The Year Niagara Falls Froze

Rumours have abounded for over one and a half centuries about the year or years that the Niagara Falls froze, but did it really happen?

The Niagara falls, being the second largest in the world following the Victoria Falls in South Africa, span the Canadian/US borders and are fed by the great lakes. Technically, the Niagara falls comprise three separate falls which bridge the river between America and Luna island (American Falls), Luna island and Goat island (Bridal Veil Falls) and finally linking Goat island with mainland Canada (Canadian/Horseshoe Falls). With 150,000 US gallons of water per second falling 176 feet over the first two falls and 600,000 US gallons per second falling 167 feet over the Canadian Falls it seems inconceivable that this amount of water could be frozen, even in winter. Yet, it did, or so legend has it!

In fact, there are rumours that the Falls have frozen more than once. Although most attention is paid to the day the Falls ostensibly froze in 1848 when temperatures in the area dropped as low as -40, there are similar recorded incidents occurring in 1909 and 1911 and in other years. However, what made the 1848 event so newsworthy is that there was a photograph taken that depicted people walking across the falls picking up artefacts, and even enterprising entrepreneurs selling refreshments.

Most experts are of the opinion that the Falls did not actually completely freeze in 1848, anymore than they have on the other occasions of freezing that have been noted. What actually happens is that the phenomenon of freezing begins further up river in the Great Lakes. During the depth of winter when temperatures drop sufficiently, ice-flows form on the lakes. These are carried down river toward the Niagara Falls. On most occasions when the falls appear to have been frozen it is because these ice-flow have been forced together as the river narrows and have created what is known as an ice-bridge, which because of its width and thickness appears to be strong enough for people to walk across. Nevertheless, the falls cannot be said to have frozen because water still cascades below the ice, and can be seen falling into the river at the base of the falls, sending up a fine spray of droplets.

However, if the photograph, which is reproduced on the site mentioned at the end of this article, is to be believed, the water falling from the lip of the falls also appears to have frozen all the way down to the base where it joins the river. There are those who doubt the authenticity of the picture, yet if one looks at the extreme cold temperature of the day it is possible the ice-flows, which had packed together to form the bridge, were largely responsible for the event.

Because of the blockage created by the ice-bridge, some of the sheer volume of water that rushes towards the falls would be forced to traverse across the top of the ice bridge. Due to the extreme cold, this water would be rapidly cooled and slowed, which means that millions of droplets falling from the outer edges of the bridge could be frozen as they are reduced to the speed of a drip from a tap. With millions of such droplets occurring, this could create a situation where an ice veil would form, eventually creating an ice curtain in front of the falls themselves, therefore giving the impression to any observer that the falls had frozen completely. However, behind this veil, and protected from the extreme cold, the water would continue to flow reasonably freely.

Whether the Niagara Falls actually froze completely that year or not is an opinion that is questionable because, although there were blocks of ice on the river below, the river itself was still perceived to be flowing in many places. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that a sufficient quantity of ice formed on the falls to give this impression. Furthermore, it was not unusual for people at that time to venture onto the ice, an occurrence that was banned in 1912 following an incident where the ice bridge broke, sending three tourists to their deaths.Therefore, the picture taken could have depicted a true scene. As we sit here some one hundred and sixty years away from the event who can tell whether the year Niagara froze is fact or fiction?