Hydro Power

In 1759 Daniel Joncairs was the first to harness the power of the Falls when he built a canal above the Falls to power his sawmill. It was obvious that the Falls would be an incredible source of energy. In 1805, 2 brothers,Augustus and Peter Porter bought this area and all of American Falls from New York state government They then enlarged the original canal to provide hydraulic power for their tannery and gristmill. The Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Mining Company was chartered in 1853, they eventually constructed the canals which would be used to generate electricity. In 1881, Jacob Schoellkopf led the quest and enough power was produced to send direct current to illuminate both the Falls themselves and the Niagara Falls village.

Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse built the first hydro-electric power plant in Niagara Falls and started the electrification of the world. The Niagara Falls Power Plant was the first hydro-electric power plant in the world. This was the final victory of Tesla’s Alternating Current over Edison’s Direct Current.  In 1883, George Westinghouse was hired by the Niagara Falls Power Company, a descendant of Schoellkopf’s company, to design a system to generate alternating current. With backing from some of the wealthiest men in the area, like J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor IV, and the Vanderbilts, they had built huge 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, they employed both Canadian and American firms in their efforts. in 1906 the Government of Ontario eventually brought power transmission operations under public control, distributing Niagara’s energy to various parts of that province. Currently between 50% and 75% of the Niagara River’s flow is diverted by four large tunnels that arise far upstream from the waterfalls. The water then passes through hydroelectric turbines that supply power to nearby areas of Canada and the United States before being returned to the river some distance past the Falls.

There are three 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. The three, together, can produce about 4.4 GW of power.

The Ontario Power Generation is currently building a new 10.4 km tunnel to get water from further up the Niagara River. It is scheduled to be completed in 2009, and will increase Sir Adam Beck’s yearly output by about 1.6 TW_h.

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Niagara Falls Freeze – Polar Vortex

Niagara Falls WinterThe water in the Niagara River moves very fast, moving an average of 212,000 cubic feet of water per second. It’s moving far too fast and pushing way too much water to ever freeze.

In late December an ice bridge forms at the base of the falls and over portions of the lower Niagara River. The Niagara River is fed by Lake Erie which is a huge lake, but not very deep. The ice goes over the Falls and freezes to the edges and keeps building on itself until the river is covered in ice anywhere from 40 to 80 feet thick. This ice rises on a layer of air, as the water keeps flowing beneath it.

Since records have been kept, American Falls has frozen a total of six times. The flow of water over this Fall is rather small, 10,000 cubic feet per second and in the winter that is reduced to around 8,000. This amount of water is barely able to cover the rock face and during harsh winters, allows the American Falls to freeze over.

In the 1960’s an ice boom was placed at the mouth of the River and since then it has basically eliminated the possibility of the Falls freezing over.

The longest American Falls was ever frozen was 15 days, beginning on February 7th 1936. American Falls now receives about 10% of the flow of water to the Falls.

Due to the possibility of the ice bridge collapsing or moving, the public is not allowed to walk across the ice bridge. The mist formed as the water flows over the Falls freezes on contact and creates a winter wonderland of shining crystals along the shoreline.

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Niagara Daredevils

Many daredevils have made crossing the Falls their goal. It began with with the successful crossing by Jean Fran¨∞ois Blondin” Gravelet in 1859 Tightrope walkers have drawn large crowds to their exploits. Matthew Webb, from England who the first man to swim the English Channel, drowned in 1883 after attempting to swim across the whirlpools and rapids beneath the Falls. He was not successful.

The first person to go over the falls was, Sam Patch, who called himself The Yankee Leaper, jumped over the Horseshoe Falls in October 1829 and became the first person known to survive the plunge. This was the beginning of a number of daredevils trying to go over the Falls and survive. The first person to go over the falls in a barrel was 63-year-old Annie Taylor in 1901, she survived the fall unharmed.

Since Ms. Taylor’s 1901 ride, 14 other people have attempted to go over the Falls in or on a device. Some have survived and come out just fine, but others have been severely injured or died in the attempt. Those that survive the attempt face charges and stiff fines, as it is illegal, on both sides of the border, to attempt to go over the Falls. David Copperfield, a renowned magician recently added his name to the list of these daredevils, successfully going over, or appearing to go over the Falls in 1990.

On October 20th 2003, Kirk Jones became the first person to go over the Horseshoe Falls without a any type of flotation device The question remains whether Jones was determined to commit suicide or not, he lived through the 16-story fall with only battered ribs, scrapes, and bruises.

In July of 1960 Roger Woodward, a nine-year-old American boy, was swept over the Falls wearing only a life preserver He was picked up from the plunge pool beneath the Horseshoe Falls by tourists riding the Maid of the Mist boat. No one thought this child would survive the plunge and when he did, it became know worldwide as the Miracle at Niagara.

Turning off the Niagara Falls

From April through October, during tourist season, the water flows at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second. Canadian and American governments made an agreement that the flow would stay at this rate throughout the tourist season. The Falls have an estimated 12 million visitors each year, and the agreement between the Ontario Hydro and the New York Power Authority allows the flow to remain at that rate while allowing them to draw a reduced amount of water so that it does not interfere with the amount of water going over the Falls.

In order to satisfy the needs of all parties, at dusk each night, during the tourist season, the flow rate is reduced to 50,000 cubic feet per second. This allows the Hydro Authority and New York State Power Authority to fill up their massive reservoirs. During the daytime when the flow is increased over the Falls, the Power Authorities draw water from their reservoirs to make up for any deficit.

From November to April the rate of flow is reduced to 50,000 cubic feet per second, 24 hours a day. The Hydro plants draw the remainder for hydro generation. This reduction in water flow is why the Maid of the Mist has to be out of the water by October 31st of each year.

The control dam is owned jointly by Canada and the USA. By agreement, it is operated by Ontario Hydro. It was located on the Canadian side due to the fact that the river bed slants toward the Canadian side. Each side has specific water drawing times, these are strictly regulated. When the American side is drawing water, the gates on the dam are closed causing the water to be forced to the water intakes on the American side. The dam also assists in drawing the water to the intakes on the Canadian side when they are drawing water.

The Niagara River flows at a rate of 212,000 cubic feet per second. Even on the hottest summer day, an estimated 100,000 cubic feet of water per second is being drawn for hydro generation.

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Niagara Falls History

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

Iroquois legend tells of Lelawala, a beautiful maid given by her father to a brave she hated. Rather than marry, Lelawala chose to sacrifice herself to her one and only true love He-No, the Thunder God, who lived in a cave behind the Horseshoe Falls. She paddled her canoe into the swift current of the Niagara River and was swept over the Falls. He-No caught her as she fell, and together their spirits are said to live forever in the Thunder God’s kingdom behind the Falls.

There is some confusion over which European gave the first written, eyewitness account of the Falls. Samuel de Champlain was in the area as early as 1604. Some of his party reported to him on the incredible waterfalls, and he wrote the reports in his journals but probably never actually seen them for himself. Others credit Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm with the description, written during an exploration of the area early in the 18th century.

However, it’s generally agreed that Father Louis Hennepin saw and described the Falls in 1677, after exploring the area with explorer Rene Robert Cavelier and Sieur de la Salle, and that he was the one that brought them to the world’s attention. Hennepin was also the first to describe the Saint Anthony Falls in Minnesota. He alse claimed that he traveled the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, however that was discredited and it cast some doubt on the truth of his writings and sketches of Niagara Falls. There is a county in Minnesota named after Father Hennepin.

In the 1800’s tourism became popular, and was the area’s main industry by mid-century. Napoleon’s brother visited with his bride in the early 19th century. There was a large demand for a way over the Niagara River, so in 1848 they built a footbridge and then Charles Ellet’s Niagara Suspension Bridge. In 1855 German-American John Augustus Roebling’s Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge was built then in 1886 Leffert Buck replaced Roebling’s wood and stone bridge with the mostly steel bridge that carries trains over the Niagara River even today.

In 1897 the first steel archway bridge near the Falls was completed. Today it is known as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, it is the bridge that runs between Canada and the U.S. just below the Falls. The Rainbow Bridge was built in 1941 by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, it carries both foot and vehicle traffic.

After World War One, tourism took off again. Automobiles made getting to the Falls a lot easier. In 20th century Niagara Falls the main goal has been to gather the power of the falls to turn it into energy and to control the rapid development on both the Canadian and American sides that threatens the area’s natural beauty.”

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Do the fish go over the falls?

Photo By: Edward Townend

Yes, they do. Most survive the hard journey over the falls, sometimes laying stunned for a few minutes at the bottom before continuing their journey down the river.

Since water is the natural habitat for fish and they are much more buoyant than we are, going over the falls isn’t much different for them as an elevator is for us. Most of the time the fish stays in the water as it heads over the falls, and the foam at the bottom acts as a cushion for them. They can withstand a large amount of pressure before it will cause any injury to them. The pool at the bottom of the Falls is about 150 feet deep so most of the time they aren’t forced to the river bed. Their biggest threat when going over the Falls isn’t the fall itself but the seagulls waiting at the bottom to pluck the stunned fish out of the water before they get the chance to recover.

More fish are injured going over American and Bridal Veil falls due being crushed against the rocks at the bottom of the Falls.

Interestinly enough, a number of years back a tourist was hit by a salmon while taking a stroll on the Cave of the Winds boardwalk. He wasn’t hurt, but he did catch the fish and was allowed to keep it.

You won’t see fish jumping out of the water at the bottom due to the volume of water falling, and it’s very rare to see dead fish at the bottom.

What kind of fish are found?

The Niagara River contains around 94 species of fish including the Chinook and Coho Salmon, Smallmouth Bass, Rainbow and Lake Trout, Catfish Muskellunge, Northern Pike and Yellow Perch. The biggest fish found in the Niagara is the Lake Sturgeon that can reach 7 feet in length and weigh more than 300 pounds. It’s not unheard of to catch a salmon weighing 20 to 30 pounds during the fall months

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Falls Erosion

How much does Niagara Falls erode each year?

Studies to determine how much erosion was taking place were started in 1842. Between that year and 1905 erosion took place at the rate of 1.16 meters, or 3.8 feet per year, at Horseshoe Falls. Between 1906 and 1927 the erosion rate declined to .70 meters, or 2.3 feet per year. The decline was due to water being diverted for hydro electric generation.

Currently remedial efforts are underway to reduce the erosion even more. It is estimated that erosion is reduced to less than 1 foot per year due to those efforts. At American Falls the flow rate of 10,000 cubic feet per second is insufficient to cause any major erosion.

As it stands today, American Falls has an erosion rate of about 3 to 4 inches per year. The biggest factor for the American falls is the fact that it has cracks at the Crestline in the top cap rock layer. Underneath that is a softer shale layer. The lifting action of water coming through these cracks cause them to become larger and along with the freezing and thawing each year, the rock structure continues to weaken until that part finally cracks and falls off. The flow at American Falls isn’t strong enough to erode the rocks at the bottom of the Fall.

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Falls Boundry

The current boundary line is determined by the Treaty of Ghent made December 24th 1814. The international boundary is set right down the middle of the river between lakes Erie and Ontario. With this division, the U.S. ended up with most of the islands, however Canada has Navy Island.

In 1909 the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 came into being to resolve any future boundary disputes. During the shaping of Terrapin Point, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers expanded the land area outward from Terrapin Point since the water was flowing to the center and the flanks were dry. This put all of Horseshoe Falls in Canada.

Other older treaties having to do with the boundaries were the Paris Peace Treaty made September 3rd, 1783 and the Jay Treaty made November 19th, 1794. The boundaries have remained the same since before the War of 1812.

Falls No Flow

There have only been 3 times that we know of where the Falls have either completely ran dry or were reduced to a trickle.

Accounts of the time the Falls ran dry are incomplete at best. According to newspapers of the time, sometime on March 29th or early on March 30th 1848 the water over the falls stopped for almost 2 days.

For several days the wind had been blowing across Lake Erie at gale force causing ice to jam up at the mouth of the Niagara River and effectively blocking the flow of water. Residents woke to an eerie silence on the morning of March 30th. Mills that had depended on the water flow had to shut down.

Over 5000 people came to see the dry falls. The dry river bed gave up its treasures that had been there for years, things like muskets, bayonets, tomahawks and other things that had lay under the water since the battle of 1812.

People made a show of walking across the river. If they had tried to cross while water was flowing it would have been a certain death. Soldiers form the U.S. Cavalry rode their horses down the river bed putting on an exhibition. It was a historical event, nothing like it had ever been known and had never happened again.

The owners of the Maid of the Mist boat were able to blast away boulders that had endangered the boat. But there was a downside. Many of the people believed the silencing of the Falls was a doomsday event, churches on both sides were filled and special services were held. As the Falls remained silent, fear escalated among the people. On the evening of March 31st, the wind shifted, residents heard a loud groan from upstream, followed by the normal flow of water over the Falls. The return of the water eased the fear of the residents.

The wind had a lot to do with the Falls running dry. A strong wind can raise the water level in one end of Lake Erie by up to 6 feet. It would be the same thing that happens with storm surges during a hurricane but on a smaller scale. Normally the river can only hold about 2% of the ice flow from Lake Erie, with the gale force winds they had at that time, it didn’t take long for the ice to cause a jam.

The second time the Falls were reduced to a trickle was in 1953 when remedial work was done on the Falls. They had built coffer dams over a portion of Horseshoe Falls to do the work that would allow a more even flow of water and lessen the erosion over the Falls.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers built a series of coffer dams over American Falls in 1969 to study the rock formations at the crest of the falls and see how difficult it would be to remove some of the rocks at the base. They finally decided to let nature take its course and restored the flow of water over the falls.

First Visitors

A number of historical reports say that the first European to visit the Falls was a Jesuit Priest by the name of Father Louis Hennepin in 1678, however many believe the first European visitor appeared at the Falls a number of years prior to that.

Etienne Brule arrived in Niagara in 1626. He was one of many missionaries that came to visit the Neutral Indians along the Niagara. While he was that close, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have at least seen the Falls.

Rene-Robert Chevalier and Sieur de La Salle, french explorers were known to have briefly visited the Falls in 1666. In 1678, La Salle and his party established an outpost on the Chippawa Creek where it joined the Niagara River. They spent a whole afternoon at the Falls in December of 1678. At that time Father Hennepin, drew a picture of the Falls. That same picture appears in a book published in 1699.

So, although some may believe Hennepin was the first to visit, because of the picture he drew, he was actually just the first European that had visited it, drew a picture and wrote a story about the Falls. More than likely the first to visit would have been Brule.

Niagara River

In the 1960s the Welland Canal was improved and incorporated into the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Ships can now bypass Niagara Falls.
Up until the 1970’s with the help of the electric power produced by the river, industries in the Niagara River valley flourished, however after the water was diverted from the Buffalo area it caused the steel and grain mills in that area to shut down. Since then the region has declined economically.

Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara Falls, New York are joined by three bridges, including the the Whirlpool Bridge, and the newest bridge, the Lewiston-Queenston located near the escarpment and the Rainbow bridge located downriver from the Falls, the Rainbow Bridge offers the closest view of the falls.

Falls Foam

What’s foam in the water below the Falls?

The foam is calcium carbonate that comes from the mist as it evaporates when it comes over the Falls. It mixes with decaying diatoms and other algae to make the foam. This is a natural occurrence.

Once the foam moves downstream it will once again mix with the water and disappear. This also occurs in the area of the Whirlpool.

Daredevil Law

According to Ontario Regulation 829/90 which governs activities in the park, it is a provincial offense, comparable to getting a ticket for speeding, to do anything that might draw a crowd or to perform any stunt or feat without getting written permission from the Commission. There is no set fine and the person would end up in court.

This conviction carries a fine of $5000.00 or 6 months in jail or both. Niagara Falls Police are in charge of enforcement of this law..

How many people have gone over the Falls in a barrel?

A total of 15 people have attempted to go over the Falls. Of those, 13 have attempted it in a barrel of some sort. Two others also tried, one was in a kayak and the other on a jet ski, both of these died. A total of 3 of the persons attempting the Falls by barrel were killed making it a total of 5 deaths.

Several people have announced that they were going to try it, but ended up backing out. All the attempts made were over Horseshoe Falls, the rocks at the base of American Falls made it too dangerous to attempt.

Formation of Falls

The Niagara Falls started some 10,000 years ago in the Wisconsin glaciation period. Both the North American Great Lakes and the Niagara River are the results of this last continental ice sheet, a huge glacier that swept across the area from eastern Canada. During the birth of Niagara Falls the glacier ripped through the area like a giant bulldozer, destroying rocks and soil, tossing them around, and turning some river channels into lakes. It dammed other channels with debris, forcing these rivers to divert and make new channels. It’s believed is an ancient valley, buried by glacial drift, about where, now, the Welland Canal is located.

Once the ice melted, drainage from the upper Great Lakes became the Niagara River, which could not follow the now filled valley, so it found the deepest outlet on the new landscape. Over the years the river cut a gorge across the Niagara Escarpment, the north facing cliff of the southern tilted and resistant Lockport formation between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. As it moved through there it exposed old marine rocks that are quite a bit older than the comparatively recent glaciation. There are three major formations that were exposed in the gorge that was cut by the Niagara River.

The Falls plunge about 170 feet (52 meters), however, the American Falls have a only a drop of 70 feet (21 meters) before hitting a pile of fallen rocks which were deposited by a massive rock slide in 1954. The bigger Canadian Falls are about 2,600 feet (792 meters) wide, while the American Falls are 1,060 feet (323 meters) wide. The amount of water approaching the Falls during peak flow season is 202,000 feet (5,720 meters). However in the summer months, when the largest diversion of water for hydroelectric power occurs, 100,000 feet (2,832 meters) of water actually spills over the Falls, and about 90% of that goes over the Horseshoe Falls. This volume is further cut in half at night, when most of the water delivery to hydroelectric facilities occurs.

Although erosion has been drastically reduced in this century by modern day techniques, the falls will eventually recede far enough to drain most of Lake Erie, since the bottom of the lake is higher than the bottom of the falls. Engineers are working to reduce the rate of erosion to delay this event as long as possible. Originally the Niagara Falls were located near the site of Lewiston, New York, and Queenston, Ontario, but erosion at the top has caused the waterfalls to move some miles south. Just upstream from their current location, Goat Island causes a split in the the course of the Niagara River, resulting in separating the Horseshoe Falls in the west from the American and Bridal Veil Falls in the east. ”

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Who Owns the Niagara Falls?

Who owns the Niagara Falls?

The U.S. Geological Survey maps of Niagara Falls (up to and including the current ones) show about two-thirds of Horseshoe Falls is in Canada, but about one-third in the U.S. More used to be in the U.S., but construction and erosion changed the boundaries. In the future, more of the Falls will recede and boundaries will constantly be altered. Many people refer to Horseshoe Falls as the “Canadian Falls” and the others to the “American Falls”, but about one-third of the Falls (and the State Park boundaries ) are in the U.S.

Horseshoe Falls is 53 meters or 173 feet to the base, and is 670 meters or 2200 feet wide. The Niagara River flows at a rate of about 21 miles per hour to the crest . Horseshoe Falls also has the majority of the water flowing to it.

American Falls is about 56 meters or 182 feet high, but the rocks at the bottom of both American and Bridal Veil Falls shortens that to about 21 meters or 70 feet. The top of American Falls is around 290 meters or 950 feet wide.

To the south of American Falls is Bridal Veil Falls, it is separated from American Falls by a small strip of land known as Luna Island. Bridal Veil is approximately 17 meters or 56 feet wide.

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