The Day Niagara Falls Quit Falling!

July 16, 2021

Photo by Saffron Blaze (Courtesy Wikimedia)

On March 29, 1848, the mighty Niagara Falls fell silent, something it had never done before in recorded history. Locals woke up to the deafening silence of the horseshoe falls that had always roared until that time.

The next day, churches held special prayers to ward off the evil spirits that dried out the entire Niagara river and rendered the furious falls impotent.

Only later, when word reached from Buffalo, did it become clear what had happened.

While the falls never stop flowing even in the presence of ice in winter (the river doesn’t completely freeze over), it was different that time. The source of water for the Niagara River, Lake Erie, froze. Heavy winds pushed the ice formed in the lake toward the head of the river and caused a massive ice jam that choked off the water supply to the river.

Lake Erie can get iced up
Photo by GandZ (Courtesy Wikimedia)

The river being dry, the falls became just a bunch of rocks and cliffs.

The effects were devastating for the mills along the river and fish and turtles that needed to survive in the absence of water.

However, the fun began for the opportunists. The dry river bed was fodder for enjoying activities like walking, horseback riding, and even riding in carriages. Even the U.S. Army Cavalry joined in the fun and offered a military exhibition on the river bed!

The danger of the ice dam breaking and the gushing river washing away these stragglers didn’t deter any of them. The ice dam did hold for a long time before warmer temperatures melted the ice and restored the river to its former glory on March 31, 1848.

The dry river downstream from the falls offered its own opportunities. Scavengers had a field day and picked up historic collectibles never again possible to retrieve, including War of 1812 artifacts such as muskets, bayonets, and tomahawks.

More impactful was the opportunity that the operators of the Maid of the Mist, the boat tour on the Niagara river, got to blast away some of the rocks in the river bed. This made it safer for the boats to navigate the waters!

Ice dams were recurring from time to time, but never again to the extent it happened in that unique period. As the ice dams wreak havoc to property and industry, especially the hydroelectric generating stations, a solution was designed and implemented to prevent ice dams from forming: The ice boom.

Ice Boom at work, preserving water flow into the Niagara River
Satellite image of the eastern basin of Lake Erie March 2021
(Image courtesy of International Joint Commission)

Starting in 1964, a floating boom consisting of timbers and steel pontoons anchored to the bed of Lake Erie is installed at the beginning of winter and removed by April 1.

This practice has ensured that the phenomenon of 1848 is never to be repeated!

For more on this story and details of Niagara history, check out this 2019 post.

Ever in search of historical anecdotes,

P. Venkat Raman

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