It’s June 1969, and a team of engineers has succeeded in a Herculean task. Against the odds, they have stemmed the flow of Niagara Falls, thus silencing one of the most famous attractions on planet Earth. But as the water dries up for the first time in thousands of years, a secret is revealed on the rocks below – and it’s a horrific one, too.
Today, the mighty roar of Niagara Falls draws millions of tourists to the area every year. And for many, the churning waters are a constant reminder of just how powerful Mother Nature can be. But over five decades ago, the famous torrent became a mere trickle while engineers investigated what was happening behind the scenes.
On that occasion, man trumped nature in a staggering show of what engineering can achieve. And as the waterfall began to recede, visitors gathered to witness a spectacle that had never been seen before. But what was revealed after Niagara Falls was stopped in its tracks? Well, as it turned out, something sinister had been hiding beneath the spray.
The story of Niagara Falls began around 18,000 years ago, when advancing ice sheets carved great swathes into the landscape that would become North America. Then, when the ice melted, it sent a cascade of water flowing into the Niagara River. And over time, this torrent eroded nearby cliffs and created the natural wonder that we know and love today.
Now, Niagara Falls sits on the border of the United States and Canada and is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. That said, it’s not known exactly how long humans have been aware of its existence. And while there are no written records of such events, it’s likely that the region’s indigenous communities were the first to marvel at the wonder of the falls.
But although the French explorer Samuel de Champlain first heard rumors of a vast waterfall in the region at the beginning of the 17th century, it wasn’t until 1678 that Niagara was first recorded by Europeans. That year, a priest named Father Louis Hennepin witnessed the astonishing spectacle while on an expedition into what was then known as New France.
Then, five years after stumbling across the falls, Hennepin published A New Discovery, in which he described his incredible find. There, the name Niagara – thought to come from the Iroquoian word “onguiaahra,” meaning “the strait” – appeared for the first time. And with Westerners now aware of the cascades, more and more travelers started to flock to the region.
In the 1800s railroad passenger numbers increased, too, and Niagara Falls began to develop as a tourist destination. Soon, a wide variety of amenities had sprung up to cater for the influx of visitors – many of whom were honeymooning couples. But it wasn’t just local hoteliers who saw potential for profit in the mighty attraction.
By the end of the 19th century, you see, industrialists had realized that the water tumbling over the falls had a value all of its own. By harnessing the force of the torrent, in fact, they could power their factories and mills. So in 1895 a hydroelectric generating station – the first major facility of its kind that the world had ever seen – opened in the region.
But although the station was innovative, it could only carry electricity some 300 feet. Thankfully, then, in 1896 the famous inventor Nikolas Tesla took things to the next level. By using his knowledge of alternating current, he was able to divert power more than 20 miles away to Buffalo, New York.
Tesla made history with his alternating current induction motor, in fact, while his Niagara experiments marked the earliest use of a system that still carries electricity around the world today. And more than 100 years later, hydroelectricity is still generated by the falls, with the plants there able to produce up to 2.4 million kilowatts of power.
Today, Niagara Falls is divided between two nations, with both a U.S. and a Canadian side. And between them, the two communities host around 30 million tourists every year. During peak times, visitors watch water tumble down at a rate of six million cubic feet per minute.
Interestingly, though, the amount of water coming over the falls significantly decreases at night. You see, a treaty from 1950 allows local companies to divert more of the flow into their power plants at times when the spectacular view will be least affected. And that’s not the only time that the volume of Niagara Falls has altered over the years.
In 2019, for example, the attraction took on an entirely different appearance when unusually cold temperatures saw it freeze over in places. And although some water still made it over the edge of the cataract, great quantities proceeded to turn into clouds of vapor long before it reached the basin. But while this has happened a number of times over the years, experts insist that the flow never actually stops.
So has Niagara Falls ever really ground to a halt? Well, part of it has. Technically, the famous landmark is actually three separate waterfalls. As well as the iconic Horseshoe Falls, which span the border between the United States and Canada, there are two smaller cataracts situated solely on U.S. soil: the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls.
By 1965, however, citizens of Niagara Falls, New York, had grown concerned that the natural wonder on their side of the border was beginning to lose its charm. In particular, a growing deposit of talus – the rock that accumulates at the base of a waterfall – was a major worry. Apparently, the talus was preventing water from descending in a sheer drop – and, according to some, affecting the aesthetic appeal of the American Falls.
On January 31, 1965, an article highlighting the issue appeared on the front of the Niagara Falls Gazette newspaper. In the piece, local journalist Cliff Spieler argued that persistent erosion may eventually eradicate the American Falls altogether. And soon after that, a campaign to save the landmark began, with the crusade aiming to put pressure on the government to come up with a solution.
Hoping to tackle the issue, the American and Canadian authorities thus looked to the International Joint Commission (IJC) – an organization that oversees regulations relating to shared waters. But while the experts buckled down to find an answer, a temporary operation was launched to eliminate any detritus from the waters above the falls.
In order to achieve this, it was first necessary to deflect the flow of water over the American Falls. And so on November 13, 1966, a clever plan was put into action. Upriver, the International Water Control Dam was pushed into overdrive, its gates wrenched wide open to allow the current in. At the same time, the hydro-generating stations were also upped to complete capacity.
Owing to these measures, the amount of water flowing over the falls was reduced from 60,000 gallons per second to just 15,000. And as the river receded, workmen duly waded out and began clearing away the debris. In the meantime, officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, also grabbed the opportunity to take a closer look at the exposed bed.
Keen to come up with a long-term plan to protect the American Falls, the USACE team also snapped aerial photographs of the scene. After six hours, however, the diversions were closed and the flow of the river returned to normal. And, as it happens, this short exercise laid the groundwork for a far more ambitious operation that would take place down the line.
Then, two years after the campaign to save the American Falls first gained traction, the IJC initiated the American Falls International Board. And soon, the board realized that an even more ambitious approach was required. If the problem of erosion was to be solved, it seemed, a way of completely dewatering the falls had to be found.
Ultimately, this undertaking fell to a group of engineers from USACE. And, soon, a plan began to form. Indeed, while the 1966 approach had succeeded in reducing the volume of water moving over the American Falls to 25 percent of its usual flow, more drastic action was now needed. So, officials drew up a plan for a type of temporary structure known as a cofferdam.
Typically, these dams are constructed inside bodies of water when a certain section of, for example, a lake needs to be dried out. In the case of the Niagara River, however, the engineers sought to take a different approach. Instead, their cofferdam would take the form of a 600-foot barrier stretching across the current.
USACE also handed a contract of almost half a million dollars to the Albert Elia Construction Company. And in exchange for its fee – the equivalent of almost $4 million in today’s money – the firm took on the task of making the cofferdam. But it wasn’t just responsible for drying out the falls, as it happens.
In particular, the Albert Elia Construction Company was also tasked with scouring the riverbed while it was exposed. On top of this, its workers were also directed to remove any loose boulders from the surface of the falls and to introduce a sprinkler system that would deliver moisture to the rock.
So, on June 9, 1969, the operation began. But as workmen attempted to construct a dam across the raging rapids, they found themselves in a precarious situation. If someone fell into the water, for example, there would have been nothing to stop them from plunging over the edge of the falls. Ultimately, then, it was decided to install a lifeline in the middle of the river that would connect Goat Island and the mainland.
Apparently, the idea was that any workers unlucky enough to plummet down towards the river would have had something to grab onto before being pushed over the edge. Fortunately, though, no incidences of this lifeline being used were recorded at the time. And gradually, over the course of three days, the dam began to take shape.
However, it was no simple task. In fact, over the course of construction, in excess of 1,200 trucks carried multiple loads of earth and rock to the American Falls and dumped them upstream of the cataract. And so by the end of the operation, almost 28,000 tons of material had been shifted to the site.
Finally, on June 12, 1969, the workmen completed their task by plugging up the final breach in the cofferdam. Stretching all the way from the mainland to Goat Island, the structure successfully accomplished the seemingly impossible. And for the first time in more than 12,000 years, the American Falls ran dry.
Despite this impressive feat, however, some locals worried that halting the falls would impact tourism in the region. And it was a valid concern; after all, five million visitors helped the local economy every year. Others believed, by contrast, that the unique opportunity to see what was beneath the water would actually attract crowds.
Ultimately, visitor numbers did decline during 1969 after the drying up of the falls. Nevertheless, those who did make it to the area were rewarded with a spectacular sight. And as the waters receded, several coins appeared on the riverbed – prompting delighted tourists to scoop these up as souvenirs.
In fact, curious visitors had begun arriving the day after USACE successfully turned off the falls. According to reports, the braver among them took tentative steps out onto the riverbed, with some even approaching the edge of the waterfall. However, most at the scene appeared content with a glimpse of the cofferdam that had achieved such an apparently improbable task.
But alongside all the novelty and excitement, something gruesome was revealed beneath the weight of the American Falls that year. On the riverbed, observers spotted two sets of remains from a man and a woman who had each met their fate somewhere in the fearsome waters.
According to contemporary reports, the deceased male had jumped into the channel above the American Falls on the day before the waters had dried up. In fact, observers at the time initially assumed that he was part of the official operation. But when the young man, clad in green pants and a similarly hued shirt, plunged into the current, the onlookers ultimately realized that something was amiss.
Given the timing of the man’s fatal leap, the authorities didn’t have to wait long to be able to recover his body. During the next day, then, four police officers scanned the now-dry riverbed in search of human remains. But while they ultimately located the deceased, whose name has not been recorded, they made another grim discovery along the way.
While scouring the riverbed, the officers also stumbled upon the remains of a woman wearing a red-and-white striped garment. And, apparently, her body was significantly decomposed, indicating that she had been in the water for quite a while prior. But who was she, and how had she ended up in the falls?
Hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery, authorities removed the remains and ordered that an autopsy take place. But again, the identity of the woman has not been recorded. What was revealed at the time, though, was the tragic fact that she had been wearing a wedding band. And on the inside of the ring, there was a heartrending inscription: “Forget me not.”
Sadly, these two were far from the only people to have lost their lives at Niagara Falls. It seems surprising that the operation did not reveal more bodies hiding beneath the water, in fact. After all, there are many people who – unwittingly or otherwise – have tumbled from the top over the years. These days, experts estimate that up to 40 deaths occur every year as a result.
And although many of the deceased are people who had attempted to take their own lives, a number of accidents have also contributed to the death toll at Niagara Falls. Since 1829 a series of daredevils have also attempted to survive the terrifying plunge – although only a handful have actually succeeded.
Among the most famous of these adventurers is 63-year-old teacher Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901 survived a plunge over the falls while encased in a wooden barrel. And upon emerging from her stunt relatively unscathed, she reportedly exclaimed, “No one ought ever do that again.” Yet not everyone has taken Taylor’s advice, as many have since followed in her footsteps – to varying degrees of success.
In 1984, for example, Canadian stuntman Karel Soucek managed to survive a trip in a barrel over the falls. Sadly, though, he died the following year at the Houston Astrodome in Texas while trying to relive his famous stunt. And in 1990 American Jesse Sharp attempted to tackle the cascades armed with just a canoe – but he was never seen again.
For those watching the draining of the American Falls, the discovery on the riverbed was a stark reminder of the water feature’s deadly power. But it was business as usual for the authorities, who took out the remains and continued with the operation. Apparently, the first step was to get rid of the loose rocks located on the face of the waterfall.
In order to do so, workers were encased in cages attached to cranes and dangled over the lip of the falls. And at the same time, engineers put in a sprinkler system designed to continually moisten the layer of shale on the face of the waterfall. According to experts, the rock had been drying out, making it more vulnerable to erosion.
Meanwhile, workers set about drilling into the riverbed at the top of the American Falls. Then, once the team had reached the 180-foot point, they began setting up tests to measure the absorbency levels of the rock. Elsewhere, surveyors seized the opportunity to chart the contours of the surface of the falls.
As geological surveys continued at the falls, construction commenced on a walkway that would allow visitors to travel safely along the riverbed. And on August 1, 1969, this attraction opened to the public for the first time. But even though the walkway proved popular, it was not enough to boost visitor numbers to normal levels.
Finally, on August 19, researchers began studying the deposit of talus at the foot of the falls. By drilling holes deep into the rocks, it seems, they hoped to learn more about the formation. However, it soon became apparent that the clean-up operation would not be as simple as the specialists had hoped.
In fact, engineers studying the American Falls concluded that the talus played a vital role in supporting the cliff face behind. Faced with the challenges of removal, then, the authorities initially put forward an alternative plan. By constructing a permanent dam, they reasoned, they could boost the water level in the basin and submerge the offending rocks.
But creating a dam would be far from a flawless solution, as it would weaken the American Falls significantly. Consequently, the authorities ultimately decided that they would leave the talus as it was. But the entire operation was not completely in vain, as engineers utilized the unusual situation to perform vital conservation work on the cliff face.
Over the course of six months, teams got to work with anchors, bolts and cables to stabilize the American Falls. Elsewhere, they introduced sensors designed to alert the authorities if a landslide was imminent. And the crew’s work has apparently had a significant impact on conserving the waterfall for many generations to come, too.
Eventually, in November 1969, the work was done. And after the cofferdam was destroyed using dynamite, the American Falls returned to its former glory. At the time, moreover, the IJC felt that it had taken steps towards protecting the natural wonder rather than turning it into something artificial.
Ironically, though, the Niagara Falls of 1969 was very different to the one that European explorers had discovered centuries earlier. Early industry had taken such a toll on the region, in fact, that conservation efforts were already under way by the 1800s. The businesses dependent on the power of the cascades, however, merely relocated downstream.
And by the beginning of the 20th century, a significant amount of water was being redirected from the falls to power various establishments – thus convincing many that the natural beauty of the cascades was diminishing. A debate therefore began as to how to best balance industry with conservation.
According to the industrialists, their plants were actually helping to conserve the falls by limiting the amount of water pouring over the lip. And while erosion had typically been occurring at a rate of four and a half feet per year, the businesspeople believed that a decreased water flow would help prevent this from happening.
Then the United States and Canada reached an agreement. Ultimately, you see, both nations wanted industrial activity to continue in the region but with the illusion that it was not affecting the mighty flow of Niagara Falls. So, how could they continue to divert the river without creating a noticeable impact on the famous attraction?
Well, in the end, Canada and the U.S. agreed to an innovative solution. During evenings and in winter, they’d divert as much as 75 percent of the water destined for Niagara Falls. At peak times when visitors were more likely, however, that amount would be reduced to 50 percent. In the meantime, experts artificially altered the lip of the famous Horseshoe Falls in order to create the illusion of a powerful flow.
Amazingly, these diversions still exist today, meaning tourists see only a fraction of the water actually meant for Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, the cascades remain one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. And soon, visitors may get another chance to see what secrets are hiding beneath the spray.
In 2016 the Niagara Frontier State Park Commission announced plans to dry out the American Falls again in the near future. More than a century earlier, you see, two stone bridges had been built to span the gap between the mainland and Goat Island. By 2005, however, these structures had deteriorated to the point where restoration was no longer an option.
So, in order to replace the bridges, the commission announced, it would be necessary for engineers to once again stop the flow of water over the falls. To begin with, then, authorities planned to construct another cofferdam in 2019. Yet they failed to secure the necessary $30 million in funding, meaning the project ultimately had to be postponed.
According to officials, though, the project is still very much on the cards. They believe, too, that thanks to the power of social media, this future dewatering could be more beneficial for tourism than the previous attempt had been. But with an unknown number of people missing and presumed dead in the area since 1969, the falls may yet have more gruesome secrets to reveal.