A half-century after the American Falls was dried up as part of a study to preserve it, there’s talk of shutting it off again to build a new pedestrian bridge to Goat Island.
It is unlikely, however, that the project to link the mainland with the island separating the American and Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls will be undertaken any time soon.
“I’m sure the matter will be looked at next year,” said Assemblyman Angelo J, Morinello, R-Niagara Falls. “It’s not just the budget that has delayed it. There are more important issues that must be addressed, like the high waters of Lake Ontario,” he added. The landmark stone bridge built in 1901 remains in place with a military-style span plunked entirely over it in 2006 after chunks from under the bridge started dropping into the rapids.
It was June 12, 1969, when the flow over the falls was slowed to a trickle, an engineering feat that captured global attention. Under the International Joint Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then conducted extensive work in the upper river and below the falls to determine what measures, if any, should be taken to protect and enhance the natural wonder. Major rock falls in 1931 and 1954 had marred the face of the cataract, raising widespread fear that the 180-foot waterfall might eventually deteriorate to a series of cascades.
The Albert Elia Co. of Niagara Falls was the principal contractor on that dramatic 1969 undertaking. Using 27,800 tons of rock and fill mostly from the Niagara Power Project, crews built a cofferdam – estimated to cost $445,412 – between the eastern end of Goat Island and the mainland Prospect Park, sealing off the upper river. A supervisor on site noted the initial phase was completed in less than 72 hours. In the first findings of the silent attraction, four bodies were recovered, with some 1,800 coins retrieved close to the brink.
On that historic ‘dry day,’ from the Hurricane Deck below the Bridal Veil Falls, Cave of the Winds manager Norman J. Brautigan described his rare view of the turnoff: “It was as if someone was drawing a huge curtain on a stage. The water receded and you could see the jagged rock face behind the curtain of water.”
The Army Corps of Engineers-Buffalo District swung into action above and below the exposed work site. Tourists and local residents, ‘sidewalk superintendents’ for a day, scurried for the best vantage points to capture a Kodak moment. Park police officers constantly warned adventurer seekers that the rocky channel was off-limits and extremely dangerous to enter.
Meanwhile, pins were drilled at fixed points on each side of any fractures or cracks with a highly sensitive measuring bar to detect vertical or horizontal movements. Daily checks as fine as 1/1000th of an inch were then made at 50 locations to find any slippage. Instruments called piezometers were placed in holes upstream from the crest of the falls to measure water pressure in the rock joints. Data on the movement of water in the bedrock was determined by taking pictures inside the bore holds.
“Many tourists wanted to take our photos as we started drilling into the rock below,” recalled Dave Witmer of Youngstown, then a 26-year-old member of the survey team. Like all his co-workers, he was heavily protected with a harness and safety equipment. Meanwhile, his father, the late Robert Witmer of North Tonawanda, a survey and project engineer, was preoccupied at a higher level, standing in a construction cage – lowered by a huge crane stationed at tiny Luna Island – with other engineers to examine the face of the bare cliff.
As for the water diversion, the U.S, and Canada had signed the Treaty of 1950 that guaranteed sufficient water in the Niagara River for scenic purposes. That pact stipulates that the power companies on both sides of the border agree their diversions to produce electricity would not reduce the flow less than 100,000 cubic feet per second during daylight hours of the tourist season or 50,000 cfs per second at any other time. The pact allowed the power entities to divert the normal flow from the American Falls over the Horseshoe Falls for power development during the dewatering period.
In its final report to the International Joint Commission in June 1974, the American Falls International Board concluded the guiding policy measures to preserve and enhance the beauty of the falls-should be to accept the process of change as a dynamic part of the natural condition of the cataract, and that the process of erosion and recession should not be interrupted.
Addressing concerns over changing the natural conditions of the falls and its surrounding environment, the international board noted that stabilizing the American Falls would mean stopping the natural process of erosion. That also would deny to future generations the spectacle of continuing movement and change brought about by geologic forces. “It might seem quite wrong to make the falls static and unnatural, like an artificial waterfall in a garden or park, however grand the scale,” the 1974 report stated. The IJC appeared to weigh several options without favoring any specific resolution.
At the same time, the board added: “Not to stabilize the rock and to allow erosion and rockfalls to continue may have a higher potential for a continuing dynamic public experience.”
A year before the dewatering project launched, New York Times reporter Homer Bigart asked in an article, “Are the American Falls of Niagara degenerating to a piddling, boulder-choked cascade? Wouldn’t they look better plunging straight down into a misty abyss, like the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side? Or are they more exciting on the rocks? “
In a word, perhaps nature should take its course.
Don Glynn, a retired Niagara Gazette reporter and columnist, was in the press corps from both sides of the border covering the shutoff of the falls 50 years ago.
Bridging theMighty Niagara
A formidable barrier to drying up the falls again is the estimated $30 million price tag added to the state budget. That’s the main reason why the plan was shelved this year
In earlier days, building such a bridge was more a matter of muscle and grit than money.
The first bridge to Goat Island was built in 1817, shortly after Gen. Peter B. Porter and Augustus Porter were granted the island by the state. The wooden span was erected some 500 feet upstream from the present structure. Ice swept it away a year later.
Farther downstream, the Porters built a sturdier wooden bridge in 1818. It linked the mainland Prospect Park with Bath Island (now Green Island) and Goat Island. The span in two sections was built by felling two 80-foot trees and hewing them square on opposite sides,
A level platform, protected on the riverside by cribbing, was then built on the main shore. The logs laid parallel on rollers and with their shore ends heavily weighted with stone were pushed out over the rapids. Workers made their way out to the end of each log and drove sharp pointed staffs into crevices of the rocky river bed and then firmly attached all the logs. The second bridge lasted until 1855 when a third one – iron and more modern — was erected.
The present stone bridge was built in 1901, without diverting the flow.