By Daniel Macfarlane
The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation announced a while back that it will turn off the American Falls if it can get funding. This would be a repeat of 1969, when the Army Corps of Engineers shut off the smaller of the main cataracts at Niagara Falls to investigate removal of the rock, or talus, at its base. But this time it would be to replace or fix two century-old bridges connecting the mainland to Goat Island.
But what isn’t clear is why the entire American Rapids channel needed to be dewatered. Looking at the plans, I can see no reason why they couldn’t just use small cofferdams to fix the bridge section by section without shutting off the American Falls.
In fact, it appears that authorities think dewatering the American Falls will be good for the tourism industry. But this is where they would be wise to look to the historical precedent of 1969. In that year, the American Falls were dewatered with the expectation that tourist numbers would soar. While that happened in the first few weeks of the dry channel, for the overall tourist season numbers dropped precipitously.
In fact, as my research shows, it had been local Niagara interests that “manufactured” a crisis in the mid-1960s that framed the American Falls as threatened. Their main goal was to attract government funding to deal with the deindustrialization and dropping tourism affecting Niagara Falls, N.Y.
But engineers realized that the talus was helping to prop up the face of the American Falls. Moreover, the experts didn’t think that the public would notice enough of the difference to justify the estimated $25 million cost. But perhaps the biggest reason was that the local interests who had initially pushed to re-engineer the American Falls now realized that removing the talus would mean these falls would be shut off for several tourist seasons, which would be disastrous for the local tourism economy.
Granted, in 1969 there were rumors that people stayed away because they heard that both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls were turned off. Nonetheless, if state officials today think that dewatering the American Falls is going to result in a tourism increase, they might want to think twice.
If the intention is really to preserve the initial character of the Niagara State Reservation, then they should close the old bridges, keep the other existing bridge for pedestrians and necessary park trucks, and get rid of all vehicles on Goat Island. But if the old bridges are going to be fixed, maybe the best way doesn’t involve shutting off the entire American Falls. While I’ll certainly show up if they turn off the American Falls, history suggests other tourists won’t.
Daniel Macfarlane is an assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University who is completing a book about Niagara Falls.