Niagara falls – Some history

There are differing theories as to the origin of the name of the falls. According to Iroquoian scholar Bruce Trigger, “Niagara” is derived from the name given to a branch of the locally residing native Neutral Confederacy, who are described as being called the “Niagagarega” people on several late 17th century French maps of the area. According to George R. Stewart, it comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra”, meaning “point of land cut in two”. Henry Schoolcraft reported:

“Niagara Falls. This name is Mohawk. It means, according to Mrs. Kerr, the neck; the term being first applied to the portage or neck of land, between lakes Erie and Ontario. By referring to Mr. Elliott’s vocabulary, (chapter xi) it will be seen that the human neck, that is, according to the concrete vocabulary, his neck, is onyara. Red Jacket pronounced the word Niagara to me, in the spring of 1820, as if written O-ne-au-ga-rah.”

A number of figures have been suggested as first circulating an eyewitness description of Niagara Falls. Frenchman Samuel de Champlain visited the area as early as 1604 during his exploration of Canada, and members of his party reported to him the spectacular waterfalls, which he described in his journals. Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm explored the area in the early 18th century and wrote of the experience. The consensus honoree is Belgian Father Louis Hennepin, who observed and described the falls in 1677, earlier than Kalm, after traveling with explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, thus bringing the falls to the attention of Europeans. Further complicating matters, there is credible evidence that French Jesuit Reverend Paul Ragueneau visited the falls some thirty five years before Hennepin’s visit, while working among the Huron First Nation in Canada. Jean de Brébeuf also may have visited the falls, while spending time with the Neutral Nation.

During the 18th century, tourism became popular, and by mid-century, it was the area’s main industry. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jérôme visited with his bride in the early 19th century. In 1837 during the Caroline affair a rebel supply ship, the Caroline, was burned and sent over the falls. In March 1848, ice blockage caused the falls to stop; no water (or at best a trickle) fell for as much as 40 hours. Waterwheels stopped, mills and factories simply shut down for having no power. Later that year demand for passage over the Niagara River led to the building of a footbridge and then Charles Ellet’s Niagara Suspension Bridge. This was supplanted by German-born John Augustus Roebling’s Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge in 1855. After the American Civil War, the New York Central railroad publicized Niagara Falls as a focus of pleasure and honeymoon visits.

Niagara falls

Niagara falls

With increased railroad traffic, in 1886, Leffert Buck replaced Roebling’s wood and stone bridge with the predominantly steel bridge that still carries trains over the Niagara River today. The first steel archway bridge near the falls was completed in 1897. Known today as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, it carries vehicles, trains, and pedestrians between Canada (through Canadian Customs Border Control) and the U.S.A. just below the falls. In 1912 much of the water coming over the American Falls froze, though there was still a trickle and the falls ran at the other two sites.


In 1941 the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission completed the third current crossing in the immediate area of Niagara Falls with the Rainbow Bridge, carrying both pedestrian and vehicular traffic between the two countries and Canadian and US customs for each country.

After the First World War, tourism boomed again as automobiles made getting to the falls much easier. The story of Niagara Falls in the 20th century is largely that of efforts to harness the energy of the falls for hydroelectric power, and to control the development on both sides that threaten the area’s natural beauty.

Niagara falls

Niagara falls

A team from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers dammed the falls in June 1969 in order to clear rock from the base of the falls. Rockslides had caused a significant buildup of rock at the bottom of the American side of the falls, and the engineers were to clean up the rock and repair some faults to prevent eventual erosion of the American side of the waterfall. A temporary dam was constructed to divert the flow of water to the Canadian side; the dam measured 600 feet across and was made of nearly 30,000 tons of rock. The engineers cleared the rock debris and tested for safety, finishing the project in November of that year. The temporary dam was blown up to restore water flow.

Before the late 20th century the northeastern end of the Horseshoe Falls was in the United States, flowing around the Terrapin Rocks, which was once connected to Goat Island by a series of bridges. In 1955 the area between the rocks and Goat Island was filled in, creating Terrapin Point. In the early 1980′s the United States Army Corps of Engineers filled in more land and built diversion dams and retaining walls to force the water away from Terrapin Point. Altogether 400 feet of the Horseshoe Falls was eliminated, including 100 feet on the Canadian side. According to author Ginger Strand, the Horseshoe Falls is now entirely in Canada. Other sources say “most of” Horseshoe Falls is in Canada.

Leave a Reply