One might think that Niagara Falls was formed about 50,000 years ago when Lake Erie and several other Great Lakes were formed from melting glacial ice. However, Niagara Falls is much younger. It was created when Lake Erie overflowed. The original falls, however, were located about seven miles north of their current location. They have retreated about an inch per year due to erosion—a pace that is expected to continue for thousands more years.
The Seneca Indians originally settled the area. In the 17th century, the French discovered and fortified the area. One of their Forts, Old Fort Niagara, was instrumental in several wars. The British captured it In the French and Indian Wars. It was ceded to the United States after the Revolutionary War. Tourism began in earnest in the first half of the 19th century with the arrival of steamships, the Erie Canal, and especially in 1840 with the arrival of the area’s first railroad.
The Falls of Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls consists of three Falls. All are majestic.
- American Falls is the highest of the three at 184 feet. They have a relatively straight crest of 1,075 feet.
- Canadian Horseshoe Falls are a few feet shorter than American Falls. However, they are more than twice as wide (2,200 ft) as the American Falls. And while the crest of the American Falls is straight, that of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls is, you guessed it, shaped like a horseshoe.
- Bridal Veil Falls is a narrow torrent sandwiched between the much larger American and Canadian Falls. It is also accessible from the bottom via the Cave of the Winds (see below).
The Two Niagara Falls Cities
Niagara Falls is really 2 cities. One is in New York State, the other is in Ontario Canada. While they share the same name, they are as different as the falls.
The American City of Niagara Falls
The late 19th-century American city was a manufacturing and industrial city. Industrial companies owned virtually the entire shoreline. They harnessed the water power for their own use and spewed sewage and waste into the river. Those sections that corporations didn’t own were controlled by hucksters who fleeced the tourists who came to see the falls that were made famous by paintings.
Then landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead decided that the falls and the Niagara River Gorge were too valuable a natural heritage to be owned by private interests. He mobilized dozens of high-powered businessmen and politicians to create and clean up a State Park that would be open to the people. In 1895, Niagara Falls State Park became the first state park in the country.
But even after the park was established, the American city fought to protect its industrial and manufacturing businesses. When many of these businesses eventually collapsed, the city’s fortunes plummeted with them. While the somewhat dilapidated American city has a long way to go to rehabilitate its image, it is intent on trying.
The Canadian City of Niagara Falls
On the other hand, its Canadian sister city had long recognized that its fortunes lie in tourism rather than in protecting dirty, legacy businesses. It attracted upscale hotels and tourist businesses and authorized the building of a casino.
Exploring the American side of Niagara Falls
From the shoreline of the American side of Niagara Falls, one can view American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and parts of the Canadian Falls from many vantage points–from above the rim to many different spots downriver from the falls. But the best view, other than being on the water, is from Prospect Point Observation Tower. This 260-foot tall tower atop a deck suspended halfway across the Niagara River provides views of all three falls in addition to providing views and access to the gorge and of Maid of the Mist boat tours.
Goat Island is accessible via a footbridge and lies between the American and Canadian cities and falls. The American Falls can be seen from the southeast corner of the island while the Terrapin Point on the northeast corner provides a view of Horseshoe Falls. In the middle, the Cave of the Winds provides exhibits and a movie that traces the creation and industrial and tourist access to the falls, the gorge and the hydroelectric power that it generates. The highlight, however, is a chance to take an elevator 175 feet down to the water at the base of Bridal Veil Falls to the Cave of the Winds, where one gets soaked on the appropriately named Hurricane Deck.
where tourists can walk and get soaked (other than for the plastic ponchos that visitors are given) while walking a series of ramps along the base of small, but very powerful, middle cataract.
Whirlpool Park provides a viewpoint from a bluff from where you can see a series of whirlpools which are created by a 90-degree bend in the rushing river.
The Park also provides access to a long (more than 200 step) stone staircase that provides access to the shore and the Gorge Trail.
Activities on the Canadian Side of Niagara Falls
While we generally spend most of our time on the American side, on the Canadian side, we have:
- Walked the White Water Walk. After descending an elevator to the base of the lower gorge, we walked a boardwalk alongside the powerful rapids. In addition to seeing the rock layers of the gorge, you get a better idea of the water’s power.
- Explored Queen Victoria Park. We had panoramic views of all three falls, with spectacular close-up views of Horseshoe Falls and lovely floral displays.
Back on the American side is the Niagara Power Vista. The New York Power Authority which builds and manages the Niagara’s hydropower facilities built this educational center.
Located at the rim of a 350-foot section of the Niagara River Gorge, it uses interpretive panels and dozens of interactive exhibits to educate both adults and children on the history, technology, and benefits of one of the oldest and largest of the world’s hydropower plants. It explains the creation of the region’s geology. It covers from 600 million years ago when the region was covered by a shallow sea through the Ice Age and millennia of erosion, through its home to Seneca industries, and the 1948 period in which an ice jam stopped all water from even reaching, much less pouring over the falls.
As expected, it focuses primarily on the history and development of the region’s hydropower, from the first 1857 sawmill and dozens of other private facilities through the end of the 19th century. Its primary focus was on the development of large-scale commercial power from the initial challenge of the lack of turbines and shafts that were strong enough to stand up to the power of the falls. The panels and exhibits give more information about:
- The development of the first 900 horsepower facility in 1881 and its 1882 expansion to 40,000 horsepower;
- Frederick Law Olmsted’s effort to restore and preserve the rim, the gorge, the river, and the growth of tourism; and
- The battle between Edison, who sought to persuade first the 1893 Chicago World Fair (and later the NY Power Authority to select his Direct Current system) and Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse who promoted Tesla’s Alternating Current system (the ultimate winner).
By 1904 the addition of multiple systems produced up to 105,000 horsepower which was more than all the country’s other hydro projects combined. In fact the plant produced so much electricity that it overwhelmed the area’s ability to consume it. The authority was forced to develop transmission capabilities required to bring the electricity to Buffalo—the first city to offer municipal lighting and access to electrical service.
Other exhibits examine the roles of the various scientists, inventors, and engineers who experimented with and developed the many technologies required for today’s and tomorrow’s giant electrical grids.
Although we didn’t explore many of the interactive and child-focused exhibits, they appeared to be engaging and informative. But even those with no interest in hydropower and electricity will still appreciate the views of one of the deepest and steepest sections of the gorge.
Other Places to Visit
If you have the time, here are some other places to explore in the area:
Niagara Scenic Parkway is a 16-mile road that traces much of the river from Lewiston, New York to Old Fort Niagara. While parts of the Parkway and its scenic pullouts do provide lovely views of the gorge, the wide river, and its many rapids, other sections of the shoreline are so overgrown as to make it impossible to see the water.
Underground Railroad Heritage Center explains the role of Niagara Falls in helping escaped enslaved people cross to safety into Canada and the roles of Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” who guided the former slaves to freedom.
Old Fort Niagara offers tours of the oldest continuously occupied military site in North America and the history of the Fort’s roles in wars including the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars and the War of 1812.
Niagara Falls Restaurants
We only had time for one meal. For such a tourist area, we tried to find a decent sit-down lunch by the Falls. We ate at the Red Coach Inn. Our enjoyable meal consisted of a seafood omelet with shrimp and crab; and a fried haddock sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce.