Niagara Falls consists of two waterfalls on the Niagara River, which marks the border between New York and Ontario, Canada: the American Falls, located on the American side of the border, and the Canadian or Horseshoe Falls located on the Canadian side. To the right of the American Falls is a smaller waterfall that has been separated from the American Falls by natural forces, which is usually called Bridal Veil Falls.
It is estimated that 12,000 years ago when the falls were formed, the edge of the falls was as much as seven miles further down river than it is today. Until the 1950s, when the flow of water began to be controlled, the brink of the falls moved backward an estimated three feet every year because of erosion.
The water that runs over the falls comes from the Great Lakes. Ninety percent of the water goes over the Horseshoe Falls. Originally, as much as 5.5. billion gallons of water per hour flowed over the falls. Today the amount is controlled by the Canadian and American governments to slow erosion. In addition, some of the water is diverted to provide power for the United States and Canada, making Niagara Falls the largest source of electric power in the world.
The Horseshoe Falls are 170 feet high. The brink of the falls is approximately 2,500 feet from one side to the other. The American Falls are 180 feet high and 1,100 feet long.
The river below Niagara Falls averages 170 feet deep. Daredevils who go over the falls usually hit the bottom of the river before popping back to the surface.
Niagara Falls has been one of the most popular destinations for honeymooners in the world since promoters for the area helped institute “honeymooning” as a tradition in the mid-nineteenth century. The 1953 film Niagara starred Marilyn Monroe as a honeymooner with a wandering eye. The film marked Monroe’s explosion as a film phenom—perhaps because the film features a full two minutes of Monroe’s soon-to-be-famous backside as she walks toward the falls for a better view.
Twelve million tourists from all over the world visit Niagara Falls every summer.
The Barrel Brigade
They are a group of daredevils firmly entrenched in North American folklore. They are the men and women who have made headlines by an act most people would find inconceivable: choosing to take a ride over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls—sometimes with only inches of wood or metal as protection from the pounding rush of thousands of gallons of water. Interestingly, these adventurers, crazy as they may seem, have chosen not to brave the American Falls—where less flowing water and more jutting rocks make the descent even more dangerous. Fifteen adventurers have braved the Horseshoe Falls since 1901. Read some of their stories below:
Annie Edson Taylor
Not only the first woman, but the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Taylor was a poor widow when she arrived in Niagara Falls in 1901. The sixty-three year old (although she said she was forty-two) saw the stunt as a way to make money. After hiring a manager, she braved the falls on October 24, 1901, in a barrel she designed herself. She survived, but “the heroine of Horseshoe Falls” didn’t end up with the financial windfall she expected. She worked as a Niagara street vendor for twenty years and died penniless.
The third person to go over the falls, Lussier took the plunge on July 4, 1928, not in a barrel, but inside a six-foot rubber ball that was lined with oxygen-filled rubber tubes. He survived and afterwards made extra money by selling pieces of the ball’s rubber tubes.
This adventurer made the plunge in a ten-foot, one-ton wooden barrel on July 4, 1930. Sadly, however, Stathakis’s barrel was caught behind the falls for fourteen hours. Having only enough air to survive for three hours, Stathakis died before he was rescued, but his 105-year-old pet turtle, Sonny Boy, did survive the trip.
Red Hill Jr.
The oldest son of a prominent Niagara Falls area family, Red, Jr., went over the falls on August 5, 1951. His father, Red Hill, Sr., had earned a permanent place in the history of the falls as its consummate “riverman.” In addition to pulling 177 bodies from the river, Hill thrice braved the intimidating Whirlpool Rapids below the falls in his own barrel. Red, Jr., decided to take the family tradition one step further by braving the Horseshoe Falls on what he called “the thing,” a flimsily constructed raft made of thirteen inner tubes tied together with rope and enclosed in a fish net. Soon after his plunge, the raft’s inner tubes began popping to the surface of the river, but there was no sign of Hill. His bruised body was not recovered until the next day.
Sharp, who hoped to advance his career as a stuntman by going over the falls, chose to attempt the feat on June 5, 1990, in a white water kayak without a helmet or a life vest. His body was never recovered. Five years later, Robert Overacker attempted to go over the falls on a jet ski. The fifteenth person since 1901 to purposely try to make it over the falls, Overacker died. His body was recovered by the Maid of the Mist, the ferryboat that takes visitors to the foot of the falls for a closer lo
Steven Trotter and Lori Martin
On June 18, 1995, Trotter and Martin became the first man and woman to go over the falls together in one barrel. In 1985, Trotter had made the trip by himself, in a contraption made of two pickle barrels enclosed in large inner tubes. In 1989, Canadians Peter Debernardi and Geoffrey Petkovich had become the first team to go over the falls together, enclosed face to face in a single barrel. They survived with minor injuries, as did Trotter and Martin.
Falls Firsts Timeline
Franciscan monk and explorer Louis Hennepin becomes the first European explorer to encounter the falls. Impressed, Hennepin estimates the falls to be an incredible 600 feet high—though in reality they rise 170 feet.
Now one of the most famous tourist attractions in Niagara Falls, the Maid of the Mist makes its maiden voyage as a ferry, charging a fee to transport people, cargo, and mail across the river. When the completion of a bridge starts to erode business in 1846, the Maid of the Mist becomes a sightseeing boat, taking visitors close to the Horseshoe Falls.
For the first time in recorded history, the falls go dry due to strong westerly winds keeping water in Lake Erie, in addition to an ice jam that dams the river’s water near Buffalo, New York. Townspeople happily explore the riverbed and the edge of the falls, finding, among other things, relics from the War of 1812.
Under the direction of engineer Charles Ellet, the first service bridge across the Niagara gorge is completed. Seven years later, John Roebling completes another suspension bridge, with two levels for carriage and railway traffic. It is the first suspension bridge suspended by wire cables to carry the weight of a train.
Widely considered to be the first painting to adequately capture the beauty and power of Niagara Falls, Frederick Church displays his landscape masterpiece, The Great Fall, Niagara for the first time in New York City.
Jean Francois Gravelet, known as the “The Great Blondin,” begins a famous series of tightrope walks across the Niagara gorge, over the rapids about a mile downriver from the falls. The act draws crowds as large as 25,000 people. Blondin even manages to carry his manager over the rope on his back.
July 15, 1885
The Niagara Reservation State Park opens, attracting 750,000 visitors. It is the first state park established in the United States.
July 11, 1920
Charles Stephens, the first man—but second person —to go over the falls takes the plunge in a 600-pound oak barrel. The force of the water rips the barrel apart and Stephens is killed. His right arm is the only part of him to be recovered.
July 9, 1960
A seven-year-old boy named Roger Woodward is swept over the falls after a boating accident. He survives with only minor injuries and is rescued by the Maid of the Mist. He is the first person known to go over the falls without any sort of protection—and survive.