Faking Niagara Falls, A Visual History

Aerial image of Niagara Falls from upriver

Niagara Falls is often held up as the epitome of the natural sublime. However, the visual appearance of Niagara today is the result of over a century of human manipulations. This essay is a visual documentation of the contradictory history of remaking the Niagara waterscape for both energy and beauty, the central theme of my book Fixing Niagara Falls. These photos, cartoons, models, blueprints, videos, and geospatial representations stray from the normal depictions we might associate with Niagara Falls. Instead of barrels, honeymooners, and the carnivalesque, you’ll see hydraulic models, toxic waste, and Indigenous land appropriations.

Power vs. Beauty, 1890s-1929

Industrial area near the waterfall in the later 19th century. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls (New York) Public Library.

In the later 19th century, the tailraces expelling water from the many factories poured into the Niagara gorge near the waterfall. The industry concentrated here first used hydraulic power, then hydropower. This type of visual scene understandably marred the view for tourists, inspiring a preservation movement that “naturalized” the area depicted above and turned it into part of the Niagara Reservation. 

Abandoned power station in an open grassy field
The Transformer House of the Adams Power Station. Photo by author, 2017.

The Adams plant, opened in 1895, was the first large hydropower station built at Niagara (and the largest in the world). Others, some bigger, quickly followed. Though it is often suggested that hydropower was “invented” at Niagara Falls, this was far from true; however, the earliest generation of power development and distribution on a large scale did happen here. And since these early generating stations barely tapped the waterfall’s power potential, Niagara was seen as a revolutionary site of energy, conducive to many imagined utopias. Despite its historical significance, this transformer house is all that is left today of that multi-building station. The last time I checked, it was for sale! 

A black and white photograph of a frozen Niagara Falls with people gathering below, early nineteenth century
The Niagara ice bridge circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls (New York) Public Library.

In winter, ice often piled up at the base of the waterfall. People from the cities on both sides would gather on this “ice bridge” for winter festivities. In 1912, the ice broke away, taking three people to their untimely deaths. After that, such gatherings were banned, and engineers continued searching for ways to control ice formation. In fact, many of the earliest scientific studies of freshwater ice formation, especially frazil ice, were conducted in conjunction with keeping the Niagara River as ice free as possible.

Turn of the century satirical cartoon showing tourists using a dry Niagara Falls
Save Niagara Falls – From This. J.S. Pughe, Puck Magazine, April 18, 1906, Library of Congress.

This cartoon satires the widely shared fin-de-siecle view that Niagara Falls would be most beautiful and impressive if it was completely diverted for electricity production. This effectively captures the industry vs. tourism – or power vs. beauty – tension that characterized the modern history of debating what to do with Niagara Falls. 

Hand colored blueprint engineering the remedial works of Niagara Falls
Engineering schematic for Niagara remedial works from 1929. Courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Archives.

In 1929, the United States and Canada signed an international convention to increase diversions and remake Niagara Falls. It was, however, unable to pass the US Senate. A similar 1941 executive agreement between the two nations met the same fate. This engineering schematic, or blueprint, is the product of several decades of transborder cooperation about physically remaking the Horseshoe Falls. It indicates proposed areas of “excavation” as well as “artificial cascades” that would all work together to try to mask the visual impact of diverting so much water for power. These would apportion the flow along the crestline so that the curtain of water would be uniform and aesthetically pleasing. One of the goals was to make sure the water retained the characteristic green hue. That color results when a sufficient volume of water goes over the lip, and was considered superior to the whitish color resulting from too thin of a flow. In response to complaints that people got too wet at the Falls, technocrats also intended their physical alterations to tame the mist and spray patterns. Apparently, folks didn’t like a wet waterfall!

Engineering the Falls, 1930-1957

In 1938, the Honeymoon Bridge collapsed. Ice packs threw the bridge, just downriver from the waterfall, from its moorings. After World War II, a range of infrastructural changes were made to prevent so much ice from forming in the river, or from floating down from Lake Erie. These included a control dam, ice tugs, changing the bathymetry of the river, and an ice boom at the head of the river at Buffalo. Video produced by British Movietone and courtesy of the AP Archive.

A black and white photograph of Horseshoe Falls showing the falls with some of the water diverted and the parking area.
The Horseshoe Falls partially dewatered in 1955. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls (New York) Public Library.

Workers constructed a cofferdam to dewater part of the Horseshoe Falls so that remedial work could take place under the terms of the 1950 Niagara Diversion Treaty. This treaty between the US and Canada ended decades of unsuccessful negotiations for the transborder reengineering of the waterfall. The 1950 treaty virtually equalized water diversions between the two countries, while restricting the flow of water over Niagara Falls to no less than 100,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) during daylight hours of what they deemed the tourist season (basically daylight hours from late spring to early fall) and no less than 50,000 cfs the remainder of the time (i.e., during nighttime of tourist season and at all times from November to the end of March). The remainder of the water could be redirected for hydro power. Since the river has a flow rate of approximately 200,000 cfs, this meant that New York State and Ontario could collectively take between half and three-quarters of the total flow. The remainder, the so-called “tourist water”, was left to tumble over a designer waterfall. The treaty called for various “remedial works” – excavations, fills, dams, and other infrastructure – to conceal this new water regime. The waterfall was being transformed in order to look more like itself … or, at least, a more sanitized and commodified version of its past self.

Black and white photographs of scale models of Niagara Falls by the US and Canada
Hydraulic models of Niagara Falls at Vicksburg (US Army Corps of Engineers) and Islington (Ontario Hydro) from the 1950s. Images courtesy of the International Joint Commission.

Both countries employed models to plan the physical rejigging of the waterfall. This privileging of models was a relatively new development for North American governments, and epitomized the high modernist outlook of expert planners. Engineers used the iterative “cut and try” method until the models matched the prototype, which was based on the river, with the point of the model to go back and rework that same river. This model verification process was time-consuming, but reputedly saved millions of dollars and avoided mistakes in the field. It was not without its flaws, however. The modeling process often became politicized: the engineers from either country evinced different forms of hydraulic nationalism and contended that their respective models were better. Minuscule errors on the model became big mistakes in the real world.

A geospatial analysis of recession rate of Horseshoe Falls with dated lines showing past crestlines
Geospatial analysis indicating where infilling has changed the crestline of Horseshoe Falls
Geospatial analyses on images of the Horseshoe Falls. Created by the author and Jason Glatz.

The top analysis conveys the historic rate of recession at the Horseshoe Falls, which averaged 2-8 feet per year. Each colored line shows the former crestline of the Horseshoe Falls, with the year indicated. A messy, receding waterfall was inimical to the interests of tourist and industrial interests that required fixed infrastructure. One of the main purposes of the 1950s remedial works was to arrest erosion by reducing the flow over the lip. Proponents framed this as saving Niagara Falls from itself. 

The bottom analysis shows the fills and excavations undertaken in the 1950s to turn Niagara into a tap. On both sides of the Horseshoe Falls the two countries excavated the river bed and lip, and reclaimed the flanks. In total, Ontario Hydro and the USACE shrunk the lip by 355 feet and removed roughly 100,000 tons of rock from the riverbed. The bed of the riverbank leading up to the Falls, and the brink of the waterfall itself, were reconfigured from a deep v-shape to more of a wide u-shape. This reduced the depth of the water in the middle section of the horseshoe from about 10 feet to an average of 2 to 3 feet, and sent this water to the sides. Reclaimed areas at the flanks of the cataract were landscaped, fenced, and turned into the main public viewing points. Cement and steel reinforced the waterfall. Islands and shoals were added or subtracted. Niagara Falls became a hybrid envirotechnical system that combined the natural and the artificial. Indeed, natural features such as seasonal weed growth and ice formation were factored into the way this organic machine operated. 

Large rock falls often accelerated the waterfall’s erosion pace. The rockfall at Prospect Point in July, 1954 was the biggest in recorded history. It added to the estimated 280,000 cubic yards of talus fallen rock and debris that gathers at the bottom of a waterfallat the base of the American Falls. Video produced by British Movietone and courtesy of the AP Archive.

You’re starting to see a collapse theme here, aren’t you? At one time the largest privately-owned generating station in the world, the Schoellkopf hydropower plant on the New York State side was placed in the gorge below the waterfall. After it collapsed in 1956, the Power Authority of the State of New York (PASNY) was given the task of developing the American share of Niagara hydropower under the 1950 treaty.

Theft & Toxicity, 1958-2020

Black and white aerial photograph of Niagara area during construction of power plant
Niagara area during the construction of the Niagara Power Project. Aerial image courtesy of Niagara Falls (New York) Public Library.

To build its anticipated new Niagara Power Project, PASNY hired notorious New York City planner Robert Moses. The above image shows the footprint of PASNY’s new power station, named after Moses, which was the largest hydropower complex in the western world when it opened in 1961. The cleared land in the lower middle portion of the photo (much of it appears white in the image) is for the reservoir – a good chunk of that was expropriated from the Tuscarora Indian Nation, whose territory runs along the lower right side of the image. Moses deemed their land “unproductive” and “expendable” compared to the surrounding white-owned property. Over several years of bullying, intimidation, and legal legerdemain, the colonial apparatus was mobilized against the Haudenosaunee here. The case rose all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled against their claims. All this was the rather predictable extension of several centuries of settler societies stealing Indigenous land. The Tuscarora resistance resulted in changes to the size of the reservoir and the overall expropriation, but they ultimately lost about 550 acres.

Black and white photograph of Niagara Falls with water stopped for engineering purposes
Aerial view of the dewatered American Falls in 1969. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls (New York) Public Library.

In 1965, tourism interests in Niagara Falls, New York initiated a binational campaign to preserve and enhance the American Falls. The campaign aimed to address all the rock talus covering up the face of the waterfall and turn it into more of a cascade than a sheer drop. In 1969, the US Army Corps of Engineers turned off the American Falls and engineers and scientists conducted a range of studies – the American Falls was like a sedated patient undergoing a biopsy. Scale models were again utilized. However, their purpose was to try to aesthetically test how the American Falls would look after certain changes, such as removing all or most of the talus, or putting a dam downstream so that the higher water levels would flood out the talus. The engineers tried to quantitatively model the qualitative emotional reactions people had to the varying aesthetics of Niagara. But this time the experts ultimately decided to mostly leave the American Falls alone. Nevertheless, they did use the opportunity to stabilize the rock face of the American Falls with cables, anchors, and electronic rockslide sensors. 

The toxic terror of Love Canal, a postwar suburb of the city of Niagara Falls, NY, is often presented as the opposite of the beauty of Niagara Falls, an aberration in its history. But Love Canal should be seen as the other side of the same coin, maybe even the inevitable result, of the beauty vs. power history of Niagara Falls. After all, the legions of toxins and nuclear waste buried here were the result of industries that set up shop at Niagara precisely because of its cheap electricity (not to mention that the Love Canal tragedy involved an abandoned power canal). Niagara Country is still pockmarked by toxic waste. In 2018, radioactive dirt was even found in the park right at the waterfall. Video produced by The New York Times.

A contemporary aerial photo of the Canadian side of Niagara Falls showing the falls, roads and viewing platforms
Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. Photo by author, 2018.

Judging from this contemporary photo, do you think the average tourist would guess that this is a heavily manipulated vista? The experts did an excellent job of disguising their many interventions – so much so that it raises interesting questions about the divide between the natural and the artificial. On the one hand, the two states have crafted an effective utilitarian compromise: billions of kilowatts of electric power, with the public none the wiser that the waterfall has been changed into infrastructure. But it is also a highly regulated waterscape that is meant to deceive in order to create profit. Maybe the average person would contend that what has transpired at Niagara is rather benign . . . but, even if that is the case (and I’m not sure that it is), doesn’t treating one of the most famous environmental landmarks this way ultimately send the message that we should manipulate any aspect of nature that suits us?

Featured image: Aerial image of Niagara Falls looking toward the Canadian side. Photo by author, 2018.

Daniel Macfarlane is an associate professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is the author or co-editor of four books, all dealing with border waters and the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, including Fixing Niagara Falls: Environment, Energy, and Engineers at the World’s Most Famous Waterfall (2020). He is currently working on two books, one on the transborder environmental history of Lake Ontario, and another on the history of Canada-US environmental and energy relations. Website. Twitter. Contact