Niagara Falls is the collective name for three massive waterfalls on the Niagara River (the short river that drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario): the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. As the river straddles the Canadian-American border, so, too, do the waterfalls. Horseshoe Falls is the largest of the three. It is also known as the ‘Canadian Falls’, as two thirds of it are on the Canadian side of the boundary line. The American Falls, as its name suggests, rests entirely on the American side of the divide. The Bridal Veil Falls, the smallest of the three, is also located on the American side. Taken together, these three waterfalls, the Niagara Falls, are the largest waterfalls by flow rate in the world.
Niagra Falls Early History
The origin of the word ‘Niagara’ is a bit of a mystery. Some historians believe the word has its roots in the name of an obsolete First Nations tribe. The Onguiaahra, or Niagagarega, were a tribe of the Neutral Confederacy who occupied the area around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Their name means either “near the big waters”, “thundering waters”, or “point of land cut in two” in the extinct language of the Neutral Confederacy. Others believe Niagara was the name of an Iroquois village in the area. Others still maintain that the name comes from the Iroquois word onyara, meaning ‘neck’. Perhaps we will never know for sure.
Another mystery surrounding the Niagara Falls is the identity of its discoverer. Of course, the local Iroquois and Neutral Confederacies had known about the existence of the Falls long before the first white man stepped foot in the Americas. However, many historians are divided on the name of the first European to discover them. The famous French explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first to write about the Niagara Falls, although he did not see them himself. The explorer heard reports of the great waterfalls from local Indians in the early 1600’s. Some historians speculate that a number of French Jesuit missionaries may have seen the Niagara Falls in the 1630’s and ’40’s. Among them was St. Jean de Brebeuf, who would be famously martyred by the Iroquois just west of the present day Capital of Canada in 1649. If these Jesuits saw the Niagara Falls, however, they neglected to write about them. Rene de Brehant de Galinee, a French Sulspician missionary, became the first white man to write about hearing the Falls in 1669. And in 1678, Louis Hennepin, a Flemish Recollect missionary and adventurer, wrote about seeing the Niagara Falls. He, along with French explorer Robert de La Salle and his crew, were en route to the mouth of the Niagara River 20 km upstream. There, they would build Fort Conti and a sailing ship christened Le Griffon. Le Griffon would mysteriously disappear on the return trip of her maiden voyage across the Great Lakes… but that’s a story for another time.
The Battle of Queenston Heights
Throughout the years, the Niagara Falls have witnessed a number of important events in Canadian history. The first major event to take place within sight of the Falls was the Battle of Queenston Heights, the first major battle of the War of 1812.
On the early morning of October 13, 1812, three and a half thousand inexperienced American soldiers gathered on the American shores of the Niagara River. These Americans, under the command of General Stephen Van Rensselaer, attempted to cross the river about eights kilometers downriver of the Niagara Falls. They hoped to capture the British village of Queenston, thereby cutting off British supplies to western Upper Canada.
A sentry warned the British detachment at Queenston of the American advance. By the time the British soldiers had formed up, the first wave of American troops had crossed onto their side of the river. A small group of British infantry engaged this first wave while their artillery barraged the American landing stage from atop Queenston Heights. In return, American artillery across the river bombarded the village of Queenston. Despite British efforts, the first wave of American troops quickly beat back the defenders and captured the British battery on Queenston Heights.
Earlier that morning, British Major-General Isaac Brock heard cannon fire from nearby Fort George. Brock got out of bed, quickly mounted up, and arrived on the scene with a small detachment. Upon learning of the gravity of the situation, he sent word to Fort George for reinforcements. Rather than wait for the reinforcements to arrive, however, Brock decided to lead a charge from the village up to Queenston Heights to retake the artillery. Brock’s charge was repelled by the Americans, however. The General-Major himself was fatally wounded by a musket ball to the chest.
Throughout the day, British reinforcements began to arrive at the battlefield. The reinforcements included British regulars, Canadian Militia, and Iroquois warriors. The tide of the battle turned with their arrival. The British quickly regained Queenston Heights and thwarted the invasion. In the end, about nine hundred American soldiers surrendered to the British. The British themselves suffered minor casualties.
The Caroline Affair
Another major event to take place near Niagara Falls was the Caroline affair.
In the wake of the failed Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, a group of rebel leaders took refuge on Navy Island, a small river island about 4 km upriver of the Niagara Falls. The party was led by William Lyon Mackenzie. These rebels hoped to create a Canadian republic separate from the British Empire. The American government, which had no love for the British, sympathized with these Canadian rebels. They routinely sent a steamboat full of supplies to the rebel camp at Navy Island. The steamboat was named the SS Caroline.
The British soon learned of this development and dispatched a party of Canadian militia to sabotage the vessel. The militiamen were led to believe that the steamboat belonged to Mackenzie. They captured the boat on American territory and drove off the crew, killing a black crew member in the process. Then they set the boat on fire and let the current carry it past Navy Island and over the Niagara Falls.
The Maid of the Mists
In addition to the SS Caroline, a number of people and objects have gone over the Niagara Falls. According to Iroquois legend, the first person to go over the falls was a young Seneca widow named Lelawala. Upon losing her husband and suffering a number of misfortunes, Lelawala decided to end her life. One day, she got into her canoe and paddled down the Niagara River. She intended to paddle off the Niagara Falls to her death.
As Lelawala plunged over the waterfall, she was caught by Heno, the god of thunder. Heno took the girl to his home behind the waterfall, where he and his sons nursed her back to health. In time, Lelawala fell in love with Heno’s youngest son and became his wife. Together, they raised their family in a cave behind the waterfalls.
In 1846, a Niagara River ferry service was launched.The ferry would take passengers to and from the American and Canadian sides of the river. It was named The Maid of the Mists after the Iroquois legend. Over the years, The Maid of the Mists has been the name of various ferries and tourist attractions on the Niagara River. One such boat plies the waters below the Niagara Falls to this day.
In 1901, a schoolteacher named Annie Edson Taylor went over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. Taylor was 63 years old, and hoped her stunt would raise some retirement money. On October 24, she crawled inside the barrel. Her friends screwed the lid down. They used a bicycle tire to compress the air inside. Then, like any good friends would do, they plugged the hole with a cork and sent Taylor cascading over the Horsehoe Falls. Rescuers recovered the barrel shortly afterwards. After a bit of a struggle, they pried the lid open. They were astounded. Aside from a small head wound, Annie Taylor emerged from the barrel unscathed.
In the years to come, many more people would attempt to replicate Taylor’s stunt. Some, like Annie, went over the Niagara Falls in wooden barrels. Others went in kayaks, Jet Skis, or rubber balls. Some people have even gone over the Niagara Falls in nothing but their shoes and clothes… and lived to tell the tale! Many survived the fall. Some unfortunates did not.
In addition to human beings, a number of other animals have gone over the Niagara Falls. Some of these animals include buffalo, dogs, cats, raccoon, foxes, geese, eagles, and turtles. Most of these animals were sent over the Falls by people. A number of fish, however, go over the Niagara Falls on their own accord. According to some estimates, about 90% of them survive the fall.
Other Niagra Falls Stunts
In the fall of 1821, a 22-year-old American daredevil named Sam Patch jumped off the Niagara Falls. He jumped from a platform built on the edge of Goat Island, a tiny island at the top of the waterfall, into the frothing river 26 metres below. The crowd cheered wildly when Patch surfaced at the bottom, unharmed.
Patch repeated the stunt on October 17th of the same year. This time, however, he jumped from a staggering height of 40 metres. Against all odds, he survived. The daredevil went on to perform a similar stunt near Rochester New York. On Friday the 13th, November 1829, he jumped into Genesee Falls. The 38 metre fall killed him.
In 1859, a French tightrope walker named Charles Blondin successfully crossed the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. The tightrope was not stretched over the Niagara Falls, but rather over the Niagara Gorge downstream. Blondin’s high wire act started a trend that would last for 37 years. Acrobats from all over the world flocked to the Niagara River to walk the high wire. Some of the more notable acrobats included William Hunt (a.k.a. ‘The Great Farini’) and Maria Spelterini. In 2012, American daredevil Nik Wallenda decided to one-up his 19th century predecessors. After receiving permission from both the Canadian and American governments, he walked on a tightrope across the top of the Niagara Falls. The tightrope was 550 metres long. According to Wallenda, that made his feat the longest unsupported tightrope walk in history. Wallenda crossed from the American side of the river to the Canadian side. At the end of his act, he pulled out his passport. Canadian border guards were waiting for him on the other side!
The Niagara Falls Today
Today, Niagara Falls is one of Canada’s most popular tourist attractions. On the Canadian side of the river, tourists can view the magnificent waterfalls from the Skylon Tower. For a more thrilling bird’s eye view of the natural wonder, tourists can tour the Falls via helicopter.
In Queenston, visitors can visit the site of the 1812 Battle of Queenston Heights. The park there is a National Historic Site. Brock’s Monument, a 56-metre tower, serves as a memorial for the Major-General who died there.
On the American side of the river, visitors can don blue plastic ponchos and take the Maid of the Mist boat tour to the misty base of the waterfalls. There, tourists can get a small taste of what thrill seekers like Annie Taylor must have experienced in their journeys over the Falls.
If you’d rather wear yellow ponchos, you can take the Cave of the Wind tour. The Cave of the Winds was a natural cave behind the Bridal Veil Falls (perhaps the home of the original Maid of the Mists?). Although the cave was destroyed in a rockfall in 1954, it still gets visitors. On the Cave of the Winds tour, tourists hike a wooden walkway to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. The place is perpetually misty, and hikers often experience tropical storm-like conditions. To get any closer to the Niagara Falls, you’d have to be in a barrel!
Written by Hammerson Peters