What You Didn’t Know About That One Time Engineers Drained The Niagara Falls

Published on 07/30/2020
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In the summer of 1969, a group of engineers found the long-hidden secret of Niagara Falls. The minute they realized how to stop them from flowing, they did it. Yet, none of them were scared of the unknown they would find underneath the water. You might be under the impression that this mission was impossible – to stem the flow of Niagara Falls. However, these scientists saw nothing as impossible. So that year, the hidden gems beneath the Falls were about to be revealed. Read on to find out what these engineers discovered.

A Place Worth Seeing

Whether you’ve seen the Falls in person or on video, you must have been amazed the first time you saw just how vast they were. Nowadays, millions of tourists go to visit each year and post their photos on social media. Lots of those people even write blogs and make vlogs about the Falls, explaining their personal impressions. Of course, words can’t describe everything, and a camera can’t depict the true sensations one can get by going to the actual site. So, everyone should go visit the Falls at least once in their lives. All the same, the site wasn’t as amazing five decades ago, when scientists were investigating it.

A Place Worth Seeing

A Place Worth Seeing

A Discovery

When it was decided by scientists that they would look ‘behind the scenes’ of Niagara Falls, they had no idea what could be dwelling underneath. The minute they announced their plans, the public eye was strained on them. A lot of people wanted to witness this incredible and historical moment. Tempering nature is always a challenge, plenty of people wondered if it was truly possible to do what the scientists wanted to. Were their plans based on realistic goals or just wishful thinking? The moment the water level in the Falls began receding, the spectators’ trust in the scientists grew.

A Discovery

A Discovery

Their Beginning

About 18,000 years ago, Niagara Falls didn’t exist. They were formed when ice sheets came from the North Pole, leaving behind what is known today as North America. It wasn’t until these massive chunks of ice melted that Niagara Falls came into existence. As a result of the glaciers melting, the incredible amount of water was sent into the Niagara River. The Falls weren’t formed immediately. A lot of time went by before the water wore away the cliffs and formed the Falls we know today.

Their Beginning

Their Beginning

Between The Countries

Nowadays, Niagara Falls is a natural border between two similar yet very different countries: Canada and the United States. While they have been visited by many people from all over the world, it’s not known just how long ago visitors began going there. Perhaps it was a thousand years ago, or maybe it was earlier than that? We can only guess that the locals were enjoying the beauty in their midst before the rest of the world found out about them. There aren’t any written records about their first visitor’s visit or about the first domestic admirers. What is known for a fact is that a lot of different indigenous communities lived in their neighborhood.

Between The Countries

Between The Countries

French Explorer

There are records in writing saying that the very first person from Europe to hear about Niagara Falls was an explorer from France named Samuel de Champlain. That happened sometime in the beginning of the 17th century. Still, he wasn’t by any means the first person from Europe to go there and visit the Falls. On the other hand, until 1678, no one from Europe went to see the Falls in person. The man who did that was none other than Father Louis Hennepin who went to Niagara Falls searching for New France. At least, that was the name that was given to that part of North America.

French Explorer

French Explorer

Five Years Later

Five years passed since he returned home from the Falls, and Father Louis Hennepin decided to put his thoughts down on paper. He wrote A New Discovery article in which the name of the Falls appeared for the first time. So essentially, Niagara Falls came into existence in 1683. The name stems from the word, “onguiaahra” – an Iroquoian word – which means ‘the strait’. Once this article was published, Father Louis Hennepin became famous as the first person from Europe to see Niagara Falls. After that, a lot of European visitors came to see the beauty they read about.

Five Years Later

Five Years Later

New Tourist Attraction

It wasn’t until the 1800s when Niagara Falls became a tourist destination. Basically, two hundred years after it was discovered, the first tourists from Europe came to see and admire the vastness of the Falls. By this time, the first serious business people, mostly hoteliers, realized the true potential of the place. And so, they began making investments on the land around the waterfall. Ever since its beginnings as a tourist destination, Niagara Falls became a popular honeymoon destination and remains so to this day. The sole difference is that in the 1800s prices were not as high as they are today.

New Tourist Attraction

New Tourist Attraction

Industry Development

Aside from the people who wanted to enjoy their free time and relax by the Falls, there were industrial corporations who saw the good sides of this site. They saw the huge potential that the Falls have and knew they could make use of the waterfall to power their factories and their mills. By the end of the 19th century, the world’s first hydroelectric generating station was built by the Falls. Soon, it began producing a huge amount of electricity which was put to use.

Industry Development

Industry Development

Nikola Tesla

Despite the fact that the new hydroelectric generating station was a revolutionary invention for its time, it wasn’t capable of carrying electricity to long distances. It was only able to carry electricity up to 300 feet. This wasn’t a good thing. Something needed to be improved, but no one knew how to accomplish that. One day, the famous scientist, Nikola Tesla, made a huge impact on the world we know now. You might be wondering how. Well, he found a way to send electricity to long distances by using alternate currents. At first, he sent electricity as an experiment to Buffalo. New York was about 20 miles away from the power plant.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

The Falls Still Create Electricity

Despite the fact that this invention was made over a century ago, it still works the same way it did when Tesla was around. It’s just as important today, too. After all, this electricity is produced from renewable sources. Nowadays, these waterfall power plants produce over two million kilowatts of power. It has become even more significant in this century than the last since the cities have become overpopulated and polluted. Only energy produced from sources like water, wind, and sun can save us from our own destructive nature.

The Falls Still Create Electricity

The Falls Still Create Electricity

US & Canada

Seeing as Niagara Falls is a natural border between Canada and the US, it belongs to both countries. From either side, it gets over 15 million tourists a year or more than 30 million tourists a year in total. So, essentially, both countries share the benefits of the waterfalls. At the Falls, 6 million cubic feet run down in just one minute. Just imagine what kind of damage that amount of water could do outside of the Falls – it could ruin entire cities.

US & Canada

US & Canada

Water Amount

The amount of water in Niagara Falls changes at night. There is actually less water in the Falls during the night. How can that be? This is due to the human factor. It’s not something that normally happens naturally. In fact, it just so happens to be that local companies are allowed to take more water from the Falls at night. In the 1950s, a treaty was signed allowing local companies to take more water at night since there are fewer tourists there and even those who do come at night wouldn’t notice the difference.

Water Amount

Water Amount

In Winter

Ever wondered what happens in the Falls during the freezing winter? Is the waterfall capable of freezing when the temperatures are below 0 °C (32 °F)? It turns out that the Falls freeze partially in some places, but the flow doesn’t stop. At least not due to low temperatures. One this that happens during the winter but also during other seasons is a certain amount of water becomes clouds of vapor. There is a site where only the upper part is water and beneath there are huge clouds.

In Winter

In Winter

Three Waterfalls

Technically speaking, Niagara Falls belong to Canada and the US, but there are some parts that solely belong to the US. The American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls are exclusively American parts of Niagara Falls. On the other hand, there is no part that only belongs to Canada. The biggest part is called Horseshoe Falls which represents the natural border between the countries.

Three Waterfalls

Three Waterfalls

Some Concerns

People who go see Niagara Falls often enough will be able to notice the changes the waterfall experiences over time. With each new gallon of water that goes down the cliffs, the Falls lose a bit of its charm. At least, this is true according to people who live nearby and visit the Falls regularly. To new visitors, the Falls must have been breathtaking. All the same, some stones accumulate at the bottom of the Falls which could cause some future problems.

Some Concerns

Some Concerns

International Joint Commission

Seeing as the concerns of New York citizens living at the Falls reach both American and Canadian authorities, an organization was created to take care of the shared waters. It was named the International Joint Commission. Since Americans were mainly concerned about the American Falls, they were the ones to suggest that something needs to be done with the accumulated rocks at the bottom. It got to the point that even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was asked for their expert opinion on the matter.

International Joint Commission

International Joint Commission

Beginning The Operation

Since no other solutions for the problem of the accumulated rocks at the bottom were thought of, the engineers decided to shut it down. This was only temporary until they removed all the rocks and earth under the water. In the summer of 1969, over 1,000 trucks carried rocks and earth to the Falls only to stop the flow and clear the area underneath the cliffs. The loads were being dumped upstream for three days.

Beginning The Operation

Beginning The Operation

A Cofferdam

The temporary structure was called a cofferdam. It was made by the engineers at Niagara Falls between the mainland and Goat Island. It was built from 27,000 tons of rocks and earth brought there by about 1,200 trucks. The length of the structure was 600 feet (182.88 meters).

A Cofferdam

A Cofferdam

American Falls

As you can tell from the picture, the engineers were able to prevent water from going towards the American Falls. From there, the water was redirected towards the Horseshoe Falls. And so, the waters in Niagara Falls were silenced for a little while. Actually, only the waters from the American Falls were silenced since it was impossible to stop the entire Niagara Falls at the same time.

American Falls

American Falls

Locals Were Terrified

During this operation, the locals had two main concerns. The first one was that they were afraid of the waters since it’s a dangerous thing to block the natural path a river has. What if the waters flooded their land? The second one was about tourists. The locals were nervous that the lack of water would cause a decrease in the number of people who would come and see the Falls. On the other hand, some people thought the exact opposite – too many people would come and see what was hiding underneath the Falls and it would be too much to handle.

Locals Were Terrified

Locals Were Terrified

Tourists Amounts Decreased

Unfortunately, the number of tourists decreased as a result of the drying of the American Falls. By the end of 1969, the number of tourists who came to see the rocks was lower than the number of previous years when the Falls were at their fullest. All the same, the people who did come visit Niagara Falls in the summer of 1969 had a unique opportunity to take something from the site and bring it home with them. Some people took rocks, while others, who got lucky, got coins from the riverbed.

Tourists Amounts Decreased

Tourists Amounts Decreased

Skeletons

While planning the operation and executing it, no one even dreamed of finding anything as gruesome as skeletons. While the water was receding, the spectators noticed bones beneath the water. At the time, it wasn’t clear if the bones belonged to people or perhaps big animals that drowned in the river. One thing was for sure: it was better off that there weren’t as many tourists since the scene would prevent them from coming back ever again.

Skeletons

Skeletons

Man And Woman

The first two skeletons the engineers discovered belonged to a man and a woman. Once they were examined, it turned out that the man died by jumping into the water of Niagara Falls. All the same, the year of death was unknown. As for the woman, no possible causes of death were visible aside from drowning. It was thought that the woman saw her lover drown and decided to meet him there.

Man And Woman

Man And Woman

More Deaths

As the water receded, even more skeletons emerged. Apparently, this site used to be a place where many people would take their own lives. Still, this fashion isn’t a time-related thing. Experts on the matter say that to this day, about 40 people go there to commit suicide each year.

More Deaths

More Deaths

Risking Their Lives

It wasn’t only suicidal people who lost their lives in the Niagara Falls. In the past, many accidents happened where people fell and disappeared. Even some stunt people came to make their shows and attempt the impossible: jump from the cliffs and then swim towards the shore. Of course, this was never a possible thing, nor will it ever be. The water is too fierce for any human to defeat.

Risking Their Lives

Risking Their Lives

Annie Edson Taylor

Back in 1901, a woman named Annie Edson Taylor did something many people wouldn’t even think of. The 63-year-old teacher decided she wanted to become famous and connected to her favorite place in a special way. She trapped herself inside a big wooden barrel and asked people to throw it from the shore into the Falls. While she did survive the experience, she also said the experience was so bad that no one should ever make such a bad decision as that. Still, there are some people who followed her example. Some succeeded while others, unfortunately, did not.

Annie Edson Taylor

Annie Edson Taylor

Karel Soucek

A Canadian stuntman by the name of Karel Soucek did the same thing as Annie Edson Taylor back in 1984. He survived. A while later, he decided to repeat his stunt in the Houston Astrodome in Texas. However, this time, he wasn’t so lucky. Jesse Sharp, an American stuntman, wanted to travel down the Falls in his canoe. He did it, but no one has seen him since. Some people speculate that he survived, but that is highly unlikely.

Karel Soucek

Karel Soucek

Removing The Talus

The people who were present while the Niagara waters began receding were telling stories about how they personally felt about the findings underneath. They said they enjoyed the site but were also afraid of the power the waters had. At one point, they were sure the water would break the da, and take an act of revenge on them and their homes. When they saw the skeletons, they described how small and fragile they felt compared to those waters. Even the engineers who were part of the operation admitted they didn’t know it would be as difficult as it was.

Removing The Talus

Removing The Talus

Very Dangerous

Before taking on this task, the engineers didn’t know all the facts. However, when they saw the situation on the spot, they decided to change their plans. What they didn’t know before was that the rocks under the water were supporting the cliff. So, removing them would have probably destroyed the whole place. This new aspect was more important and vital than all the previous assumptions. They couldn’t remove the rocks without seriously damaging the site. However, after all this work that already went into it, did they just leave everything as is?

Very Dangerous

Very Dangerous

Permanent Dam

When they realized they should definitely not remove the rocks, they instead decided to build a permanent dam. Even so, that solution was not a perfect one since it would have weakened the American Falls. At last, they gave up on that idea. So, the engineers didn’t remove any rocks or build the dam, but was the entire operation done for nothing? Yes and no. Of course, they weren’t aware of the rocks’ significance until they saw that and they found the bones of many people who dies there. Still, what was to be done with the look of the waterfalls? Was there anything else they could do?

Permanent Dam

Permanent Dam

Six Months Later

In 1969, Niagara Falls didn’t have water for a period of six months. Actually, only the American Falls had no water. The engineers worked on stabilizing the waterfalls for future generations. Despite there being a real danger of landslide, it didn’t happen. Experts had introduced landline sensors to alert the people if the ground started moving. Thankfully, they knew what they were doing. No mistakes were made as bolts, cables, and anchors were built into the cliffs of the Falls.

Six Months Later

Six Months Later

Protecting The Falls

The cofferdam between Goat Island and the mainland was destroyed in November 1969 by dynamite. The exact moment when the dynamite went off, a huge amount of water went along its old route and revived the American Falls. The locals’ worries were now unneeded since the tourists began flocking towards the Falls again. It was good nothing actually changed by the work the engineers have done. All the same, the Falls proved to be much stronger than anyone thought.

Protecting The Falls

Protecting The Falls

It Changed Everything

Even though the absence of water from the Falls didn’t change anything about them, what did make a difference to the Falls was the development of the industry. Generally speaking, the newly-developed area of human work influenced the entire world, but it took the biggest toll on nature. The businesses that used the power of the waterfalls for themselves almost changed the downstream. In fact, it happened in every step of its development. Industry couldn’t let nature work on it’s own apparently without marring it in some way or another.

It Changed Everything

It Changed Everything

Conservation Vs. Industry

Ever since the development of the industry came in the way with the conservation work at the Falls, something needed to be done in order to regulate these two fields not to affect each other. On the one hand, experts only cared for the beauty of the Falls, but the businessmen only cared for the production of power. As industrials took more and more water from the site, nature experts noticed and complained. They all asked for a debate to find a compromise.

Conservation Vs. Industry

Conservation Vs. Industry

Their Viewpoint

Industrials actually believed they were helping Niagara Falls by limiting the amount of water that went towards to cliffs. They were sure that the less water in the Falls, the slower the erosion would be. The truth was that erosion did happen at the rate of 4.5 feet each year. So, the industrials’ viewpoint did make sense, but was it true?

Their Viewpoint

Their Viewpoint

An Agreement

Seeing as neither Canadian nor American officials wanted their industries to stagnate, they decided to agree with the industrials. They accepted their point of view. Was that the right decision, however? The answer to this question would be clear in the years to come. But, seeing as the Falls still exist today and millions of tourists from all around the world travel there, we can safely say it was the right decision. While the industrials continued with their development, the natural site remained the same.

An Agreement

An Agreement

Innovative Solution

Seeing as the two countries cooperated rather well on this matter, they also agreed on an innovative solution for the industrials. Since there were fewer tourists at night and during the winter months, they all agreed that factories can use up to 75% of the waters from the Falls. During summer, and autumn, the amount of water the industries could use was up to 50% and no more than that. The industrials were also allowed to change the lip of Horseshoe Falls, creating an illusion of a powerful flow as a result.

Innovative Solution

Innovative Solution

Today

Not so much is different today. All these points were agreed on back in the 19th century and are still recognized now. All the tourists that go visit the Falls more than one say that they are always the same. Perhaps at some point in the future, experts will again decide to dry the Falls to simply see what is underneath. Since this check-up has already happened, we can know what is underneath.

Today

Today

The End

Back in 2016, an announcement was made by the Niagara Frontier State Park Commission saying that their plans include checking the bottom of the Falls sometime in the near future. We can’t wait for that to happen. We hope there will be live streaming for social media users to see. What do you think?

The End

The End

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