Two big waterfalls on the Niagara River — American Falls and Horseshoe Falls — have been a source of fascination for hundreds of years.
By Pamela Selbert, F195400
Niagara Falls has a longstanding reputation for attracting honeymooners and daredevils. It still does today, but the majority of people who visit this amazing natural attraction are there simply to enjoy the view.
Long before you actually see the falls of the Niagara River — the Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls and American Falls — as you drive north from Buffalo, New York, along Interstate 190, you can tell that something is up. Huge, white clouds of mist, rising like smoke from some giant factory, hover above the thousands of gallons of water thundering over Horseshoe Falls.
As you reach the town of Niagara Falls, New York, look for signs that lead to exit 21, Robert Moses Parkway. As you approach the falls, you can get your first glimpse of the river by stopping at a water intake area (used by a power generating company), where an overlook and parking area is located. The Niagara River above the falls is dotted with islands: Robinson Island, Green Island, the little parallel footprint-shaped Three Sisters Islands, and the far larger Goat Island.
From there you watch the churning water, green and translucent as slag glass, hurtle toward the abyss, a mesmerizing sight. From this vantage you can’t really see the falls, but you can imagine the terror of those unfortunate souls who have ventured too close in a rowboat, and marvel at the insanity of others who have sealed themselves in a barrel for the thunderous descent.
The first person to go over Horseshoe Falls on purpose (in a barrel) was Annie Taylor, in 1901. The 63-year-old survived the trip; however, of the 14 others who have attempted the feat since then, only nine have lived. In 1960, one person accidentally went beyond the point of no return after a boat capsized, and survived the ordeal: Roger Woodward, who was 7 years old at the time. Aside from actually going over the falls, other daredevil feats through the years have included walking across the gorge via tightrope; riding the rapids near the falls in a barrel; boating and rafting near the area; and jumping from nearby bridges, or from an airplane.
To glean the best view of the falls from the American side, continue taking Robert Moses Parkway until it dead-ends at a New York state parking lot. Just ahead on your left is Niagara Falls State Park (formerly called Niagara Reservation State Park). Established in 1885, this is New York’s oldest state park and spans more than 400 acres next to the falls. It encompasses this part of the shoreline as well as Goat Island, which is accessible by car, and other islands that may be reached via walking bridges.
Also at the park is the 282-foot-tall Prospect Point Observation Tower, a crane-shaped structure of aluminum, glass, and steel that juts 100 feet over the cliffs and features several observation decks. On the Cave of the Winds trip, you can ride an elevator deep into the Niagara Gorge, and wearing special footwear and a bright yellow raincoat, walk in swirling mist at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, and get a side view of the American Falls. There, the river plunges 180 feet, banging off bulging rocks on the way down, sending up a foamy spray, and crashing on a field of huge boulders at the bottom. American Falls is 10 feet higher than Horseshoe Falls, yet it’s only half as wide.
A 20-foot-long relief map of the Niagara Falls region can be seen at Old Fort Niagara, located in Youngstown, New York, approximately 20 minutes north of Niagara Falls State Park. The Niagara River drops a total of 326 feet along its 35-mile route between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. It has chiseled a gorge up to 350 feet deep along the way. And it’s constantly growing — every year, more of the cliff is eaten away.
Geologists say that the Niagara River was created some 12,000 years ago from the melted waters of the Wisconsin Glacier. The falls once were located near where the town of Queenston now stands, approximately 7 miles downstream from their present site. Before the era of hydroelectric power plants, nearly 4 inches of rock were ground away by the river each year. But in 1917 work began on Niagara’s first major hydroelectric generating station, and more than 3 million horsepower is now produced on the Canadian side. Since the 1950s, water diversion has slowed the annual erosion from 3 feet every 10 years to approximately 12 inches in that same time frame.
Even so, the amount of water that flows over Horseshoe Falls and American Falls is amazing: the combined water flow between April and October is 750,000 gallons of water per second. The rest of the year, the combined flow is about half that amount, as more water is diverted.
Many people maintain that the best view of Niagara Falls is gleaned from the Canadian side. However, since the attacks on the United States last September, security at the border is more stringent than ever. Americans crossing into Canada must be sure they have a passport, or an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, and a photo ID. If you are traveling with your grandchildren, or with any children under age 18 who are not yours, you must have written permission from their parents to bring them into Canada. Be sure to leave all weapons behind; this includes guns, knives, pepper spray, and mace. Answer all questions politely, and you’ll likely be across the border in no time. For more border crossing information, phone Ontario Tourism, Travel Links, at (800) 668-2746 and press 2, then 1; or visit www.ontariotravel.net, or www.ccraadrc.gc.ca, the Web site for the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency.
Once on the Canadian side, you can take a magnificent promenade to look out over the entire spectacle. Northernmost are the American Falls; south of there, separated by a tiny island, are the delicate Bridal Veil Falls. Farther south is amoeba-shaped Goat Island, then, the loop of Horseshoe Falls, from which rise the clouds of mist you saw from the highway. From that point, the Niagara River makes a sharp bend and continues to flow north toward its terminus in Lake Ontario.
The reason for this dramatic vertical fall of water, and for the shape of the canyon below the falls, is that hard Niagaran dolomite overlays softer rock below that can be easily worn away. Periodically, support for the hard upper layer is eroded enough for it to break off and move the falls a little farther upstream.
Both sides of the Niagara River became battlegrounds between 1812 and 1814. Across from Fort Niagara stood Fort George, which had been built by the British in 1796. It was captured by U.S. soldiers in May 1813 and burned later that year. It was retaken by the British the following December, this time in ruins. Parks and monuments that commemorate that turbulent time are among the attractions that await the 12 million visitors who come to Niagara Falls every year.
In addition to the falls, you’ll find many other attractions on both sides of the river. In Canada, Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum On The Battlefield (5810 Ferry St.) stands at the site of one of the fiercest battles of the War of 1812. The museum includes military displays, Indian artifacts, and a collection of art and items that depict the life of the area’s early settlers.
The Canadian side also features the Niagara Parks Greenhouse, just south of Horseshoe Falls, which contains colorful arrays of flowers and tropical birds; the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, 6 miles north of Horseshoe Falls, which includes a butterfly conservatory; Minolta Tower Centre, where you can dine while enjoying a spectacular view of the falls, or, just travel to the top in an elevator and take in the scene. In addition, the IMAX Theatre Niagara Falls features a movie titled Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic, which is shown on a six-story screen. The theater complex also displays “Daredevil Adventure,” a collection of artifacts from previous challenges of the falls, such as barrels and other contraptions.
The assortment of amusements on the Canadian side also includes a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum; the Movieland Wax Museum; the Oakes Garden Theatre, a large outdoor amphitheater and gardens; the Niagara Falls Museum, which was established in 1827 and is touted as Canada’s oldest museum; and Louis Tussaud’s Waxworks.
For a close-up look at Horseshoe Falls from below, take a Maid Of The Mist cruise. Four open boats depart from the dock at Clifton Hill Street and River Road on the Canadian side; they also depart from a dock at the base of the observation tower at Niagara Falls State Park in New York. Passengers don hooded blue raincoats for the trip; they still get wet, but it’s thrilling to chug right up to the base of the falls.
Back on the American side, be sure to explore the remainder of attractions at Niagara Falls State Park. The park’s visitors center offers a 22-minute film depicting the history of the falls. An open-air tram called the Viewmobile departs from the visitors center on a 3-mile jaunt through the park, stopping at Goat Island, which is webbed with pathways that provide stunning views from the very edge of the American Falls. The tram also stops at tiny Luna Island, which lies even closer to the brink, and at the Three Sisters Islands. You’ll see the Schoellkopf Geological Museum’s exterior while at the park, but, unfortunately, the museum will be closed throughout the summer of 2002.
Spectacular views of the falls can be enjoyed after dark, for they are illuminated year-round. And for further brilliance, from May 18 to September 3, fireworks will be set off over the falls on Friday, Sunday, and holiday nights at approximately 10:00 p.m.
Just outside Niagara Falls State Park, via the footbridge over Robert Moses Parkway, is the Aquarium of Niagara. It houses more than 1,500 aquatic animals, including Great Lakes fish, penguins, river otters, sharks, and California sea lions. The sea lions put on a show for visitors every 90 minutes. Other attractions on the American side include Niagara’s Wax Museum of History.
Much more can be seen in the Niagara Falls region, so begin investigating — and see these splendors for yourself. You know as you plan your trip to Niagara Falls that you’re going to see something great, but nothing can prepare you for that first sight. It simply must be experienced.
Niagara County Department of Planning, Development & Tourism
139 Niagara St.
Lockport, NY 14094-2740
The tourism office provides a free travel guide. Plenty of information is also available on its Web site, and on other Web sites representing the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, such as www.infoniagara.com
The following list is not complete, so please check your favorite campground directory or the “Business Service Directory” in FMC’s January 2002 issue. Web sites such as www.niagara-usa.com and www.infoniagara.com also provide campground listings.
Motel RV Campground Resort
7894 Niagara Falls Blvd.
Niagara Falls, NY 14304
(716) 283-9088, 283-1760
Niagara County Camping Resort
7369 Wheeler Road
Lockport, NY 14094
Niagara Falls Campground & Lodging
2405 Niagara Falls Blvd.
Niagara Falls, NY 14304
Niagara Falls North KOA
1250 Pletcher Road
Lewiston, NY 14092
Royal Motel & Campground
3333 Niagara Falls Blvd.
North Tonawanda, NY 14120
9387 Lundy’s Lane
Niagara Falls, ON
Canada L2E 6S4
Niagara Falls KOA
8625 Lundy’s Lane
Niagara Falls, ON
Canada L2H 1H5
Niagara Glen View Tent & Trailer Park
Niagara Falls, ON
Canada L2E 6Z2
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park
8676 Oakwood Drive
Niagara Falls, ON
Canada L2E 6S5