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It is part of folklore that surrounds the Niagara River that once upon a time, the great stream ran dry. Only stones and puddles remained, and the mighty falls themselves were reduced to a dead gulch. Unlike many folk stories, this one is true.

Early on a March morning in 1848, people in Niagara Falls were awakened by a strange stillness because the familiar roar of water was absent. One by one, they stepped out of their homes in the light of early dawn to investigate.

What folks saw was astonishing: The reason there was no noise was that the Niagara River had ceased to flow. The riverbed and the falls were dry; rocks were exposed; turtles and fish were struggling in crevices.

On the river's Canadian side, a miller named Samuel Street discovered that his water wheel had stopped. With his daughter, Street walked midway across the top of the Horseshoe Falls and fixed a small flag near the brink.

In amazement, other Canadians were walking across the riverbed to Goat Island, picking up sticks and lumber fragments. At Chippawa, Ont., villagers found bayonets, rifles, swords -- weapons discarded by the American troops after the Battle of Chippawa in 1814.

A reporter for the Buffalo Express wrote: "All the people of the neighborhood were abroad, exploring recesses and cavities that had never before been exposed to mortal eyes. This writer went some distance up the shore of the river where huge fields of muddy bottom were laid bare."

For the whole day, this mysterious freak of nature continued. Experts shook their heads in disbelief; the superstitious canted about planetary imbalance tipping the water awry.

Then, after 30 hours of silence, came a rumble like distant thunder, from upstream. Residents heard a far-off echo that grew louder and nearer.

As though by magic, the Niagara River was reborn, rushing again into its channel, soon surging over the cataract, filling the gorge with water and sound.

Such odd events demanded an explanation, which proved to be simple. After a severe winter, huge deposits of ice lay on Lake Erie. Driven by easterly gale winds, these ice packs had jammed into the Niagara River's mouth at Buffalo.

On March 29, when the winds switched direction again, the water resumed its natural course.

No one now alive remembers these phenomena, so we must accept evidence of our forebears who peopled the Niagara Frontier during that cold winter of 1848.

GEORGE KUNZ, a retired high school teacher, lives in Snyder.

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