Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

February 8, 2014

NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Ice bridge had festive air in '99

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Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — More than 100 years ago, visitors to Niagara Falls had the opportunity to literally walk across the river to Canada. The ice that accumulated at the base of the American Falls during the winter months was so thick that it could not only support hundreds of people but several structures as well.

In February 1899, a reporter from the Niagara Gazette took a stroll among the people and vendors who gathered on the ice bridge selling everything from food to liquor to souvenirs. The following is an abbreviated account of that journey.

“On the mountain [of ice and snow] were a number of young ladies and gentleman enjoying the sport it affords in coasting. No sleigh or board was needed. Crawling up its huge side to the top was a hazardous trip, but it was accomplished and the trip down was an exciting one. Sitting down, one had hardly time to say Jack Robinson before you found yourself at the bottom…

“The first booth, or rather teepee, was run by James Callan. Callan dispenses souvenirs only, but he has a rare collection and attired as he is, in his Indian costume, he attracts many to his hut and few go away without purchasing some of his wares ...

“Continuing, the next place visited was the Gorge Hotel ... .Gold letters over the door inform strangers of the name and fame of the place, but to get a proper idea you have to try a little of Seagram’s, Walker Club or some Canadian Rye. They also sell photographs of the bridge ... .

“[The next booth is] the Clifton House [where] eatables and drinkables of all kinds are sold here and a good warm ‘hot dog,’ as they are called, go good along with an old rye chaser. ... At the Klondyke Hotel further along the bridge, they have more of the genuine stuff. Chasers are out of the question, for by the time a visitor arrives at that place he is pretty well chilled and thinks of getting nothing but the warm stuff ... .

“Alongside of Klondyke’s stands a tent, inside of which Fred Clark displays photographs for sale, and incidentally, he warms the people a little, as he has a stove going all of the time. ... From the top of the large mound just beyond, M. Davis greets you with a smile and asks you to have your picture taken right on the bridge with the falls as the background ... All receiving a sample of his work are satisfied, and as you are then at or near the Canadian side of the river, and as there are no other places further along the bridge to welcome you, you turn and retrace your steps along the ice floe.”

The ice bridge continued to be a popular winter attraction for many more years. However, in 1912, the bridge broke up unexpectedly and dozens of people had to run for their lives. A young couple on their honeymoon and their would-be rescuer were lost when the piece of ice they were standing on floated down the river. After that, no one was permitted on the ice bridge.

Ice bridges still form below the falls during winters such as the one we are having this year, but with the reduced amount of water going over the falls due to the power plants down river, and with the ice boom at the mouth of the river at Buffalo, they do not become as thick and stable at they did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

As they are no longer permitted, it is amazing to see photographs of people and little buildings out on the ice below the falls.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.