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THE DAY NIAGARA FALLS ALMOST WENT DRY

Today is the 150th anniversary of the day Mother Nature nearly turned off Niagara Falls for about 30 hours. Nothing like it ever happened again.

The winter of 1847-48 was unusually severe in western New York state. The whole surface of Lake Erie was frozen. The ice was more than 12 inches thick. When spring arrived, it brought with it heavy rains and strong winds.

On March 29, the rain was accompanied by gales from the northeast. The ice on Lake Erie was broken up into floes and then forced to the west. By nightfall, the wind suddenly shifted to the southwest and increased in intensity, reaching an estimated 100 miles per hour.

Quickly and en masse, the ice on the lake was driven to the northeast and piled up at Buffalo, at the source of the Niagara River. The monstrous ice jam became nearly impenetrable.

Soon, silently, the "neck," as the Native Americans called the river, was strangled. By midnight, for all intents and purposes, the river had dried up. Only a trickle of water got through.

Earlier in the month, an evangelist had told local residents the following: "Niagara Falls will go dry unless you desist from wickedness! Let this be a warning to you!"

Most people slept restlessly the night of March 29-30. The howling of the wind mixed eerily with the howling of wolves and the thunder of the falls.

Then it happened. Everyone, even those who slept, sensed that something was terribly wrong. Something was missing.

A kind of panic spread throughout the area. People jumped out of their beds, dressed and hurried to the falls, many carrying torches. The rain had ceased, and a bright moon lit up the scene.

Usually, a strong wind from the southwest showered on people approaching the falls, but not this time. Also gone was the sound, Niagara's special sound.

It was another world. The light of the moon shone on newly bared rocks. The glow from the torches made the view downright hellish.

Fear soon took hold of the people. Many of them hurried to their churches or knelt by the river. Talk about the end of the world spread about. Was the evangelist correct?

By sunrise of the 30th, word about the phenomenon had spread as far as 50 miles. By noon, about 5,000 people milled about all over the shores and dry bed of the river. Fear led to wonder when it was found out how the falls were really turned off. Actually, they were not completely silent. A very small trickle went over the American and Bridal Veil Falls, and a few small streams went over the Horseshoe Fall.

All day, people explored where no one had ever been before. Above the falls, some found artifacts on the riverbed, including Native American tomahawks and mementos from the War of 1812. Below the falls, others found caves and caverns behind the piles of talus.

The water in the gorge had gone down a lot, too. The Whirlpool and Devil's Hole Rapids went from being ferocious to docile. Rocks were seen that were never seen before. A few of them had been a problem for the Maid of the Mist boat, damaging its keel. Taking advantage of the situation, the owners of the boats blasted those rocks to smithereens.

When the day ended, most people went home and to bed. A few kept a vigil by the falls. Everyone anticipated the eventual return of the water.

Back in Buffalo, warm air was taking its toll on the ice jam, softening and weakening it. The force of the backed-up lake waters finally broke through. What happened next was described quite well by the Natural History magazine of September 1956:

"It was a growl; it was a roar; finally it was an upheaval. The ground trembled and farmhouses shook. Horses neighed and dogs bayed at the moon. Plaster cracked and glassware fell from shelves."

Just as they had done the day before, people jumped out of their beds and hurried to the falls. This time, they were greeted by the customary mist and thunder. The water was back, and so was peace of mind.

As a footnote, shortly after the return of the water to the falls, ice floes from Lake Erie came downstream, went over the falls and created an ice bridge all the way to Youngstown. For days, it was possible to travel to and from Canada on the ice.

PAUL GROMOSIAK was born and raised in Niagara Falls. He attended local schools and Niagara University, graduating in 1964. He worked as a chemist for five years before becoming a schoolteacher in Niagara Falls. He retired from teaching in 1989 to pursue his writing about about the Falls and the region. His published books are: "Niagara Falls Questions and Answers," published in 1989; "Soaring Gulls and Bowing Trees," also published in 1989; "Zany Niagara," published in 1992; and "Water Over the Falls," published in 1996. His new book, "Daring Niagara," will be published in May. He is also the curator of the Museum of Niagara, which will open in May on Niagara Falls Boulevard at Packard Road. He is a teacher at the Center of Renewal at Stella Niagara, in which role he speaks to visitors from all over the nation in the Elderhostel program about the history of Niagara.

Local historians who wish to submit a typed article for possible publication should mail it to Anne Neville, The Buffalo News, 8890 Porter Road, Niagara Falls, N.Y., 14304. Please include your phone number for confirmation.