World Wonder: How Niagara became “The Falls”

By Mariana Bockarova

Along the international border between Canada’s Ontario and the American state of New York lies Niagara Falls — a remarkable natural wonder celebrated by millions. The renowned Falls is an astonishing arrangement of multiple waterfalls, comprised of the Horseshoe Falls, found on the Canadian side, which are 2,600 feet (792 m) wide with an astonishing 173 feet (53 m) drop, and the American Falls, measuring 1,060 feet (323 m) wide, and Bridal Veil Falls at 56 feet (17 m) wide, located, respectively, on the American side. The water, supplied by the Niagara River, gives way to an average of 110,000 cubic meters of water per minute, with as much as 168,000 cubic meters per minute during the heaviest flow, resulting in a heavy rumbling. As described in his American Notes, Charles Dickens aptly notes the sound heard a long distance away, preluding its grandeur of the Falls:

“It was a miserable day; chilly and raw; a damp mist falling; and the trees in that northern region quite bare and wintry. Whenever the train halted, I listened for the roar; and was constantly straining my eyes in the direction where I knew the Falls must be, from seeing the river rolling on towards them; every moment expecting to behold the spray. Within a few minutes of our stopping, not before, I saw two great white clouds rising up slowly and majestically from the depths of the earth. That was all. At length we alighted: and then for the first time, I heard the mighty rush of water, and felt the ground tremble underneath my feet… I was in a manner stunned, and unable to comprehend the vastness of the scene. It was not until I came on Table Rock, and looked — Great Heaven, on what a fall of bright-green water! — that it came upon me in its full might and majesty.”

The majesty is truly a wonder, perfected by nature throughout 12,000 years; first formed when glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age, known as the Wisconsin glaciation, cascading waters from the melting ice poured into the Niagara River, filling it so quickly and forcefully that excess water escaped by rushing over a cliff, which is known as the Niagara Escarpment. With mighty force, the water eroded layers of rock mercilessly –a process that still continues today– allowing the Falls to move upstream to their current location.

It is assumed that the first inhabitants of the Falls were Native Americans, who were responsible for its name. The association of the name, however, is uncertain; it may have been derived from the “Niagagarega” people, found on late 17th-century French maps, or, as noted by Iroquoian scholar, Henry Schoolcraft: “This name is Mohawk…[meaning] the neck… It will be seen that the human neck, that is, according to the concrete vocabulary is onyara. Red Jacket pronounced the word Niagara to me, in the spring of 1820, as if written O-ne-au-ga-rah.”

In the 1600s, as Europeans began exploring the Americas, one of the earliest descriptions of the Falls comes from Frenchman Samuel de Champlain, who visited in 1604 and took to his journals to describe the falls. The French priest, Father Louis Hennepin similarly wrote praises following his 1678 expedition. “A New Discovery,” where Hennepin’s notes were published, garnered great attention and served to inspire further exploration, eventually leading to a scientific description of the falls by Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm.

United Empire Loyalists, arriving prior to and following the American Revolution, made up the majority of early settlers in the Niagara region. These settlers included the Lundy, Bender, and McMicking families, whose names are still recognizable today. Communities formed around Portage Road, Lundy’s Lane, and Drummondville. Eventually, in 1848, the first bridge, which was a suspension bridge, opened across the Niagara River, allowing for more settlers. The once-small village, Elgin, grew to merge with another nearby community, taking the name Clifton, later changed to the Town of Niagara Falls. In 1882, Drummondville renamed itself the Village of Niagara Falls, until the two communities joined in 1904 to create the City of Niagara Falls.


In the 1800s, due to the development of the rail system, visitation of the Falls increased tremendously. One of the most notable early visitors includes Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother, Jerome, who honeymooned with his American bride. This visitation is often credited with starting Niagara Falls’ honeymoon tradition. As notable American author, Mark Twain, describes:
“Niagara Falls is a most enjoyable place of resort. The hotels are excellent, and the prices not at all exorbitant. The opportunities for fishing are not surpassed in the country; in fact, they are not even equaled elsewhere….The advantages of this state of things have never heretofore been properly placed before the public.”

Soon, industrialists similarly took notice of the aptitude of the Falls, setting up waterwheels to provide power, which attracted factories to be built nearby. Despite the ice blockage of 1848, which caused the falls to stop for as much as 40 hours, industrialists eager to continue harnessing its force caused Niagara to became home to the world’s first large-scale hydroelectric generating station in 1895. Only one year later, Nikola Tesla, the ingenious engineer, using his new alternating current (AC) induction motor allowed for long distance electricity, reaching as far as New York City. The very method first used by Tesla in the Falls continues to be used presently around the world. Today, hydroelectricity is one of the Falls’ greatest uses, as both the American and Canadian sides of the Falls produce nearly 2.5 million kilowatts of electricity. In order to ensure that the beauty of Niagara Falls remains pristine during viewing hours for the public, the flow of water is reduced during the night to allow for water to fill intakes used for power generation.

Technological advancements allowed for Niagara Falls to not only become a great tourist destination, but a prosperous living environment as well. As its population continued to increase dramatically, the Township of Stamford joined into the city in 1963. Only seven years later, Chippawa, Willoughby Township, and a part of Crowland Township also became part of Niagara Falls, as it remains today.
Attracting 12 million people to Niagara Falls each year, Niagara has seen world leaders which include King George VI in 1939, and Princess Diana, Prince William and Prince Harry in 1991; celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Christopher Reeve, and Drew Barrymore, who harnessed the beauty of the Falls, using it as a real-life movie set; with stuntmen like Nik Wallenda, walking across a tightrope stretched between the Falls in 2012, and the many daredevils who swam into the Whirlpool Rapids successfully, Niagara Falls continues to be a world wonder, from its glorious history to its present day appeal.

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