Only astronauts have seen with their own eyes how insignificant we are within the vastness of the universe. We, the regular folk, will never see that sight but the same sense of insignificance happens when you see Niagara Falls. How can one not feel small or powerless in the face of such a display of nature? The sheer size of the Horseshoe Falls and amount of water falling with such strength is awe inspiring. And the fact that it has been happening for over 10,000 years and will continue to flow for many more, makes one’s head spin.
I visited the falls for the first time in 1984 while studying English in St. Catharines, a small city close to Niagara in Canada. As impressed as I was then, at age 12, one doesn’t really understand the magnitude of things. So when I visited again in 2010 with my husband and children in tow, my perspective was obviously completely different.
Everything changes when you have kids. Those “funny” pictures I took the first time “pretending to fall” into the falls now gave me a sick feeling in my stomach when my kids were trying to do the same. The power of that water, the amount of water… Mind boggling.
About 1.7 million years ago, during the last ice Age, continental glaciers up to two miles thick covered the Niagara region. Over 12,000 years ago, Niagara Falls extended seven miles down river to what is now Lewiston, New York and Queenston, Ontario. Over the years, the brink has eroded, sometimes as much as six feet per year, to its present site.
During the 18th century, tourism became popular, and by mid-century, it was the area’s main industry. Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the U.S.A., established in 1885 as the Niagara Reservation, the first of several such reservations that eventually became the cornerstones to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Niagara Falls is the collective name for three waterfalls that straddle the international border between Canada and the United States. From largest to smallest, the three waterfalls are the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls.
The Horseshoe Falls drop about 188 feet (57 m), while the height of the American Falls varies between 70 and 100 feet (21 and 30 m) because of the presence of giant boulders at its base. In 1969, an earthen dam was built across the head of the American Rapids, dewatering the American Falls. For six months, geologists and engineers studied the rock face and the effects of erosion. It was determined that it would be too costly to remove rock at the base of the American Falls, and that nature should take its course.
The volume of water approaching the falls during peak flow season may sometimes be as much as 225,000 cubic feet (6,400 m3) per second. The flow typically peaks in late spring or early summer. The water falls at 32 feet per second over the falls, hitting the base of the falls with 280 tons of force at the American and Bridal Veil Falls and 2,509 tons of force at the Horseshoe Falls. Yes, the numbers are impressive!
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 development on both sides that threaten the area’s natural beauty.
Even with my kids clearly far away from the rails, the pulling and falling sensation didn’t leave me. I thought of all those that have dared go over the falls. Crazy people for sure! In 1901, a 63-year-old Michigan school teacher, Annie Edson Taylor, was the first person to go over the falls in a barrel as a publicity stunt. She survived, bleeding, but virtually unharmed. Soon after exiting the barrel, she said, “No one ought ever do that again.” Since Taylor’s historic ride, 14 people have intentionally gone over the falls, despite her advice. 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, on both sides of the border, to attempt to go over the falls.
From the U.S. side, the American Falls can be viewed from walkways along Prospect Point Park, which also features the Prospect Point Park observation tower. Goat Island offers more views of the falls and is accessible by foot and automobile traffic by bridge above the American Falls. From Goat Island, the Cave of the Winds is accessible by elevator and leads hikers to a point beneath Bridal Veil Falls.
On the Canadian side, Queen Victoria Park features manicured gardens, platforms offering spectacular views of both the American and Horseshoe Falls, and underground walkways leading into observation rooms that yield the illusion of being within the falling waters.
The two best ways to experience the falls are the Journey Behind the Falls and the Maid of the Mist.
Journey Behind the Falls is an observation platform and series of tunnels near the bottom of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian shore of the Niagara River. The tunnels and platform can be reached by elevators from the street level entrance. The two tunnels extend approximately 46 meters (151 ft) behind the waterfall and allow visitors to view water cascading in front of the open cave entrances. Earlier in the attraction’s history visitors were permitted far closer to the portals’ edge to view a perspective to the sides and below the falling water. Barricades now exist further back from the ledge at the end of the tunnels to ensure visitor safety. The observation deck provides a vantage point looking up with the falls to the right, allowing a full view of the falls.
The first Maid of the Mist was launched in 1846 as a ferry service between the Canadian and American sides. The ferry service lost business when the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge opened, and by 1854 it had become a tourist attraction instead, served by a new and more luxurious boat. The boat starts off at a calm part of the Niagara River, near the Rainbow Bridge, and takes its passengers past the American and Bridal Veil Falls, then into the dense mist of spray inside the curve of the Horseshoe Falls, also known as the Canadian Falls. The mist is at times overwhelming but it is the best way to hear the roar up close. It also allows you to see the gargantuan volume of water from below. Scary but hypnotizing. It is really incredible.
The boys really enjoyed both attractions. The weather was nice and warm so the fact that the crazy mist soaks you from head to toe even with the ponchos, didn’t bother us at all. I can only imagine when it’s cold. Oh, and Canada can get extremely cold.
I guess someday we will have to come back during the winter when the falls freeze and giant pieces of ice form. My parents visited the falls during the winter in 1982 while on a trip to Super Bowl XVI. The pictures they brought back were unbelievable!
These are some old pictures of the frozen falls. People would walk right on them!
And more recently:
It must be a crazy sight! And a very, very cold one as well.
We stayed on the Canadian side in Niagara. The view form our hotel was spectacular. Wayne and I were amazed by the continuous stream of water. For how many years!!! Non stop.
We were lucky to be there when there was a full moon. Just beautiful!
Every evening beginning at dusk, the Falls have been lit in the colours of the rainbow since 1925. Throughout the year there are variations on the light colors depending on celebrations, charities or requests. In the Spring there is a light show and during certain holidays there are fireworks displays.
Nature at it’s finest! Niagara Falls are one of the seven Natural Wonders of the World. This is a sight one must see at least once in your life. Long after leaving the falls, we kept on thinking about the massive amount of water flowing in them and their power. Every now and then, even after these many years, one of us sometimes randomly turns and says out of nowhere: “And the Niagara Falls are still roaring right now….and now….and now….and now”.