Canada’s Niagara Falls has to be one of the most recognizable waterfalls in the entire world. Every year, tourists from around the globe flock to the shores of the famous falls to view the cascades. Some tourists even take a boat ride, so that they can get up close and personal with this magnificent natural wonder. However, in 1969 there was almost no water to be found, and the story behind why Niagara Falls almost ran dry is pretty astounding. Keep scrolling to find out why Niagara Falls went from a deluge to a trickle for almost half a year.
It’s All In A Name
While Niagara Falls is known as a tourist destination now, it used to hold a special place in the hearts of the First Peoples of Canada.
During the colonial period in which France and the British Empire established various colonies in what is now Canada, there were a variety of indigenous bands that had access to the falls. The Iroquois were one of these, and the name of the falls is said to come from their native word for “the strait.”
Waterfalls are beautiful to look at, but they also offer something incredibly important to every country – power. Those rushing tons of water can produce a lot of electricity if they are harnessed correctly. Most large waterfalls are used for hydroelectricity, but in the 1900s, hydropower plants were a relatively new idea.
Engineers and scientists had just begun to explore how to use waterfalls, and other bodies of water to provide electricity. There was one innovative scientist who would revolutionize the industry, and provide the world with the tools to generate hydropower in large quantities.
Nikola Tesla is best known for his work with alternating currents, which is how electricity tends to be transmitted long distances. He traveled to Niagara Falls and worked on developing a technology that would allow both the American and the Canadian side of the falls to transfer electricity for miles rather than just a few hundred feet.
Until his work in alternating currents, hydroelectric plants were unable to power towns more than 300 feet from the power plant itself. This was problematic, as areas that contained large moving bodies of water had the potential to provide a lot of power, but it was unknown how to move this power.
The First Hydroelectric Plant
Before Tesla began his work, which would revolutionize how power is transferred around the world, there were hydroelectric plants. The first plant to be built at Niagara Falls in 1895 was elementary. It generated enough power that the businesses within 300 feet of it could use as much as they needed.
This meant that mills and factories were able to produce flour and other products around the clock. However, cities like Buffalo were too far away to receive any of this abundant power because there was no known way of transferring it. Thus, Tesla would need to understand how the falls work and how to generate power from them.
After a lot of study, Tesla managed to discover the alternating current, and hydropower plants adopted this technology. To use the water from the falls, though, portions of it had to be diverted and dammed. This created problems because damming the waterfall meant that the scenic cascades it was known for would be much smaller.
Tourism was a relatively new thing during this time, but as word got around, more and more people began to want to see the falls in all of its glory. The next few decades would have America and Canada, making some major decisions about how to divert the falls to maximize its power and tourism potential.
As The Sun Goes Down
As Niagara Falls powers parts of both Canada and America, the water needs to be diverted to the respective power plants. Both countries have an agreement to let the falls run naturally during the day.
This is so that tourists can enjoy the spectacle and get those social media-worthy photos, but as soon as the sun goes down, those picture-perfect moments evaporate. The falls are diverted, and only about 40% of the water remains.
While the waterfall did appear to come to a trickle in 1969, the falls themselves have stooped before. Anybody who has visited upstate New York or Canada in the winter knows that the temperature can drop to well below freezing.
Part of the falls froze completely, and in certain areas, the water turned to vapor rather than flowing to the bottom as it usually does. In 2019 tourists got to see this unique view.
The Three Falls
A lot of people don’t realize that Niagara Falls actually comprises three separate falls, which together form the entire falls visitors get to see. The three falls are known as American Falls, Horseshoe Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls.
Each of the falls is impressive in its own right, but in 1969 American Falls seemed to be having some issues. It was no longer flowing as steadily as it once had, and engineers needed to examine it.
The Canadian and American governments decided to enlist the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They were used to solving complex engineering problems, and they knew that the problems affecting American Falls would need to be solved quickly.
Disrupting the flow of hydropower would disrupt the flow of electricity to many towns and businesses in the area who all needed a static power supply. They would need to work quickly to discover what the problem was.
Diverting American Falls
To begin their survey of the area around American Falls, the engineers knew that they would need to dam it. There was no dam in place that could completely stop the flow of water, which meant that a temporary one had to be constructed and quickly.
The engineering team got to work, and a dam was built, which brought the amount of water going over American Falls to a thin trickle.
The New Dam
The temporary dam was itself an engineering marvel. It spanned about 600 feet and held the water in a basin from which hydropower could still be created.
It allowed the engineers to uncover what is known as talus, or fragmented rock that had built up at the bottom of the falls. This talus can sometimes be unstable or need to be removed if it has built up too much. After 12,000 years of flowing water in the area, there was a lot of talus (rock pile) at the bottom of the falls.
Now that the waterfall was basically dry, the engineering team was able to look at it from all angles. They performed an aerial survey to get a clear picture of how the rock face in which the falls flowed over was aging and realized that landslides were affecting it.
This would need to be something that they addressed in their final plan for preserving American Falls. They also noticed something glinting at the bottom of it.
Make A Wish
Many people like to make a wish and toss a coin into a fountain, as it is considered to be good luck. One place that receives thousands of coins each year is the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
Visitors to American Falls believed that tossing a coin into the depths of the water was also the perfect place to make a wish, and over the decade’s hundreds of thousands of coins had collected at the base of the waterfall.
Upon closer investigation of the talus, that actually appeared to be holding up the rock face of American Falls, another discovery was made. A couple of human remains were found, but scientists were only able to identify one of them.
Over the decades, some men and women have used the falls as a place for daredevil stunts that went wrong. What was odd was the fact that only two sets of remains were found and not more.
Meet Annie Edson Taylor
Many brave men and women had tried to make it over Niagara Falls in various contraptions but had ultimately failed to survive the trip over the falls. Annie Edson Taylor decided to risk it in 1901 at the age of 63.
She thought that sitting in a barrel would protect her and make her buoyant once she reached the bottom of the falls. She survived but swore that nobody should ever attempt it ever again. Some people have since tried it but lost their lives in doing so.
Five Months Later
It took about five months in total for the engineering team to finish their surveys of the falls. They figured they would never have a chance like this ever again.
They needed to be as thorough as possible because the solutions they found for the talus build-up would need to last decades, if not hundreds of years. Throughout this time, visitors came to view the dried up falls, as they had never seen anything like it.
After evaluating the area around American Falls, the engineering team thought that building a large dam around the falls would keep the talus in place.
The only problem with this was that it could affect the other two waterfalls that made-up Niagara Falls, and substantially reduce the flow of water. This would affect the other hydropower stations and tourism. Neither Canada nor the United States wanted to reduce the flow of water.
There did not appear to be a good solution to dealing with the talus that lay below. If the engineers removed it, then the whole waterfall structure would change and possibly collapse.
Due to this, the engineers simply implanted monitoring instruments throughout the area and decided to let nature run its course. They would leave the talus and monitor the falls. There would be no new dams, and it was time to let the falls run free again.
The Present Day
Since 1969, American Falls has not been dammed the way it was in that year. However, now the United States is considering doing it once more.
There is a bridge that connects Goat Island to the United States, and it has fallen into disrepair over the years. To fix it, it might be necessary to cut off the flow of water or divert it once more. This has yet to be done, but it may yet happen in the coming years.
Getting Close To The Falls
Most people only managed to get within a few hundred feet of the cascading falls. Many cruise companies offer boat rides that allow you to get up close and personal with the mighty falls.
There is so much spray that you have to wear a beautiful plastic poncho to keep from getting soaked. Each year hundreds of people go on these cruises, and they have some great pictures to prove it.
A Piece Of History
With such a fascination felt by people around the world regarding the falls, it is no wonder that a museum was open, which is dedicated to its history.
Tourists can visit the Daredevil Exhibit and learn about all of the great men and women who tried to go over the falls in various ways. Some people tried to tightrope walk over it, while many others attempted the barrel method like Annie. Each of these stunts can be learned in great detail at the exhibit.
The IMAX Experience
Over the decades, a lot of footage was shot of Niagara Falls and the men and women who researched it like Tesla and attempted stunts.
The Canadian government has compiled this footage for viewing at the IMAX theater next to the falls. As you watch the film, you can imagine what it was like to be one of the old-timey tourists who saw the falls. Nature’s beauty was one of the greatest attractions of the time.
The Dining Experience
For the tourists who want to spend the night in the city of Niagara, there are plenty of great restaurants nearby. The Skylon Tower Falls Revolving Restaurant is situated at the top of the tower.
It slowly rotates and offers delectable food and views of the falls throughout the day, and the diverted falls in the evening. It gives tourists a unique chance to see the falls at both times of day, and how drastically different they look once the sun goes down.