Turning off Niagara Falls … Again: 1969 Redux

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Social and conventional media, including the likes of the New York Times, were abuzz this week with the news of a proposal by New York State to “shut off” American Falls, the much smaller of the two main cataracts that make up Niagara Falls, in the next 2-3 years. How will it work? An upstream cofferdam in the Niagara River will divert water to the much larger Horseshoe Falls. The reason? The New York State parks system wants to replace crumbling stone bridges built in the early 20th century to connect Goat Island to the American mainland.

View of American Falls, Luna Island, and Bridal Veil Falls from below in Spring 2015 (note the ice). Photograph by Daniel Macfarlane

Many are incredulous that Niagara Falls, or part of it, can actually be turned off. But this exercise in water manipulation borders on the routine in the modern history of Niagara Falls. Indeed, the Horseshoe Falls were largely stilled for a time in the 1950s, and the American Falls were shut off in 1969 (not to mention that the existing power stations and their adjoining reservoirs have the capacity to completely take all the water meant for Niagara Falls). I have explored this already in different publications (e.g., an article and a book chapter), and am engaged in a book project that details the 20th-century transborder history of modifying Niagara Falls for hydro-electricity and enhancing the great cataract’s scenic appeal.

Since the turn of the 20th century there have been worries that the huge quantities of water diverted from the Niagara River for industrial and power purposes were harming the scenic beauty of the Falls and thus also tourism. Various joint Canadian-American boards, studies, and negotiations aimed to increase water diversions while obfuscating the apparent impact on the waterfall’s appearance. The Canada-US Niagara Convention and Protocol was signed in 1929, but did not make it through the US Senate. Over the course of the following two decades, the Niagara issue became part of failed attempts at a treaty for a St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, as well as other Great Lakes basin water modifications. Finally, in 1950, the two nations signed the Niagara River Diversion Treaty.

Figure 1
Map of the Niagara Waterscape. Map courtesy of Rajiv Rawat and Anders Sandberg, based on a map by Daniel Macfarlane

This accord authorized the binational construction, with International Joint Commission (IJC) oversight, of the International Niagara Control Works. These works consisted of various weirs, dams, excavations, and fills, designed not only to facilitate greater hydro-electric production by diverting water (up to three-quarters of the Niagara River’s flow) into tunnels before the falls which carried it to massive new downstream power stations, but also to “beautify” the Falls by reshaping the flow of water over the crest and halting erosion. Parts of these crest fills were fenced and landscaped to provide prime public vantage points. Extensive scale models were the primary means by which the form and location of the remedial works were selected. Long cofferdams shunted the water away from construction, and viewing stations were created so that the public could observe the dry waterfall and other aspects of the work in progress. The overarching goal was to have an uninterrupted “curtain of water” going over the precipice and reduce mist and “spray problems,” as visitors to the tunnels behind Table Rock had for decades complained that they were getting wet.

GIS map showing rates of erosion, and excavation and fill in the 1950s. Map by Daniel Macfarlane

With the Horseshoe Falls facelift accomplished, a campaign began in the mid-1960s to address the “unsightly” rock talus that had formed at the base of the American Falls (with the result that the American Falls were half waterfall, half cascade); this also led to calls for remedial action to prevent further erosion and rock slides, such as those that had occurred in 1931 and 1954. In 1967, Canada and the U.S. asked the IJC and US Army Corps of Engineers to investigate and report on measures necessary to preserve or enhance the beauty of the American Falls, specifically with regard to the talus.

The Corps of Engineers undertook a range of studies and tests, including a brief 1966 trial dewatering, and in 1969 the American Falls were shut off for about half the year, from June to November (see the adjoining images, as well as a video of the dry falls). Some 27,000 tons of rock and earth were dumped upstream to create a 600-foot long cofferdam from the mainland to Goat Island. (Incidentally, because of winter ice formation, there had been several past occasions when the Falls had slowed to a temporary halt, which I posted about last year). The outright removal of the talus was considered, as was the placement of a dam downstream from the Falls that would raise the Maid of the Mist pool and drown the talus (which would, of course, shrink the vertical height of the Falls).

Dry American Falls in 1969. Wikimedia Commons

At least one newspaper editor thought this campaign to “save the Falls” from an impending “death” was a concoction meant to boost tourism and the area’s economic prospects.[i] While some in the Niagara tourism industry worried about a detrimental drop in the 5 million people who visited annually, others thought that the waterfall renovation might provide a unique spectacle that could actually increase tourism. Millions of coins and other items of interest were found in the dry rock bed, including some bodies. Sprinklers were installed to keep the shale layer underneath the Lockport dolomite rock moist, since it deteriorated if exposed to rain and sun.[ii] Though many people did come for the express purpose of seeing what was hailed as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity, in the end, the pessimists were proven correct since tourism significantly declined in 1969.

Dry American Falls. © 1969 by Edwin H. Schroeder.

Based on investigations – which included hydraulic models and the input of 18 landscape architects, planners, and esthetics experts – the Corps concluded that the removal of the 280,000 cubic yards of talus might weaken the rock face, arguing that the talus was a “dynamic part of the natural condition of the Falls and the process of erosion should not be interrupted.”[iii] Based on this, as well as public input sessions and an estimated cost of approximately $26 million, the IJC decided in 1974 against talus removal. This position seemed to be based as much on cost considerations and uncertainty that talus removal would, in the long term, unequivocally benefit the scenic spectacle. To the IJC, it seemed “wrong to make the Falls static and unnatural, like an artificial waterfall in a garden or a park,” and the fundamental conclusion of the commission’s report was that “man should not interfere with the natural process.”[iv] Such statements represented a major shift in attitudes, compared to the dominant narratives propounded a decade or two earlier. Nonetheless, the dewatering provided an opportunity to stabilize the rock face of the American Falls with bolts and cables, and install electronic rockslide sensors. In the following years, other engineering modifications were also performed on Luna Island and Terrapin Point.

If the recently proposed dewatering goes ahead, it will be for a less controversial proposal – fixing bridges rather than trying to fix natural processes. And though a dry American Falls will be a novel experience, and one I certainly won’t miss, it won’t be without precedent.


[i] “Should Niagara Falls Look Like This?” Niagara Falls Gazette, September 9, 1973.

[ii] “This is absolutely fantastic,” Cheryl O’Neil, Niagara Falls Gazette, June 13, 1969.

[iii] LAC, vol. 6348, file 1268-D-40, pt. 25.2: St. Lawrence General Correspondence (November 25, 1953, to January 29, 1954), Press Release: Niagara Falls Preservation Program Starts, January 15, 1954; Nuala Drescher, Engineers for the Public Good: A History of the Buffalo District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (US Army Corps of Engineers, 1982), 258, 264.

[iv] IJC 1974 Report, Chapter VI: The Commission’s Considerations and Conclusions, 17.

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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of six books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be published in September 2024. He is now working on a book about Lake Michigan and eventually hopes to eventually write a book on the environmental history of the Great Lakes. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__


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