Niagara's explorers, naturalists, tourists, and loonies

The horizontal layering of different types of rock sets the stage for the existence and movement of Niagara Falls. Hard limestone rock near the surface (Lockport dolomite is about 325 million years old) lies above softer layers of shale beneath (Queenston shale is about 400 million years old). Over time, the turbulence produced by the waterfalls has scoured portions of the shale layer, undermining the shallower limestone layer. When enough support has been removed, the limestone fractures and collapses, moving the brink of the falls upstream slightly and continuing the scouring process. In this manner, the falls have migrated southward from the escarpment at Lewiston to their present location. The recent eastward turn (recent in geological terms) at Goat Island has split the falls in two, yielding the American Falls on the north and the Horseshoe Falls on the south. The diversion of water for hydroelectric power production over the past 100 years has reduced the historical rate of erosion, allowing the falls to linger at its two namesake cities.

From a postcard, © Only in Buffalo

Niagara Falls remained a treasure for the native inhabitants until European explorers "discovered" it in the 1600s. Over the next hundred years the area was visited by more explorers with some stopping to settle there. The river provided a convenient transportation corridor; the falls and gorge provided a strategic barrier. Regular trade routes became established, followed by military roads and outposts, including Fort Little Niagara, Fort Schlosser, and Fort Niagara. Like most of the region, small settlements and a military presence were no guarantee of safety. On September 14, 1763, a military detachment escorting a wagon train from Fort Schlosser to Fort Niagara was ambushed and driven over the edge of the gorge at Devil's Hole. Only three individuals survived the massacre. The deaths of the other seventy christened the nearby creek "Bloody Run."

Early growth in both tourism and industry occurred where the water was: next to the river and falls. By the mid-1800s, tourists had to pay a private concern for the privilege of viewing the falls up close. Once near the Falls, however, they would see more factories and mills than nature. Continued development kindled a public movement for New York State to purchase lands adjoining the falls to restore and maintain the natural condition and beauty.

Even in unselfish pursuits of honorable goals, money becomes a factor: while the constitutional debt limit of the State could only be increased by $1 million, an appraisal of the lands from Port Day to the gorge, including Goat Island and the smaller islands, was close to $1.5 million, and the claims of property owners amounted to $4 million. Challenges were dispensed with, though, and the act acquiring the lands for $1.5 million was passed in 1885, with Governor Hill accepting them on July 15th. After much restorative work, the Niagara Reservation opened. It is still a showcase for preserving the natural state of the falls and providing access to the public.

There has always been a variety of ways to experience the picturesque scenery of the area. Trails for hiking run along the top of the gorge and down along the lower river. The principal lower trail follows the railbed of the Great Gorge Route, a trolley that ran between Niagara Falls and Lewiston from 1895 to 1935. Costly rockslides eventually forced the line out of business, and today many sections are only passable with some difficulty. The Maid of the Mist boat tours and Cave of the Winds walkways allow visitors close viewing of the falls, while jet-boats challenge the lower river rapids and whirlpool. Helicopter rides from both the Canadian and American sides give a broad view from above; a milder aerial ride is provided by the Spanish Aero Car, spanning the whirlpool on the Canadian side.

Municipal organization

As the area around the falls grew and matured, it also underwent changes of name and government structure. Schlosser became Manchester, which, after burning in the War of 1812, became the Village of Niagara Falls. In 1892 the village merged with the Village of Suspension Bridge, one mile downstream, and was incorporated as the City of Niagara Falls. In 1927 the city expanded by annexing the Village of LaSalle to the east, greatly expanding its borders to its current size of about 16 square miles.

The Falls have never failed to inspire

The falls have motivated many, spurring advances in bridge building, power production, commerce and tourism. They've also driven some individuals closer to the edge, literally, seeing the falls as a challenge and a goal for personal achievement, for profit, or for both. Blondin made his first tightrope walk during June, 1859 and embellished his subsequent performances with jumping, running, cooking, dancing, and bicycling. The following year he repeated his feat, even carrying his manager across with him. The next two tightrope walkers also debuted that year, with others following in the years since. In June 1911, Lincoln Beachy was the first to fly an airplane beneath one of the falls' bridges. Repeating that stunt today would instantly relieve the pilot from the burden of maintaining his license. As it was, Beachy met his maker a few years later when his airplane met San Francisco Bay.

Annie Taylor was the first to go over the falls in a barrel in October 1901. Many other attempts in barrels and a variety of vessels have been made since then, some with success and some without. Other means to challenge the falls have included high diving, kayaking, and jet-skiing. Museums on both the Canadian and American sides have quite a few artifacts remaining from the attempts; one person's trophy is another person's debris.