The Day Niagara Falls Quit Flowing

July 10, 2021

Niagara Falls view.

Just before midnight on March 29, 1848, the mighty Niagara Falls did something it had never done in recorded history — it stopped flowing. The massive amount of water, around 212,000 cubic feet per second, had been reduced to near nothing.

A local American farmer first noticed the change in the falls while taking a midnight stroll along the river near American Falls, one of three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls. The news spread to the local townspeople, but the information was slow to get to others because the telegraph had only just been invented.

Eventually, word spread like wildfire that the falls had just mysteriously stopped. News finally arrived from Buffalo to explain the phenomenon and solve the mystery. Large chunks of ice had been blown by strong southwest winds on Lake Erie toward the head of the Niagara River, effectively blocking the flow of water. So much ice had moved into the mouth of the river that it created a temporary ice dam.

Niagara Falls Circa 1858
Niagara Falls Circa 1858

Everything upriver had stopped, including the mills and factories. Without the flow of water, there was nothing for them to do. The riverbed was exposed, fish flopped around, and people saw their opportunity to do something unique. Souvenir hunters and curiosity seekers walked and even rode buggies across the riverbed, finding items left over from the War of 1812, such as muskets, bayonets, and tomahawks. It was a dangerous undertaking since the river water could have come rushing back at any time.

But even that danger didn’t stop the U.S. Army Cavalry from parading back and forth across the river. Other people saw an opportunity. At the base of the falls, there were rocks that had been dangerous to the Maid of the Mist, the famous Niagara Falls sightseeing boat. The boat’s owners had workers bring out explosives to blast away the rocks that the boat always had to avoid.

The river couldn’t be held back for long and finally flowed again as the temperature rose and the ice upriver gave way. By the evening of March 31, 1848, the river was flowing, and all of the falls were running once again. The river and the falls would run uninterrupted until 1969, when the falls would stop once more. Not from natural causes this time, but by man, in an attempt to actually help the falls.

The Falls Stop Again

In 1965 a newspaper story from the Niagara Falls Gazette reported that if the rocks at the base of American Falls weren’t removed, then the falls would eventually stop altogether. The claim was enough to prompt some action by the government.

By 1969 a plan was in place to correct the “problem.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was tasked with the undertaking. They diverted the water to the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side using a cofferdam in June 1969. It took three days and 1,264 truckloads of fill, or 27,800 tons of rock, to stop the flow of water. The engineers used the opportunity to study the riverbed and bolted fault lines in the riverbed to delay the erosion from the falls.

The main issue was the abundance of rock at the bottom of the falls. Rockslides had caused an excessive amount of rock to collect at the base of the falls. This was of prime concern to the engineers of the project and the main reason they had started it in the first place. But the engineers realized that it just wasn’t practical to remove the rock pile, and it might speed up the erosion process. By November, the idea was abandoned, and the cofferdam was blown up. The falls began to flow again and haven’t stopped again to this day.

In 1973, a ballot was distributed asking people what should be done about the American Falls and its nasty erosion problem, specifically the rocks at its base. The rock pile causes the waterfall to be reduced from 100 feet to 45 feet. The conclusion of the public survey and balloting was overwhelming. People chose not to change the American Falls in any way.

Other amazing facts about Niagara Falls

468px Annie Taylor
The 1st over the falls, Annie Edson Taylor

Seventeen people have gone over the falls intentionally. Five have died, including one who went over in a kayak without a life jacket or helmet and another who went over on a jet ski. He perished when his homemade jetpack-assisted parachute did not deploy.

The first person to go over the falls was a 63-year-old teacher named Annie Edson Taylor in 1901. She did it in a wooden barrel along with her cat.

The Paris Peace Treaty of 1783 established the International Boundary line for the falls and later agreed on in the Jay’s Treaty of 1794. Following the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent agreed to similar boundaries.

The foam that occurs at Niagara Falls happens because of calcium carbonate in the mist that comes from the water as it evaporates while going over the falls. The calcium carbonate mixes with algae and diatoms to form the foam. It eventually disappears and is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

The Niagara River’s name originated from an early native Indian tribe called “Onguiaahra.” French explorers gave this tribe the name “Neutrals” since they were peacekeepers between the warring Huron and Iroquois Indian nations. It may have been for a more obvious reason since “Onguiaahra” is quite a mouthful, but this is only an unsubstantiated theory. Either way, Niagara originated from the name “Onguiaahra,” as it means “Thunder of Waters.”

Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the nation, established in 1885, and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed it. He also designed New York City’s Central Park.

3,160 tons of water flow over the falls every second, hitting the bottom at the American and Bridal Veil Falls with 280 tons of force, and 2,509 tons of force at the Horseshoe Falls.

Four million kilowatts of electricity are produced by the falls, which are distributed and shared between Canada and the United States.

Approximately 90% of the fish survive going over the falls.

Sources: Cosmos Magazine, Wired, Daily Mail, Niagara Falls Info

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

Follow the Stew