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Niagara Falls to run dry!

Once-in-a-lifetime sight expected to draw millions of tourists

Created date

June 9th, 2016
June 12, 1969: The Corps of Engineers Buffalo District dewatered the American Falls to study erosion and the talus slope.

June 12, 1969: The Corps of Engineers Buffalo District dewatered the American Falls to study erosion and the talus slope.

Tightrope artists have walked across it. Daredevils have plunged over it, usually but not always in a barrel. Artists have painted it. And millions of tourists have flocked to upstate New York and Ontario, Canada, to gaze at the awesome beauty of Niagara Falls. 

Niagara Falls is actually three distinct waterfalls. Horseshoe Falls, which is mainly on the Canadian side, is the largest. American Falls, the next largest, and Bridal Veil Falls, the smallest, are on the American side.  

In the next few years, American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls will go dry. It’s not due to an impending drought or even global warming. This dehydration is both purposeful and temporary. At issue are two pedestrian bridges that have been in place for over 115 years. The New York parks department needs to replace those bridges and the only way to accomplish this is by diverting water away from the falls.  

Still in the planning stages, it remains to be seen how long the falls may be dry and it’s not even clear when the dewatering will take place, though officials predict it will happen sometime within the next three to seven years. 

Oldest state park

In the late 1800s, savvy industrialists located their businesses along the Niagara River to harness the tremendous power of the falls. The proliferation of factories and mills in the area prompted environmentalists to launch the Free Niagara movement, an effort to keep the natural beauty of the falls unsullied by commercial enterprises. Led by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and celebrated painter Thomas Church, the environmentalists triumphed. In 1885, a bill was signed into law making Niagara Falls the nation’s first state park. 

Shortly after that, Nicola Tesla, working with the Westinghouse Company, built the world’s first large-scale hydroelectric power plant just southeast of the falls. The plant roared into operation on November 16, 1896, sending power 25 miles to the city of Buffalo, N.Y. Currently, Niagara Falls supplies more than 25% of the power used in New York State and Ontario. 

The first dewatering

While the idea of draining Niagara Falls may sound novel, it’s actually been done before. Major rock falls in 1931 and 1954 had left a talus at the base of the American Falls. Not only was the talus unsightly, there was concern that more rock falls could eventually impede the flow of water. 

In 1969, engineers diverted water away from American Falls toward Horseshoe Falls. The project was supervised by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and the work was completed by the Albert Elia Construction Company. Working 11-hour shifts over a period of 3 days, 30 workers built a cofferdam out of 27,800 tons of boulders and rocky fill. 

As geologists and engineers studied the bedrock beneath the falls, tourists flocked to the park eager to see what normally lay beneath 700,000 gallons of rushing water. Over the course of one weekend, an estimated 89,790 people visited the area near the dry falls to see the once-in-a-lifetime sight.

Four and a half months after it was constructed, the cofferdam was removed. Sightseers were hoping for a tremendous show as a big wave of water once again started to flow over the falls; however, it was not to be. The Albert Elia Construction Company removed the dam slowly to prevent a massive surge. 

From the start, Niagara Falls was beloved by millions of people, so it was only fitting that in this particular case, the people were the ones who had the final say on what to do with the talus. Approximately 70,000 people sent their opinion on what to do about the falls to the New York parks authority. In the end, the people chose not to tamper with the American Falls and the park authority followed their wishes. 

Dry Niagara

Now, New York is preparing to once again dewater the falls. They must replace two bridges that were first installed in 1901 and span between the town of Niagara Falls and Goat Island, one of the most picturesque viewing spots in the park. 

Diverting the water is expected to cost around $3 million, while the bridge construction costs are estimated between $21.37 million and $41.94 million. Before any work can begin, however, the massive project will need to secure funding. 

In a normal year, the park attracts about eight million visitors and experts expect that number to surge when the falls are drained. If you can’t make the trip, don’t worry. There will undoubtedly be enough selfies, Instagram, and Facebook posts to help you experience it from afar.