niagara Falls was, well, Niagara Drips A Little.

Little Known Fact: The name Niagara came from “Onguiaahra,” as the area was known in the language of the Iroquois people who settled there originally. They formed naturally 12,000 years ago as the pressure from the water in Lake Erie simply forged a channel, now called Niagara River, to Lake Ontario.

The second time the stoppage was man-made or more accurately, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created.

This photo is of the American Falls, completely on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls. Concerned about the erosion of the base of the falls, visible here, U.S. Army engineers built a dam stopping the water which, instead, increased the flow over Canada’s larger Horseshoe Falls. (Smithsonian Magazine/AP Photo)

The Army engineers were concerned about the erosion build-up at the bottom of the American Falls, as well as the erosion in the rock face of the falls, and for six months in the summer and fall of 1969, Niagara’s American Falls were stopped by a man-made 600-foot (182 metre) dam.

The dam itself consisted of 27,800 tons of rock and on June 12, 1969, after flowing continuously for over 12,000 years, the American Falls stopped. (For the record, both Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls are collectively considered Niagara Falls.)

It would be unlikely a dam could be replicated on the Canadian side as 90 per cent of the flow goes over the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. The U.S. Army had to divert just 10 per cent of the flow towards Canada.

Apparently, there were some interesting finds at the base of the dried-up falls, such as a male and female skeleton. An estimated 5,000 bodies have washed up at the foot of the falls between 1850 and 2011. Some estimate 40 people are killed each year when they are swept over the falls – most of which are suicides. Others put that figure closer to 20. Straight Math (5,000 bodies divided by 161 years) tells us 31 annually.

Regardless, the Army stabilized enough of the rock face of the American Falls that today, erosion of their falls is estimated at three to four inches every 10 years where it used to be roughly four feet a year.


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