The Day the Niagara River (and Niagara Falls!) Dried Up

Just before midnight on March 29, 1848,  a New York farmer taking a late night walk made a strange observation.
It was quiet. Too quiet.
Such silence was unusual for someone so close to Niagara Falls. The man had grown accustomed to the familiar roar of crashing waterfalls, a sound that was noticeably missing during his moonlit walk.
Curious, he approached the edge of the Niagara River. What he saw would send shockwaves through American and Canadian communities: the once mighty river was almost dry. Further down the river, people would soon discover that Niagara Falls herself had slowed to a trickle.
Niagara Falls had run dry, and would remain that way for the next 30 to 40 hours.
What was going on?


Why did Niagara Falls Run Dry in 1848?

Understandably, people fell into a frenzy at the sight of the dried up Niagara Falls. Was the world ending? How could this be?
Well, here’s what happened.
The winter of 1848 had been particularly cold in the Niagara Region. As we’ve discussed before in our Niagara Falls history series, being so close to a large body of water like Lake Erie can cause some pretty interesting (and even dangerous) natural phenomena. Why? Because the lake can freeze. Snow and ice can accumulate on the frozen water. Then, all it takes are high winds to send the ice and snow flying in one direction or another.
In this case, a warm spell in March caused the frozen ice from the lake to break into chunks also known as “ice floes”. High winds on March 28 and 29, 1848, pushed these floes across the lake and towards the Niagara River. When they reached the mouth of the river, the ice started to pile up. This jammed the waterway, forming a dam.
By the early morning of March 29, 1848, that dam had stopped almost all water flow to Niagara Falls. The result? A shallow Niagara River, a barely trickling waterfall, and a confused population.


How did people react to Niagara Falls drying up?

In 1848, there was no Weather Network around to explain why natural events were occurring. When Niagara Falls ran dry, people had no idea why it was happening. The reactions to this situation certainly varied. Here are a few of our favourites:

Fear and fervour

At the time Niagara Falls dried up, New York was playing host to dozens of religious revivals. The faithful filled their churches. Was this retribution? A warning? An end-of-the-world event? No one knew for sure, but there were endless theological theories about why and what was happening.

Adventure and souvenir collecting

If you lived along the Niagara River but not at Niagara Falls herself, chances are your experience of this phenomenon would be limited to the shallowing of the river. While the sight of the river’s floor disturbed some, others saw the dry riverbed as an opportunity to explore and collect various items.
Those near the river in Chippawa had a particularly interesting time scavenging. Since their hometown had been the site of a battle during the War of 1812, bayonets, swords, and muskets were revealed as the water disappeared.

Money-making opportunities

Also found on the riverbed were large pine timbers, which had fallen into the river from the shore near Three Sisters Islands. A group of youths took advantage of the opportunity to collect the valuable timber, driving a logging cart onto the river bed. Although it was a dangerous pursuit, the revealed river floor presented a money-making opportunity for the young loggers.
Another enterprising individual, the owner of a Niagara Falls boat tour company, also took the incident as an opportunity. Some dangerous rocks had been causing trouble for his tours on the river, so he scoured the route while the river was dry. He identified the rocks which had been the boats’ path and blasted them with explosives.

Catching a glimpse

It took a day or so for news of the dried up Niagara Falls to reach the nearest big city. The residents of Buffalo, a three-hour train ride from Niagara Falls, were a bit less confused about the blockage at the Niagara River. The high winds which had caused the ice to pile up had come from their direction and many made the connection immediately upon hearing of the dry Niagara Falls.
And of course, many in the city wanted to see the results.
On March 29 and 30 of 1848, thousands of sightseers travelled to Niagara Falls to be part of the newsworthy event. Some walked up and down the riverbed, while others went so far as to ride horse drawn carriages up and down it. Even the U.S. cavalry took advantage by parading up and down the floor of the river.


Has Niagara Falls dried up since 1848?

It has been 170 years since the incident, and the Falls have seen some rough winters since then – wind, ice floes, the whole thing. But has this incident ever repeated itself?
Not really. At least, not in the same “natural phenomena” way.
One of the most fascinating things about Niagara Falls is the way in which the naturally falling water is used to generate energy. This is known as “hydroelectric power.” In order to generate hydroelectric power, engineers have developed ways to control how the flow and fall of the water to maximize its capacity to generate electricity. In 1969, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers turned off the American side of the Falls to do just that.
(Yep – it is now possible to “turn off” Niagara Falls, though I wouldn’t try it if I were you.)
The way they “turned off” the water was genius in its simplicity; they built cofferdams, which temporarily diverted all the water from the American Falls to the neighbouring Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. It was no small undertaking – 27,800 tons of rock and earth were used to build the cofferdams. Once the American Falls were reduced to a trickle, news spread and large crowds of locals and tourists gathered to catch a glimpse from the vantage point of Goat Island.
Why do such a thing? At the time, the U.S Army Corp of Engineers intended to remove the rocks at the base of the American Falls. They were concerned that erosion would cause more rocks to pile up, causing dangerous rapids and threatening the survival of the waterfall itself.  They were largely unsuccessful in achieving this goal and soon turned the water  back on.
Both waterfalls have been flowing uninterrupted since.

Could Niagara Falls stop flowing again?

Why, yes! In fact, according to some reports, it could happen soon.
Niagara Falls consists of three waterfalls: Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side (where most of the water flows), and the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the American side. This makes it possible to divert water temporarily from one waterfall to another, as they did in 1969. This action has been considered for an upcoming U.S. federal bridge project.
While nothing has been finalized, a dry waterfall could briefly greet visitors as early as 2019. That means you may soon be able to experience the eerie silence of a waterfall that has suddenly stopped running; the same strange sound that American farmer heard 170 years ago.