Something bizarre appeared on the riverbed
It’s June 1969. A team of engineers has managed to complete a near impossible task. Against all odds, they have stopped the flow of Niagara Falls, silencing one of the most famous tourist attractions on Earth. However, while the water dries up for the first time in thousands of years, a secret is revealed on the rocks below. This find is truly unbelievable.
Something special happened
It all started as a far cry from what Niagara Falls looks like today. Every year, millions of tourists flock to the area to admire the swirling waters. But more than five decades ago, something special happened in that very place. Back then, the famous waterfall was reduced to a trickle of water, while engineers explored what was happening at the bottom.
At that time, man surpassed nature. As the waterfall began to recede, visitors gathered to witness a spectacle they had never seen before. But what was revealed after Niagara Falls had been stopped?
Origin of the waterfalls
The story of Niagara Falls began about 18,000 years ago with advancing ice caps. After the ice melted, it left a waterfall that flowed into the Niagara River. Over time, this inundation eroded nearby cliffs, creating the wonder of nature that we know today.
Nowadays, the nature reserve is located on the border between the United States and Canada, and it is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world.
Discovered by Europeans
Although French explorer Samuel de Champlain first heard rumors of a huge waterfall in the region in the early 1600s, it wasn’t until 1678 that Niagara was first spotted by Europeans. That year, a priest named Father Louis Hennepin was witness to the astonishing spectacle on an expedition to what was then known as New France.
Five years after his discovery of the falls, priest Hennepin published A New Discovery, in which he described his incredible find. It was in this publication that the name Niagara first appeared — believed to have originated from the Iroquian word “onguiaahra,” meaning “the strait.” From the moment Westerners became aware of the falls, more and more people started travelling to the region.
Opportunities for the region
In the 1800s, the number of tourists arriving at Niagara Falls by train also increased. The area had increasingly become a tourist attraction. A wide variety of amenities soon emerged to accommodate the influx of visitors—many of whom were even on honeymoon. But it was not only the local hospitality sector that saw potential in the attraction.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the industrial world too recognized the value of the falls. By harnessing the power of the water flow, they were able to power their factories and mills. In 1895, a hydroelectric power station was opened—the first major facility of its kind the world had ever seen.
But while the waterfall was innovative, it could only carry electricity for about 90 meters. Fortunately, famed inventor Nikola Tesla took things to the next level in 1896. Making use of his knowledge of alternating current, he was able to divert current more than 20 miles away to Buffalo, New York.
Tesla made history with his AC induction motor. His experiments at Niagara Falls laid the foundation for a system that still transports electricity around the world today. More than a hundred years later, hydropower is still generated by the falls. The factories located there can produce up to 2.4 million kilowatts of electric current.
Divided between two countries
Today, Niagara Falls is split between two countries, with both an American and a Canadian side. Taken together, the countries receive about 30 million tourists every year. During peak hours, visitors can see the water tumble down at a rate of six million cubic feet per minute. Wow!
An interesting detail: the amount of water that flows down the falls decreases significantly at night. A 1950 treaty allows local businesses to direct more of the power to their power plants at times when the spectacular view is impacted the least. However, it is not the only time that the volume of the waterfall changes.
In 2019, the attraction looked completely different as it froze in some places due to unusually cold temperatures. Some water still flowed out over the edge, but most of it turned into clouds of vapor. Even though this has happened a number of times over the years, experts maintain that the flow never stops completely.
Still, part of the famous landmark did once come to a standstill. How about that? Technically, the famous landmark consists of three separate waterfalls. In addition to the iconic Horseshoe Falls, which make up the border between the United States and Canada, there are two smaller waterfalls that are exclusively on American soil: the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls.
In 1965, New Yorkers were concerned that the natural miracle on their side of the border had begun to lose its charm. A growing deposit of talus—the rock that accumulates at the base of a waterfall—was of particular concern. Apparently, the talus prevented the water from flowing down. According to others, it affected the aesthetic appeal of the American Falls.
On January 31, 1965, an article on that matter appeared on the front cover of the Niagara Falls Gazette. In the article, local journalist Cliff Spieler argued that continued erosion could eventually wipe out the American Falls completely. Shortly after, a campaign to save the waterfall began, while also putting pressure on the government.
Removing waste from waterfalls
In hopes of fixing the issue, U.S. and Canadian authorities therefore turned to the International Joint Commission (IJC), an organization that oversees regulations related to shared waters. But as the experts were busy working out a solution, a temporary operation was launched to remove all waste from the waters above the falls.
In order to achieve this, first it was necessary to divert the flow of water over the American Falls. And so, on November 13, 1966, a clever plan was carried out. Upstream, the International Water Control Dam was pushed into overdrive. The gates were opened wide to allow the flow in. At the same time, the hydroelectric power stations were also increased to complete capacity.
With these measures, the amount of water flowing over the falls was reduced from 60,000 liters per second to just 15,000 liters per second—a huge difference! And as the river receded, workers began cleaning up the waste. In the meantime, officials from the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) took the opportunity to get a closer look at the exposed riverbed.
Wanting to come up with a long-term plan to protect the American Falls, the USACE team took aerial photographs of the entire site. However, after six hours had passed, the diversions were closed again and the river flow returned. Coincidentally, this brief exercise would become the basis for a much more ambitious operation, which took place later.
Completely draining the waterfalls
Two years after the campaign to save the American Falls, the IJC founded the American Falls International Board. The board soon realized that an even more ambitious approach would be necessary. To solve the erosion problem, it seemed that they would have to find a way completely drain the falls.
Ultimately, a group of engineers from USACE took on this project. Soon they drew up a plan. During the 1966 approach, they had managed to reduce the volume of water flowing over the American Falls to 25 percent of its normal flow. This time, however, more drastic action was needed. So officials drew up a plan for a type of temporary construction known as a ‘cofferdam’.
USACE also handed out a check for almost half a million dollars to the Albert Elia Construction Company. In exchange for this fee, the company took on the task of constructing the cofferdam. But the company was responsible for more than just drying out the falls. They were given another special task.
The construction company was also given the special task of searching the riverbed as it was exposed. Additionally, the workers were instructed to remove loose boulders from the surface (of the falls, ed.) and to install a sprinkler system that would allow moisture to flow toward the rocks.
Start of the operation
The operation began on June 9, 1969. But when the workers attempted to build a dam across the raging rapids, they found themselves in a precarious situation. If someone fell into the water, nobody would be able to do anything about it. It was anything but safe. In the end, they decided to build a lifeline across the middle of the river that would connect Goat Island to the mainland.
Origin of the dam
The idea was that any workers who were unfortunate enough to fall into the river would have something to grab on to. Fortunately, no incidents where this lifeline had to be used were recorded at the time. Over the course of three days, the dam gradually began to take shape.
However, it was no easy task. More than 1,200 trucks took part in construction, transporting multiple loads of soil and stones to waterfalls. By the time the operation was finished, nearly 28,000 tons of material had been moved to the site. So you can safely call it a mega operation!
On June 12, 1969, the workers completed their task by plugging the last ‘hole’ on site. Nature stretched all the way from the mainland to Goat Island, successfully accomplishing what seemed impossible until then. The waterfall had dried up for the first time in over 12,000 years.
Despite this impressive accomplishment, some local residents feared that halting the falls would affect tourism in the region. A justified concern, since the local economy was largely supported by the five million visitors every year. Others, on the other hand, believed it was a unique opportunity to discover everything that was usually hidden by the water.
Lots of visitors
Finally, in 1969, after the falls had dried up, visitor numbers did indeed decrease. Nevertheless, those who did visit the area were rewarded with spectacular views. As the water receded, several coins appeared on the riverbed, prompting tourists to pick them up to keep as souvenirs.
Curious visitors arrived a day after USACE successfully drained the falls. According to reports, daring visitors put it all on the line and stepped onto the riverbed. Some of them even approached the edge of the waterfall. Most, however, seemed to be satisfied with a glimpse of the cofferdam, which had accomplished its seemingly impossible task.
Aside from the novelty and excitement surrounding the draining, something horrifying was discovered that year on the riverbed of the American Falls. On the riverbed, observers saw two sets of remains of a man and a woman. Their fate lay enclosed somewhere in the terrifying waters of the waterfall.
According to today’s reports, the deceased man had jumped into the channel upstream of American Falls the day before it was drained. At the time, employees initially assumed that he had been part of the official operation. When the young man, dressed in green pants and a similarly colored shirt, plunged into the current, the observers realized that something was not right.
Yet another discovery
Given the timing of the man’s fatal jump, authorities didn’t have to wait long to retrieve his body. The next day, four police officers searched the dry riverbed for other human remains. As they recovered the deceased man, whose name remains unknown, they made another grim discovery along the way.
As they were searching the riverbed, the officers also came across the remains of a woman. Her body was already in an advanced stage of decomposition, indicating that she had been in the water for a while. But who this woman was and how she ended up in the falls remains unclear.
Unfortunately, these two people were no exception. Many more lost their lives at Niagara Falls. For this reason, it is quite remarkable that the operation did not recover more bodies under the water. After all, there are many who — unconsciously or not — have fallen into the waterfall over the years. Today, experts estimate that about 40 people die this way every year.
Many of the deceased are the result of a successful suicide attempt. However, the number of accidents that take place here has certainly contributed to the death toll at Niagara Falls. In addition to these fatal accidents, there are also thrill chasers that go after dangerous situations themselves. They try to survive a dive into the falls – unfortunately only a handful have actually succeeded.
Dive into the waterfall
Among these adventurers, 63-year-old teacher Annie Edson Taylor is one of the most well-known. She took a dive in the falls in 1901 and survived. Emerging from her stunt relatively unscathed, she reportedly exclaimed, “No one should ever do this again.” Unfortunately, not everyone followed Taylor’s advice, as many have since followed in her footsteps — with varying degrees of success.
In 1984, Canadian stuntman Karel Soucek managed to survive a trip in a barrel across the falls. Sadly, he died the following year at the Houston Astrodome in Texas, trying to recreate his famous stunt. In 1990, American Jesse Sharp attempted to brave the falls armed with only a canoe — never to be seen again.
Continuing the operation
Before anyone has completed the draining of the American Falls, the discovery on the riverbed was a strong reminder of the deadly force of the falling water. Authorities have removed the remains from the riverbed in order to move the operation forward. Then, they removed loose rocks from the front of the waterfall.
To do this, workers were locked in cages attached to cranes. They were dragged along the edges of the falls like this. At the same time, engineers installed a sprinkler system designed to continuously moisten a layer on the surface of the waterfall. According to experts, the rock had dried out, making it more vulnerable to erosion.
In the meantime, workers began to drill holes into the riverbed. Once the team reached the bottom, they began setting up tests to measure the rock’s absorption level. Elsewhere, surveyors grabbed the opportunity to map the contours of the falls’ surface.
As geological surveys continued at the falls, construction began on a walkway that would allow visitors to safely walk along the riverbed. On August 1, 1969, this attraction opened to the public for the first time. And while the walkway proved popular, it was not enough to bring visitor numbers back to normal levels.
Building a permanent dam
On August 19, 1969, researchers began studying the deposition of talus at the base of the falls. By drilling holes deep into the rocks, they hoped to learn more about how they were formed. However, it soon became apparent that the operation would not be as simple as the specialists had hoped.
In fact, engineers studying the American Falls concluded that the talus played a critical role in supporting the rock wall behind it. The many challenges the removal posed eventually led to an alternative plan thought up by the authorities. By building a permanent dam, they reasoned, they could raise the water level in the basin and submerge the powerful rocks.
Reinforcing the rock wall
Yet unfortunately, building a dam would be far from being a perfect solution as it would significantly weaken the falls. Therefore, the authorities finally decided that they would leave the talus as it was. However, the entire operation had not been in vain, as engineers had used the unusual situation to carry out essential conservation work on the rock wall.
For six months, teams worked with anchors, bolts and cables to stabilize the American Falls. This time they were well-prepared for danger. For example, they installed sensors that were to warn the authorities if a landslide was imminent. Thus, the work of the specialists would also have a significant impact on the conservation of the waterfall for generations to come.
Restored to its former glory
Finally, in November 1969, the work was finished. After the cofferdam had been destroyed with dynamite, the waterfall was returned to its former glory. Additionally, the IJC was pleased that steps had been taken to protect the natural wonder instead of turning it into something artificial.
Ironically, the Niagara Falls of 1969 were very different from the falls that European explorers had discovered centuries earlier and that the native inhabitants had known for centuries. Early industry had taken such a toll on the region that, in fact, conservation efforts had been underway as early as the 1800s.
In the early 1900s, a significant amount of water from the falls was diverted to various establishments, leading many to believe that the falls’ natural beauty was diminishing. This sparked a discussion about the best way to balance industry and nature conservation.
According to the industrialists, their plants helped to maintain the falls by limiting the amount of water flowing over the edge. And even though erosion typically took place at the rate of 4.5 feet per year, businessmen believed that reduced water flow would help prevent it.
Ultimately, the United States and Canada reached an agreement. Both nations ultimately wanted industrial activity in the region to continue. But how could they continue to divert the river without a noticeable effect on the tourist attraction?
Fraction of water
Ultimately, Canada and the US came up with an innovative solution. In the evenings and winter, they would divert as much as 75 percent of the water that was destined for Niagara Falls. At peak times, when many people come and visit the attraction, that number would be reduced to 50 percent. In the meantime, experts had artificially altered the edge of the famous Horseshoe Falls to create the illusion of a powerful stream.
Amazingly, these diversions still exist, meaning tourists only see a fraction of the water actually meant for Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, the falls remain one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.
Draining the falls again
In 2016, the Niagara Frontier State Park Commission announced plans to drain the falls again in the near future. Over a century ago, two stone bridges were built to bridge the gap between the mainland and Goat Island. By 2005, however, these structures had deteriorated to such an extent that repair was no longer an option.
The commission announced that to replace the bridges, engineers would have to stop the flow of water over the falls once more. Initially, the authorities planned to build another cofferdam in 2019. Still, they failed to secure the required $30 million in funding, ultimately causing the project to be postponed.
Good for tourism
Officials claim the project is still on the agenda. They also think that thanks to the power of social media, this future draining could be more beneficial to tourism compared to the previous effort. But with an unknown number of people missing and dead in the area, it remains to be seen what horrific discoveries that will lead to..
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