Little Bits of History

Ice Jam

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 29, 2013
Niagara Falls stops running

Niagara Falls stops running

March 29, 1848: Niagara Falls stops running. The last glacial period began about 110,000 years ago and ended between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. Glaciers advanced and retreated throughout the ice age. Ice sheets and glaciers covered a large part of the Northern Hemisphere and a smaller portion of the Southern Hemisphere. While most of Canada and the northern part of the US were covered with ice, Alaska was not due to  oceanic fluctuations in water movement. In Europe and Asia, the Scandinavian ice sheet crept over the north of Britain, Germany, Poland, and Russia.

As the Wisconsin glaciers retreated, they carved out the Great Lakes – a series of five Lakes acting as a border between Canada and the US. Lake Superior and Lake Michigan drain into Lake Huron which in turn runs into Lake Erie and on to Lake Ontario via the Niagara River. There are two major sections of the Niagara Falls separated by Goat Island sitting in the middle of the Niagara River. On the Canadian side of Goat Island are the spectacular Horseshoe Falls, the portion usually seen in pictures. On the American side are the American Falls and the smaller Bridal Falls.

The Falls are not particularly high with the Horseshoe Falls dropping 167 feet  and the American side crashing into crumbled boulders only 70 feet below. The Falls are wide. The American side is 1,060 feet at the brink and 150,000 gallons per second flows past. The Horseshoe Falls are 2,600 feet at the brink and drains 600,000 gallons per second. The tremendous power of the water rushing past on its way to Lake Ontario, and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean, has been harnessed on both sides. There are 3 hydroelectric plants with the Sir Adam Beck 1 and 2 on the Canadian side and the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant on the American side. They generate about 4.4 gigawatts of power.

The torrent of water doesn’t freeze in winter although ice can form reaching from either side of the river. If the ice meets in the middle, an ice bridge forms. Water can flow under these bridges. Mini-icebergs flow from the frozen shores of Lake Erie. These can impede the flow of water on the Niagara River. Only once in recorded history has Niagara Falls stopped. An ice jam up river caused the Falls to dry up for several hours. The Falls didn’t actually freeze over, there was just no water getting to them. People walked out on the riverbed looking for treasure.

“Fortissimo at last!” – Gustav Mahler (on seeing Niagara Falls)

“Niagara Falls! Slowly I turned … step by step … inch by inch …” – beginning of a vaudeville act

“No steam or gas ever drives anything until it is confined. No Niagara is ever turned into light and power until it is tunneled. No life ever grows until it is focused, dedicated, disciplined.” – Joan Rivers

“I was disappointed in Niagara – most people must be disappointed in Niagara. Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life.” – Oscar Wilde

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: The Niagara Escarpment is a long cuesta or geological sloping of the ground between Canada and the US. It runs, for the most part, east/west from New York State through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. It is along this route that Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario run to the falls. It is named for its most famous feature, the falls where Niagara River tumbles downward. While escarpments are often along fault lines, rock exposure and drillholes show that the line is not a fault line but came into existence due to unequal erosion. The limestone was less easily eroded than the shale and because of the two different rock structures and over millions of years, the escarpment came into being.

Also on this day: Rationing – In 1948, rationing of items increased to include more food products.
Vesta – In 1807, Vesta was discovered.
New Sweden – In 1638, the first Swedish colony was established in the New World.

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