29 March 2012

The day Niagara Falls dried up

29 March 1848 marks the first, and only, time in recorded history that Niagara Falls came to a stand-still due to natural causes.
niagara falls dried up 1969

This photograph shows a completely dry Niagara Falls during the period in 1969 when American engineers blocked off the flow down the American side. American Russ Glasson found this and several others, belonging to his in-laws, in his garage, more than four decades after they were taken.
Credit: Russ Glasson

~ Becky Crew

One hundred and sixty-four years ago today, Niagara Falls stopped flowing. For the first and only time in recorded history, it stopped bucketing its average 567,811 Litres per second, for a period of 30 to 40 hours.

The first person to discover the eerie silence of the falls, which form a natural border between the Canadian province of Ontario and New York state in the U.S., was local farmer Jed Porter. Just before midnight on 29 March 1848, Porter decided to take a late-night stroll along the river near American Falls – one of the three falls that make up Niagara Falls. What he saw must have seemed like nature’s most successful (if premature) April Fool’s joke ever, because somehow, the waterfall with the highest flow rate of any in the world had been reduced to a trickle.

While some people holed themselves up in the local churches, terrified that this could be a sign of the coming apocalypse, others collected archaeological treasures that rested in the completely exposed river bed, including bayonets, gun barrels, muskets, tomahawks and other artefacts from the War of 1812.

And if you thought that was brave – because for all they knew, the water could come crashing back at any second – a squad of U.S. Army Cavalry soldiers rode their horses back and forth across the riverbed, suffocating fish and dried-out turtles flopping underfoot. Because this was an historic event and if anyone’s going to go out of their way to ensure that it is marked with the appropriate level of pomp and ceremony, it’s the Americans.

By the morning of March 31, the Falls remained silent. Workers even found the time to cart explosives over to blast away the rocks that had been a navigational hazard to the Maid of the Mist tourist boat since its inception in 1846.

Because the electrical telegraph had barely been invented at the time, it took days before the locals, and the rest of the world, were told exactly what had happened to the Niagara Falls. During winter, Lake Erie – from which the water flows through the Niagara Falls system to end up in Lake Ontario – is capable of producing 16,093 km2 of ice. A gale force wind had been blowing south-west across it during the latter weeks of March 1848, until on March 29, massive chunks of lake ice measuring hundreds of thousands of tonnes had been pushed into the mouth of Niagara River, completely restricting the flow of water. This natural frozen dam stood its ground until the evening of 31 March 1848, when the wind shifted directions and the temperature rose to 16º Celsius, causing the ice to melt and break apart, releasing the water once more.

While today marks the anniversary of the only natural stoppage of the Niagara Falls flow, in July 1969, a team from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers managed to divert the flow of water from Niagara River away from the American half of the Niagara Falls for several months with an artificial dam. This colossal effort allowed them to study the composition of the riverbed and strengthen a number of faults so slow the inevitable erosion of American Falls. Unfortunately for those of us who love when horses parade, unlike in the 1848 dry-up, no horses were paraded across Niagara Falls in 1969.


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