The Year Niagara Falls Froze

Imagine waking up and reading this in the paper.

“The falls of Niagara can be compared to nothing but a mere mill dam this morning. In the memory of the oldest inhabitants, never was there so little water running over Niagara’s awful precipice, as at this moment! Hundreds of people are now witnessing that which has and probably never may again be witnessed on the Niagara River.

Last night at 11 o’clock the factories fed from the waters of this majestic river were in full operation and at 12 o’clock the water was shut off, the wheel suddenly ceased their revolutions and everything was hushed into silence. Various are the conjectures as to what cause; the most reasonable of which is that Lake Erie must be making a grand delivery of ice, and this the mouth of the Niagara although large, is not quite enough to take in the whole at once and that the consequences are back water.”

Buffalo Express – March 30th, 1848

Only once in recorded time has Niagara Falls completely frozen over. It was March 29th, 1848, during an unusually frigidly cold winter. The mills on the falls were running quickly, being forced to turn due to the 600,000 U.S. gallons that fall over the three falls per second. Several times parts of the Falls have frozen, and this is called an ice bridge. The top of the rushing water will freeze, but underneath the water continues to move. Suddenly the wheels of the mills stopped.

The river had frozen further up stream and ice broke off jamming up the falls. The flow of the water diminished until the water flowing over the falls was slow enough to freeze. This was not only unusual, but extraordinary due to the fact it was 48 degrees. However the water was so slow, and the ice that had already formed on the falls were enough to freeze the rest of the falls. People gathered outside and even walked across the ice bridge at the top of the falls. A photograph survives to this day.

And now for some background on the falls. Two of the falls are within American soil; Bridle Veil Falls, and American Falls. While Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the trio, is mainly in the Canadian province of Ontario. It is 176 feet at its height, and 3,660 in length. “Niagara” is a derivative of the Iroquois word “Onguiaahra” which means “the Strait.” Besides being known as a popular honeymoon spot during the first half of the 20th century, the Falls are a daredevil attraction. High wire tightropes acts and riding over the Falls in a barrel were common place adventures at the time.

During 2003 an e-mail forward, was circulated containing a photograph of the frozen Niagara Falls. Supposedly the date was miss informed to be 1911, but the only other time the Niagara has come near freezing was 1912.

It was common for people to venture out on the falls of river when ice bridges formed. February 24th of 1888 was reported by a local newspaper to be the largest group of people gathered, with over 20,000 tobogganing across the river. Even shanties were set up, selling liquor, photographs and curiosities, providing for a boom in the area. During the freeze of 1912, three people lost their lives on February 4th. Again an ice bridge had formed, but it broke from the river’s side and those people were unable to reach the shore before the bridge dropped over the falls. Now no tourists are allowed on the river.

Since this time, modern advances have allowed for the yearly installation of what is called the “ice boom” on Lake Erie. This is a long floating chain, over 2 miles in length, placed in the lake during the month of December to the month of either March or April, depending on the weather. The steel floats are stung across the river from Buffalo New York to Fort Erie Ontario and are maintained by the New York State Power Authority.