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Memories abound of water-free Niagara Falls

Rock-filled memories of a waterless American Falls came flooding back for many upon hearing of plans to again shut off the waterworks to a portion of Western New York’s No. 1 tourist attraction two to three years from now.

They were there the last time, nearly half a century ago.

Linda Williams of Florida recalled on Facebook that she was 11 years old in 1969 when she got a peek at the barren falls.

“I remember this well in 1969,” Williams commented on a posting about the possible diversion. “My entire family was there to take photos, and yes!! They shut the Falls off.”

Michael Hilliker of Silver Creek also recalled his experience on Facebook.

“I was a geology major at Fredonia State and got to walk around the bottom of the falls when they had it shut off. Was very eerie feeling,” he wrote in a comment.

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Video: What the dewatered falls looked like in 1969

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Ron Guido of Orchard Park is also reminiscing.

Now retired, Guido was a young lieutenant with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1969 when the International Joint Commission tapped the Corps to head a diversion of the Niagara River that forced a four-month bypass of the American Falls so the effects of erosion from the mighty cataract could be studied.

Though his background was in economics, and he had only minimal training in the field of engineering, Guido was plucked out of Fort Belvoir, Va., and put in charge of public relations for the project, largely because of his prior experience as a licensed tour guide in both the U.S. and Canada.

“When I was a student at Canisius College for two summers, I worked for a travel agency that did tours above Niagara Falls,” Guido recalled Monday.

“After graduating, I was in ROTC, commissioned as a second lieutenant, and I happened to be assigned to the Buffalo district. When they found out that I had a vast knowledge of Niagara Falls, they asked me to work on the public affairs component,” he added.

Guido was set up with a desk at the Niagara Parks Commission office near Prospect Point, which was his base for six months.

“I was out on the surface of the dewatered falls every day, multiple times a day, and I would handle media at the falls. I basically handled their on-site activities, making sure it was safe and taking them to different sites in the immediate area. We made daily radio broadcasts. We dealt with the local newspapers, of course, and we handled inquiries from all over the world. It was pretty exciting and a lot of fun,” Guido said.

The falls can be a dangerous place with over 3,000 tons of water per second gushing over its surface, and no less so when its rocky terrain is left bare and mostly dry.

“I did not always avoid pratfalls. The rocks were very loose, and spending as much time out there as I did, I did take a couple of really nasty falls. It was just very dangerous, and we were very concerned about public safety,” Guido said.

“The public really wanted access to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So, in combination with the State of New York Parks, we built a walkway along the shore, but on the riverbed. And I would say the walkway was probably in the area of 200 to 300 feet long. So the public had access to it, but it was right along the shoreline,” he added.

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Photos: When the American falls first went dry

Video: “I saw the Falls run dry”

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Guido recalled that the Corps struggled to keep the public from getting in harm’s way.

The Corps had built a barrier, called a cofferdam, to divert the flow of the water over the Canadian Falls, leaving the American side almost dry. It was made of mostly stone, dirt and “a lot of clay.”

“Of course, from the legal side, you don’t want anybody out on the channel, because the cofferdam could have been breached,” Guido said.

Guido recalled that, 47 years ago, there was a tremendous amount of difficulty getting the initial segment of the cofferdam constructed.

“The hardest part of getting the cofferdam to take was in the initial 20 to 30 feet, because it kept on washing out,” he said. “Eventually, by adding more and more stone and dirt, we got it to grab.”

He said the technology for building cofferdams has not evolved that much from what the Corps of Engineers did in 1969 and expects it will be done pretty much in the same way when the project starts in a couple of years.

“The Romans used to build cofferdams thousands of years ago when they used to build bridges. Basically, you just keep on putting stone and dirt to head off the channel,” Guido said.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com