Niagara Falls - the complete guide

There are not one but three waterfalls at Niagara Falls today, caused by the Niagara river flowing around Goat Island before plummeting nearly 170 feet onto the rocks below. Up to six million cubic feet of water thunders down per minute, on a still sunny day the spray rises high into the air above Niagara Falls. An observer a few miles away can be fooled into believing they are seeing smoke rising from a major fire, Niagara Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America.

Niagara Falls were formed when the ice receded at the end of the last ice ago 12,000 years ago allowing the water from the Great Lakes to carve a route out of the rock of the Niagara Escarpment as it sought to reach the Atlantic Ocean. Niagara Falls would then have been located downriver at Queenston, in the 12,000 years since the power of the waterfalls have worn away the rock, moving the falls upriver to its present location.

Niagara Falls would have been first reached by the peoples who crossed the Bering Straits as the ice age came to an end but their very much later 'discovery' by European explorers is an area of controversy. The name of Niagara Falls is similar to the Iroquois word Onguiaahra (the Strait) and points to people living in the area before the arrival of Europeans. The first Europeans met with the Ongiara of the Iroquois nations who became known as the Neutrals as they acted as go betweens in resolving disputes.

The name of the first European to actually see Niagara Falls was not recorded but was almost with the French explorer Samuel de Champlain who recorded in his journal around 1604 that a member of his group had seen a spectacular waterfall. Officially the Belgian priest Louis Hennepin is recorded by a sign near the northern lip of the American Falls to have stood on that spot and been the first European to see the galls in the year 1677. However another priest, the Jesuit Paul Ragueneau may well have visited Niagara Falls in the late 1830's.

The Development of Niagara Falls Tourism

It did not take long after the discovery of Niagara Falls for a tourism industry to start developing. An early high profile tourist was Jérôme Bonaparte the brother of the more famous Napoleon who visited the area with his bride in the early 1800's. The idea of Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination was popularized by the New York Central railroad immediately after the American Civil War. The increased traffic this brought required the replacement of the early wooden bridge with the steel one that continues to carry trains over the Niagara river to this day.

By the 1870's the commercialism that come with tourism was already getting out of hand and it had become difficult to get even a glimpse of Niagara Falls without paying someone for the pleasure. In both Canada and the USA conservation movements led by artists developed that demanded the creation of a Niagara Falls park to limit the exploitation of Niagara Falls for profit. In 1885 they had considerable success on both sides of the border with the creation of the Niagara Reservation State Park on the US side and the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park on the Ontario side.

Protecting Niagara Falls was an ongoing struggle. In the early 1900's limits were agreed on the quantity of water than could be diverted from Niagara Falls to power hydroelectric stations. In 1969 using the damming of the American Falls the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mechanically bolted faults to slow down the erosion of the American Falls. And in March 1997 work began to protect the tiny Luna island which sits between the American Falls and the small Bridal Veil falls to the south. This took over six years to complete.

However the parks constructed to protect Niagara Falls are narrow. In particular on the Canadian side there has been an explosion in the construction of huge buildings the shadow the gorge around Niagara Falls and have transformed the sky line when you look up from the river boats. They have also altered the air flows around Niagara Falls with the result that the Canadian side can be drenched with a fine rain of spray coming from the falls and at some times of the year around dusk clouds of flying insects are blown onto the walkway at the lip of the Canadian Fall.

Going over Niagara Falls

The first person known to have deliberately gone over Niagara Falls and survived was Sam Patch. Sam was a textile mill worker from Rhode Island who had built a career out of jumping off bridges, ship masts and yes waterfalls. In 1827 he had jumped the 70 foot off Passaic Falls, New Jersey.

Operating under the name 'The Yankee Leaper' he went to Niagara Falls in October 1829 for the jump which was intended to boost tourism but the bad weather meant that only a small crowd turned up. It was also probably the reason that in the hours before he was due to jump the ladder broke but after a short delay in jumped anyway. He vanished from sight into the river below but after an initial period of concern was spotted on the shore. As the publicity stunt had failed in its primary objective of attracting a crowd Patch jumped off Niagara Falls not once but twice, the second time in front of 10,000 people a few days after his first jump. He survived that time as well only to be killed weeks later on Friday 13 November 1929 when he tried to jump off the 99-foot-high High Falls at Rochester, New York at the other end of Lake Ontario. The marker placed on his grave read 'Sam Patch – Such is Fame'

Publicity also drove the next attempt at going over Niagara Falls, this time in a barrel in 1901. Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was a 63 year old school teacher and dancing instructer. She survived but on getting back to land declared that "No one should ever try that again." She later told the newspapers "If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat... I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall."

The barrel she used for going over Niagara Falls was an ordinary oak pickle barrel with iron hoops and the inside padded with a mattress. It went missing along with most of the money she hoped to use to retire with when her manager took off. Probably for this reason in 1906 when she would have been 69 she talked of doing the trip over Niagara Falls once more despite her earlier words to the newspapers.

The next person over Niagara Falls in a barrel used a more substantial device. Bobby Leach from Cornwall, England used a steel barrel to successfully go over Niagara Falls in July 1925 but the impact with the water smashed both of his knees and his jaw. Ironically he died fifteen years later when on a tour of New Zealand he slipped on an orange peel in the street. He was one of 16 people who have deliberately gone over Niagara Falls. But not all survived and today such stunts are illegal on both sides of the border.

The American Falls as seen from under the Rainbow bridge in Canada

The American Falls as seen from under the Rainbow bridge in Canada