ActiveHistory.ca is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!
The following post by Daniel Macfarlane was originally featured on March 5, 2015.
Niagara Falls has frozen. Well, not really. The entire water flow of the famous Horseshoe Falls doesn’t actually freeze, despite ‘polar vortexes’ (more commonly known to most Canadians as ‘winter’). Water keeps flowing underneath the ice. The American Falls does occasionally dry up due to ice jams upstream (and this has happened once in recorded history to the Horseshoe Falls: see note ). Tourists are nonetheless flocking to see the gelid cataract – and some people are even climbing it!
Wind can send large chunks of ice from Lake Erie down the Niagara River. Ice jams at the base of the waterfalls form what are known as “ice bridges.” In the 19th century these congealed water spans became an occasion for festivities, as the two Niagara Falls communities on either side of the international border would use them for transnational ice parties. Talk about having a drink on the rocks!
That is, they had ice parties until one fateful day. On February 4, 1912, the ice bridge broke away and raced downstream. 3 people perished. From that point on, such festivities on the ice were prohibited.
But that wasn’t the end of disasters related to ice build up. In 1938, another ice bridge broke free and took out the famed Honeymoon Bridge (see a video of the collapse here).
Obviously there was an ice problem, at least from an anthropocentric perspective.
But ice wasn’t the only aspect of the Niagara system that Canadian and American officials wanted to change. Bilateral efforts had already led to the diversion of massive volumes of water around the falls for hydro and industrial production. These efforts reached their apogee with the 1950 Niagara Treaty. This accord authorized the remaking of the actual waterfalls themselves, with up to ¾ of the water diverted around the waterfall to power stations downstream. I won’t get into all that, however, since I’ve previously done so on the NiCHE website and other places.