How Engineers Managed To Drain One Of The Biggest Water Falls On Earth

Bild: Igor Sh /

Niagara Falls is a group of three waterfalls at the southern end of  Niagara Gorge, between the  Canadian province of Ontario and the US state of New York. An immense body of water, you may think its power could not be stopped, however in the summer of 1969 a group of engineers set out to just that.

They first discovered how to stop the flow of water and then tried to do it in practice. But nothing could have had them prepared them for what lay beneath. Read on to find out how these scientists achieved such a massive feat and what they discovered.

1. Nature Did Some Amazing Work

Bild: TRphotos /

Those of you who have been lucky enough to see this great body of water at work understand its vastness and size, that is also captured at times with some spectacular photography like this picture above. Millions of tourists travel every year to see the landmark.

And like much of natures beauty words can not always describe such amazing feats of nature. But I think power, huge and spectacular help.

This will also help those of you who have not seen the Falls in person put into perspective what the scientists in the summer of 1969 set out in front of them.

2. Interest Grows

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Scientists had theories of what might lay beneath the beautiful phenomenon, but nothing concrete other than possible ideas. As you can imagine once the project was announced that scientists would look behind the scenes of the spectacular landmark, public interest was aroused.

Many members of the public wanted to witness this extraordinary event in history when the neverending body of water stopped its flow as a result of human hands for the first time. As can also be imagined there was a huge amount of scepticism in the engineer’s actual capabilities. But once the amount of water in the Falls started to recede, trust in the scientists grew.

3. How It Came To Be

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At times it is hard to understand how nature has carved such great landscapes and even that such as huge as Niagra Falls at one time didn’t exist. Although this time was some 18,000 years ago.

Back then two massive ice sheets were making their way down from the North Pole. An unstoppable mass of frozen water carved through anything in its way. Once these huge sheets began to thaw, they revealed the amazing structure we now know as Niagara Falls.

The Falls were not exactly the same after this ice melted, but instead millions of years of powerful flowing river water eroded the rock and other landscape away to leave what we see today.

4. Perfect Divide

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Standing either side of the spectacular falls are two of the largest and most powerful nations on the planet. The great Niagra Falls, almost as powerful as these two nations, acts as a natural border between the two countries and is often a point of crossing between the United States of America and Canada.

This crossing, although now perfectly safe, may have been a little more terrifying in July 1848 when the first bridge spanning the great expanse opened. Located not too far from the whirlpool, stood the first attempt at spanning the gap. It was a slightly more rickety suspension bridge compared to the one used today, however, it did survive in use until 1855.

5. Early Tourism

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Tourism to the great landmark has seen millions over the years, all to admire its great beauty, however, it is not known how long ago these visitors began to travel to the site. We can only assume that the locals were enjoying their beauties long before the world found out about them.

There are records of a French explorer by the name Samuel de Champlain, travelling to Niagara Falls after hearing rumours of its existence. This was at the beginning of the seventeenth century, showing that the insane spectacle that is Niagra Falls already had a draw for people from all over the world, which continues to this day.

6. Discovered At Last

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Although Samuel de Champlain documented seeing the Great Falls for the first time, it was not until 1678 that the landmarks existence would be known around the world. This was thanks to Father Louis Hennepin, who travelled to Niagara Falls in search of New France, now known as Canada.

Five years after he returned from his expedition, Father Louis Hennepin gave a detailed description of his encounter. Writing an article in 1683, he gave the title “New Discovery” and even named the great expanse Niagra Falls, which was the first time the name had ever been put down on paper.

7. Where Should We Go For Holidays?

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Although there were many mentions of Niagara Falls in multiple explorer journals and articles, it was only in the 1800s that the landmark finally became a popular tourist destination. Two hundred years after Europeans discovered the massive cascade, the first tourists from the other side of the Atlantic began to travel over to visit and admire the amazing Falls.

And with these large groups of people came lucrative business. Hoteliers especially cashed in on the new flock of European travellers and investments on the land around the waterfall began. Even then the majority of tourists were honeymooners who came in droves to see the romantic cascade of water.

8. Industries Begin

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And of course, with tourism and the beginning of business, the industries were not far behind in figuring out the great potential of the Niagara Falls. They realized the raw power the falls could produce. Harnessing this energy could help massively to power factories, mills and much more, if only they could manage to do so.

And they did. By the end of the 19th century, engineers had managed to build the first-ever hydroelectric generating station. A great scientific feat that helped create huge amounts of electricity for the region. This energy was used to power further industry advancements.

9. Still Making Juice

An amazing feat of engineering 100 years ago, and an amazing feat of engineering today. Working on the same principles of physics the first hydroelectric generator worked on, the energy produced by the dam at Niagara Falls functions in the same way presently, however, on a much larger scale. The dams today are capable of producing two million kilowatts of power.

These dams also play another role in today’s more environmentally aware and also challenged century. Since the Niagara Falls discover many things have changed. The world is more populated and polluted and options for cleaner reusable sources are more important now than ever before.

10. The Level Of Flow Changes

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It is estimated that an incredible six million cubic feet of water run down Niagara Falls in one minute. However, this amount of flow is susceptible to change, and the amount of water being dumped at the falls will generally be less at night than during the day.

This happens as a result of the human interaction with the Falls and is not a naturally occurring event. The surrounding industry, previously mentioned, signed an agreement to allow more water to be taken from the falls at night than during the more popular tourism time of the day.

11. It Gets Cold Out There

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The Niagara Falls are quite far north and as previously mentioned, is one of the natural borders between Canada and the USA. So you may wonder what happens here during the freezing cold months of winter. With such raw and intense power, it might be hard to imagine what happens when temperatures drop below 0 °C.

Well, the falls never actually freeze completely over but instead freeze partially in parts. The flow of the water never stops completely, at least not as a result of the cold winter weather. With so much fast-moving water powering through it would be impossible for it all to freeze over.

12. Not Just One Waterfall

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As far as technicalities are concerned, Niagara Falls is owned by both the USA and Canada. However, the falls are actually divided into three different waterfalls. As a result, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls are solely American parts of Niagara Falls.

It would then be assumed the other remaining one belongs to Canada, but in actual fact, there is no part of the Falls that belongs solely to Canada. The biggest part and the third waterfall is called Horseshoe Falls. It is between the countries and represents the physical border between the Canadian and American sides.

13. Concerns From Downstate

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There’s a slight concern by the locals of the New York State side living near Niagara falls that it is slowly losing its “charm.” And have expressed that with every gallon of water the Falls throws down a bit of its magic disappears. Only people visiting it on a regular and often enough basis have stated these claims.

While the new visitors to the falls claim on first siting that it is as beautiful and magical as imagined. Whether it was a century ago or a yesterday, visitors still flock to the site to see it’s beauty. Yes, the odd stone can accumulate at the bottom of the waterfall, but it will be many more years before this landmark loses its beauty.

14. The IJC

Bild: Songquan Deng /

It was these concerns spreading to both sides of the Falls that alerted both the Canadian and American authorities. After the concerns had made enough noise an organization that takes care of the shared waters was contacted, this organisation is the IJC or International Joint Commission.

As it was the New York side of the waterfalls that started the concerns about the collected rocks at the bottom, it was also the American side who suggested something be done about it. This resulted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also becoming involved and asked for their expert opinion on the matter and hopefully a solution.

15. The Begining

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With a combined board of Americans and Canadians working on a possible solution to the collection of rocks at the bottom of the falls, it was inevitable that an answer to the question would be found. And what these engineers decided on was to, in essence, turn Niagara Falls off. Only for a short time to remove unwanted boulders and earth.

So in the summer of 1969, what was perceived as impossible at one point began with over 1000 truckloads of rocks and earth. These massive loads were being dropped upstream from waterfall for more than three days. And the result…..

16. What Did They Build?

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They built what is know as a “cofferdam“. this is a temporary structure the mixed American and Canadian team built between the mainland and a small island by the name of “Goat Island”. 27,000 tons of rocks and earth were dropped into the river by the 1,200 trucks involved. This new man-made structure was 600 feet long.

These stats give an insight into the sheer scale of the operation. Months of planning and organisation from details like where to find all the boulders and earth to surveying the land for the best options to drop the material. This was no easy task.

17. All Dried Up

I think the above image will tell you what happened next. But this may be misleading. They were successful in stopping the flow of one of the waterfalls. Through well-executed and precision engineering, the engineers had managed to redirect the flow away from the American Falls and instead sent it to the Horseshoe Falls.

As amazing as these engineers were, stopping the almighty force of the water flooding into Niagara Falls was near to impossible. What was possible though was stopping parts of it at a time, like in this image. Now you might be wondering what happened to all that excess water….

18. Locals Were Concerned

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The draining of the Falls brought fear to the local population on both sides for two reasons in particular. Obviously the first being what happens to all that water when man decides to block its natural flow? A totally fair concern as it is always dangerous to stop the flow of such a large moving river.

The second concern of the locals was based around livelihood. Tourists often came to see the falls in all there glory and without the spectacular crash of water maybe the economy would be affected. However, others thought with correct marketing it could be a fascinating opportunity for tourists to see what was hidden behind the great Niagara Falls.

19. It All Worker Out

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The engineers were successful in draining the American Falls for 6 months during 1969 and with no major problems with the flow of the river. However, what engineers didn’t realize was that removing the rocks at the bottom would have destroyed the whole place. So Instead of removing them the engineers worked on stabilizing the waterfalls for future generations.

Unfortunately, tourism did decrease as a result of the American Falls drying up. However, those who did decide to go and see the Falls at this time had a unique experience and were even allowed take home a part of the landmark in the form of stones or even coins left on the riverbed.