Niagara Falls is a group of three waterfalls at the southern end of Niagara Gorge, between the Canadian province of Ontario and the US state of New York. The largest is Horseshoe Falls, also known as Canadian Falls, which straddles the international border between Canada and the United States. The smaller American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls lie entirely within the United States. Bridal Veil Falls are separated from Horseshoe Falls by Goat Island and from American Falls by Luna Island.
Located on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, the combined falls have the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America that has a vertical drop of more than 50 metres (160 ft). During peak daytime tourist hours, more than 168,000 m3 (six million cubic feet) of water goes over the crest of the falls every minute. Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America, as measured by flow rate.
The falls are 27 kilometres (17 mi) north-northwest of Buffalo, New York, and 121 kilometres (75 mi) south-southeast of Toronto, between the twin cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York. Niagara Falls was formed when glaciers receded at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation (the last ice age), and water from the newly formed Great Lakes carved a path through the Niagara Escarpment en route to the Atlantic Ocean.
Niagara Falls is famed both for its beauty and as a valuable source of hydroelectric power. Balancing recreational, commercial, and industrial uses has been a challenge for the stewards of the falls since the 19th century.
The Horseshoe Falls drop about 57 metres (187 ft), while the height of the American Falls varies between 21 and 30 metres (69 and 98 ft) because of the presence of giant boulders at its base. The larger Horseshoe Falls are about 790 metres (2,590 ft) wide, while the American Falls are 320 metres (1,050 ft) wide. The distance between the American extremity of the Niagara Falls and the Canadian extremity is 3,409 feet (1,039 m).
The peak flow over Horseshoe Falls was recorded at 6,400 cubic metres (230,000 cu ft) per second. The average annual flow rate is 2,400 cubic metres (85,000 cu ft) per second. Since the flow is a direct function of the Lake Erie water elevation, it typically peaks in late spring or early summer. During the summer months, at least 2,800 cubic metres (99,000 cu ft) per second of water traverses the falls, some 90% of which goes over the Horseshoe Falls, while the balance is diverted to hydroelectric facilities. This is accomplished by employing a weir – the International Control Dam – with movable gates upstream from the Horseshoe Falls. The falls' flow is further halved at night, and, during the low tourist season in the winter, remains a minimum of 1,400 cubic metres (49,000 cu ft) per second. Water diversion is regulated by the 1950 Niagara Treaty and is administered by the International Niagara Board of Control (IJC).
The verdant green colour of the water flowing over the Niagara Falls is a byproduct of the estimated 60 tonnes/minute of dissolved salts and "rock flour" (very finely ground rock) generated by the erosive force of the Niagara River itself.
The features that became Niagara Falls were created by the Wisconsin glaciation about 10,000 years ago. The same forces also created the North American Great Lakes and the Niagara River. All were dug by a continental ice sheet that drove through the area, deepening some river channels to form lakes, and damming others with debris. Scientists argue there is an old valley, St David's Buried Gorge, buried by glacial drift, at the approximate location of the present Welland Canal.
When the ice melted, the upper Great Lakes emptied into the Niagara River, which followed the rearranged topography across the Niagara Escarpment. In time, the river cut a gorge through the north-facing cliff, or cuesta. Because of the interactions of three major rock formations, the rocky bed did not erode evenly. The top rock formation was composed of erosion-resistant limestone and dolomite of the Lockport Formation. That hard layer of stone eroded more slowly than the underlying materials. The aerial photo on the right clearly shows the hard caprock, the Lockport Formation (Middle Silurian), which underlies the rapids above the falls, and approximately the upper third of the high gorge wall.
Immediately below the hard-rock formation, comprising about two-thirds of the cliff, lay the weaker, softer, sloping Rochester Formation (Lower Silurian). This formation was composed mainly of shale, though it has some thin limestone layers. It also contains ancient fossils. In time, the river eroded the soft layer that supported the hard layers, undercutting the hard caprock, which gave way in great chunks. This process repeated countless times, eventually carving out the falls.
Submerged in the river in the lower valley, hidden from view, is the Queenston Formation (Upper Ordovician), which is composed of shales and fine sandstones. All three formations were laid down in an ancient sea, their differences of character deriving from changing conditions within that sea.
About 10,900 years ago, the Niagara Falls was between present-day Queenston, Ontario, and Lewiston, New York, but erosion of their crest has caused the waterfalls to retreat approximately 6.8 miles (10.9 km) southward. The Horseshoe Falls, which are about 2,600 feet (790 m) wide, have also changed their shape through the process of erosion; evolving from a small arch to a horseshoe bend, to the present day gigantic V. Just upstream from the falls' current location, Goat Island splits the course of the Niagara River, resulting in the separation of the mostly Canadian Horseshoe Falls to the west from the American and Bridal Veil Falls to the east. Engineering has slowed erosion and recession.
The current rate of erosion is approximately 30 centimeters (1 ft) per year, down from a historical average of 0.91 m (3 ft) per year. According to the timeline of the far future, in roughly 50,000 years Niagara Falls will have eroded the remaining 32 kilometres (20 mi) to Lake Erie and ceased to exist.
Theories differ as to the origin of the name of the falls. According to Iroquoian scholar Bruce Trigger, Niagara is derived from the name given to a branch of the local native Neutral Confederacy, who are described as being called the Niagagarega people on several late-17th-century French maps of the area. According to George R. Stewart, it comes from the name of an Iroquois town called Onguiaahra, meaning "point of land cut in two".
Henry Schoolcraft reported:
Many figures have been suggested as first circulating a European eyewitness description of Niagara Falls. The Frenchman Samuel de Champlain visited the area as early as 1604 during his exploration of Canada, and members of his party reported to him the spectacular waterfalls, which he described in his journals. The Finnish-Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm explored the area in the early 18th century and is credited with the first scientific description of the falls. The consensus honoree for the first description is the Belgian missionary Louis Hennepin, who observed and described the falls in 1677, earlier than Kalm, after traveling with the explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, thus bringing the falls to the attention of Europeans. Further complicating matters, there is credible evidence the French Jesuit missionary Paul Ragueneau visited the falls some 35 years before Hennepin's visit while working among the Huron First Nation in Canada. Jean de Brébeuf also may have visited the falls, while spending time with the Neutral Nation.
In 1762, Captain Thomas Davies, a British Army officer and artist, surveyed the area and painted the watercolor, An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara, the first eyewitness painting of the falls.
During the 19th century, tourism became popular, and by mid-century, it was the area's main industry. Theodosia Burr Alston (daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr) and her husband Joseph Alston were the first recorded couple to honeymoon there in 1801. Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Jérôme visited with his bride in the early 19th century.
In 1825, British explorer John Franklin visited the falls while passing through New York en route to Cumberland House as part of his second Arctic expedition, calling them "so justly celebrated as the first in the world for grandeur".
In 1837 during the Caroline affair, a rebel supply ship, the Caroline, was burned and sent over the falls.
In March 1848, a ice blockage caused the falls to stop; no water (or at best a trickle) fell for as much as 40 hours. Waterwheels stopped, mills and factories shut down for having no power.
Later that year, demand for passage over the Niagara River led to the building of a footbridge and then Charles Ellet's Niagara Suspension Bridge. This was supplanted by German-born John Augustus Roebling's Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge in 1855. After the American Civil War, the New York Central Railroad publicized Niagara Falls as a focus of pleasure and honeymoon visits. With increased railroad traffic, in 1886, Leffert Buck replaced Roebling's wood and stone bridge with the predominantly steel bridge that still carries trains over the Niagara River today. The first steel archway bridge near the falls was completed in 1897. Known today as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, it carries passenger vehicles and trains between Canada (through Canadian Customs Border Control) and the U.S.A. just downstream of the falls.
In about 1840, the English industrial chemist Hugh Lee Pattinson traveled to Canada, stopping at the Niagara Falls long enough to make the earliest known photograph of the falls, a daguerreotype in the collection of Newcastle University. It was once believed that the small figure standing silhouetted with a top hat was added by an engraver working from imagination as well as the daguerreotype as his source, but the figure is clearly present in the photograph. Because of the very long exposure required, of ten minutes or more, the figure is assumed by Canada's Niagara Parks agency to be Pattinson himself. The image is left-right inverted and taken from the Canadian side. Pattinson made other photographs of the Horseshoe Falls as well as of Rome and Paris. These were then transferred to engravings to illustrate Noël Marie Paymal Lerebours' Excursions Daguerriennes (Paris, 1841–1864).
After the First World War, tourism boomed again, as automobiles made getting to the falls much easier. The story of Niagara Falls in the 20th century is largely that of efforts to harness the energy of the falls for hydroelectric power, and to control the development on both sides that threaten the area's natural beauty.
In 1941, the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission completed the third current crossing in the immediate area of Niagara Falls with the Rainbow Bridge, carrying both pedestrian and vehicular traffic between the two countries and Canadian and U.S. customs for each country.
A team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created a dam on the American Falls in June 1969 to clear rock from the base of the falls. Rock slides caused a significant buildup of rock at the bottom of the American side of the falls, and the engineers were to clean up the rock and repair some faults to prevent eventual erosion of the American side of the waterfall. A temporary dam was built to divert the flow of water to the Canadian side; the dam measured 600 ft (180 m) across and was made of nearly 30,000 tons of rock. The engineers cleared the rock debris and tested for safety, finishing the project in November of that year. Water flow was restored on November 25, 1969.
Before the late 20th century, the northeastern end of the Horseshoe Falls was in the United States, flowing around the Terrapin Rocks, which were once connected to Goat Island by a series of bridges. In 1955, the area between the rocks and Goat Island was filled in, creating Terrapin Point. In the early 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers filled in more land and built diversion dams and retaining walls to force the water away from Terrapin Point. Altogether, 400 ft (120 m) of the Horseshoe Falls were eliminated, including 100 ft (30 m) on the Canadian side. According to author Ginger Strand, the Horseshoe Falls is now entirely in Canada. Other sources say "most of" Horseshoe Falls is in Canada.
The only recorded freeze-up of the river and falls was due to an ice jam on March 29, 1848. Although the falls commonly ice up most winters, the river and the falls do not freeze completely. The years 1885, 1902, 1906, 1911, 1932, 1936, 2014 and 2017 are noted for the falls icing up. In 1912, much of the water coming over the American Falls froze, though a trickle still ran and the falls ran at the other two sites.
Impact on industry and commerce
The enormous energy of Niagara Falls has long been recognized as a potential source of power. The first known effort to harness the waters was in 1759, when Daniel Joncaire built a small canal above the falls to power his sawmill. Augustus and Peter Porter purchased this area and all of American Falls in 1805 from the New York state government, and enlarged the original canal to provide hydraulic power for their gristmill and tannery. In 1853, the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Mining Company was chartered, which eventually constructed the canals that would be used to generate electricity. In 1881, under the leadership of Jacob F. Schoellkopf, the Niagara River's first hydroelectric generating station was built. The water fell 86 feet (26 m) and generated direct current electricity, which ran the machinery of local mills and lit up some of the village streets.
The Niagara Falls Power Company, a descendant of Schoellkopf's firm, formed the Cataract Company headed by Edward Dean Adams, with the intent of expanding Niagara Falls' power capacity. In 1890, a five-member International Niagara Commission headed by Sir William Thomson among other distinguished scientists deliberated on the expansion of Niagara hydroelectric capacity based on seventeen proposals, but could not select any as the best combined project for hydraulic development and distribution. In 1893, Westinghouse Electric (which had built the smaller-scale Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant near Ophir, Colorado, two years earlier) was hired to design a system to generate alternating current on Niagara Falls, and three years after that this large-scale AC power system was created (activated on August 26, 1895). The Adams Power Plant Transformer House remains as a landmark of the original system.
By 1896, financing from moguls including J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor IV, and the Vanderbilts had fueled the construction of giant underground conduits leading to turbines generating upwards of 100,000 horsepower (75 MW), sent as far as Buffalo, 20 miles (32 km) away. Some of the original designs for the power transmission plants were created by the Swiss firm Faesch & Piccard, which also constructed the original 5,000 hp waterwheels.
Private companies on the Canadian side also began to harness the energy of the falls. The Government of Ontario eventually brought power transmission operations under public control in 1906, distributing Niagara's energy to various parts of the Canadian province.
Other hydropower plants were also being built along the Niagara River. But in 1956, disaster struck when the region's largest hydropower station was partially destroyed in a landslide. This drastically reduced power production and put tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs at stake. In 1957, Congress passed the Niagara Redevelopment Act, which granted the New York Power Authority the right to fully develop the United States' share of the Niagara River's hydroelectric potential.
In 1961, when the Niagara Falls hydroelectric project went online, it was the largest hydropower facility in the Western world. Today, Niagara is still the largest electricity producer in New York state, with a generating capacity of 2.4 GW. Up to 1,420 cubic metres (380,000 US gal) of water a second is diverted from the Niagara River through conduits under the city of Niagara Falls to the Lewiston and Robert Moses power plants. Currently between 50% and 75% of the Niagara River's flow is diverted via four huge tunnels that arise far upstream from the waterfalls. The water then passes through hydroelectric turbines that supply power to nearby areas of Canada and the United States before returning to the river well past the falls. This water spins turbines that power generators, converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. When electrical demand is low, the Lewiston units can operate as pumps to transport water from the lower bay back up to the plant's reservoir, allowing this water to be used again during the daytime when electricity use peaks. During peak electrical demand, the same Lewiston pumps are reversed and actually become generators, similar to those at the Moses plant.
To preserve Niagara Falls' natural beauty, a 1950 treaty signed by the U.S. and Canada limited water usage by the power plants. The treaty allows higher summertime diversion at night when tourists are fewer and during the winter months when there are even fewer tourists. This treaty, designed to ensure an "unbroken curtain of water" flowing over the falls, states that during daylight time during the tourist season (April 1 to October 31) there must be 100,000 cubic feet per second (2,800 m3/s) of water flowing over the falls, and during the night and off-tourist season there must be 50,000 cubic feet per second (1,400 m3/s) of water flowing over the falls. This treaty is monitored by the International Niagara Board of Control, using a NOAA gauging station above the falls. During winter, the Power Authority of New York works with Ontario Power Generation to prevent ice on the Niagara River from interfering with power production or causing flooding of shoreline property. One of their joint efforts is an 8,800-foot-long (2,700 m) ice boom, which prevents the buildup of ice, yet allows water to continue flowing downstream. In addition to minimum water volume, the crest of the Horseshoe falls was reduced to maintain an uninterrupted "curtain of water."
The most powerful hydroelectric stations on the Niagara River are the Sir Adam Beck 1 and 2 on the Canadian side and the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant and the Lewiston Pump Generating Plant on the American side. Together, Niagara's generating stations can produce about 4.4 gigawatts of power.
In August 2005 Ontario Power Generation, which is responsible for the Sir Adam Beck stations, started a major civil engineering project, called the Niagara Tunnel Project, to increase power production by building a new 12.7-metre (42 ft) diameter, 10.2-kilometre-long (6.3 mi) water diversion tunnel. It was officially placed into service in March 2013, helping to increase the generating complex's nameplate capacity by 150 megawatts. It did so by tapping water from farther up the Niagara River than was possible with the preexisting arrangement. The tunnel provided new hydroelectricity for approximately 160,000 homes.
Ships can bypass Niagara Falls by means of the Welland Canal, which was improved and incorporated into the Saint Lawrence Seaway in the mid-1950s. While the seaway diverted water traffic from nearby Buffalo and led to the demise of its steel and grain mills, other industries in the Niagara River valley flourished with the help of the electric power produced by the river. However, since the 1970s the region has declined economically.
The cities of Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, and Niagara Falls, New York, United States, are connected by two international bridges. The Rainbow Bridge, just downriver from the falls, affords the closest view of the falls and is open to non-commercial vehicle traffic and pedestrians. The Whirlpool Rapids Bridge lies one mile (1.6 km) north of the Rainbow Bridge and is the oldest bridge over the Niagara River. Nearby Niagara Falls International Airport and Buffalo Niagara International Airport were named after the waterfall, as were Niagara University, countless local businesses, and even an asteroid.
Niagara Falls have long been a source of inspiration for explorers, travelers, artists, authors, filmmakers, residents and visitors, few of whom realize the falls were nearly devoted solely to industrial and commercial use. In the 1870s, sightseers had limited access to Niagara Falls and often had to pay for a glimpse, and industrialization threatened to carve up Goat Island to further expand commercial development. Other industrial encroachments and lack of public access led to a conservation movement in the U.S. known as Free Niagara, led by such notables as Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church, landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, and architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Church approached Lord Dufferin, governor-general of Canada, with a proposal for international discussions on the establishment of a public park.
Goat Island was one of the inspirations for the American side of the effort. William Dorsheimer, moved by the scene from the island, brought Olmsted to Buffalo in 1868 to design a city park system and helped promote Olmsted's career. In 1879, the New York state legislature commissioned Olmsted and James T. Gardner to survey the falls and to create the single most important document in the Niagara preservation movement, a Special Report on the preservation of Niagara Falls. The report advocated for State purchase, restoration and preservation through public ownership of the scenic lands surrounding Niagara Falls. Restoring the former beauty of the falls was described in the report as a "sacred obligation to mankind." In 1883, New York Governor Grover Cleveland drafted legislation authorizing acquisition of lands for a state reservation at Niagara, and the Niagara Falls Association, a private citizens group founded in 1882, mounted a great letter-writing campaign and petition drive in support of the park. Professor Charles Eliot Norton and Olmsted were among the leaders of the public campaign, while New York Governor Alonzo Cornell opposed.
Preservationists' efforts were rewarded on April 30, 1885, when Governor David B. Hill signed legislation creating the Niagara Reservation, New York's first state park. New York State began to purchase land from developers, under the charter of the Niagara Reservation State Park. In the same year, the province of Ontario established the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park for the same purpose. On the Canadian side, the Niagara Parks Commission governs land usage along the entire course of the Niagara River, from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.
In 1887, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux issued a supplemental report detailing plans to restore the falls. Their intent was "to restore and conserve the natural surroundings of the Falls of Niagara, rather than to attempt to add anything thereto," and the report anticipated fundamental questions. How would preservationists provide access without destroying the beauty of the falls? How would they restore natural landscapes damaged by man? They planned a park with scenic roadways, paths and a few shelters designed to protect the landscape while allowing large numbers of visitors to enjoy the falls. Commemorative statues, shops, restaurants, and a 1959 glass and metal observation tower were added later. Preservationists continue to strive to strike a balance between Olmsted's idyllic vision and the realities of administering a popular scenic attraction.
Preservation efforts continued well into the 20th century. J. Horace McFarland, the Sierra Club, and the Appalachian Mountain Club persuaded the United States Congress in 1906 to enact legislation to preserve the falls by regulating the waters of the Niagara River. The act sought, in cooperation with the Canadian government, to restrict diversion of water, and a treaty resulted in 1909 that limited the total amount of water diverted from the falls by both nations to approximately 56,000 cubic feet (1,600 m3) per second. That limitation remained in effect until 1950.
Erosion control efforts have always been of extreme importance. Underwater weirs redirect the most damaging currents, and the top of the falls has also been strengthened. In June 1969, the Niagara River was completely diverted from the American Falls for several months through construction of a temporary rock and earth dam (clearly visible in the photo at right). During this time, two bodies were removed from under the falls, including a man who had been seen jumping over the falls, and the body of a woman, which was discovered once the falls dried.
While the Horseshoe Falls absorbed the extra flow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied the riverbed and mechanically bolted and strengthened any faults they found; faults that would, if left untreated, have hastened the retreat of the American Falls. A plan to remove the huge mound of talus deposited in 1954 was abandoned owing to cost, and in November 1969, the temporary dam was dynamited, restoring flow to the American Falls. Even after these undertakings, Luna Island, the small piece of land between the main waterfall and the Bridal Veil, remained off limits to the public for years owing to fears that it was unstable and could collapse into the gorge.
Commercial interests have continued to encroach on the land surrounding the state park, including the construction of several tall buildings (most of them hotels) on the Canadian side. The result is a significant alteration and urbanisation of the landscape. One study indicated it has caused the airflow near the falls to change direction. Students at the University of Guelph demonstrated, using scale models, that as air passes over the top of the new hotels it causes a breeze to roll down the south sides of the buildings and spill into the gorge below the falls, where it feeds into a whirlpool of moisture and air. The inference was that a documented rise in the number of "mist days" was a result of these breezes, where mist days refers to the mist plume of the falls reaching landside. In 1996 there were 29 mist days recorded, but by 2003 that number had risen to 68. Another study has discounted this opinion and linked mist production to the difference in air and water temperature at the falls. However, this study does not offer opinion as to why mist days have been increasing, just that the hotel breezes are an unlikely cause.
In 2013, New York State began an effort to renovate The Sisters Islands located on Goat Island. New York State used funds from the re-licensing of the New York Power Authority hydroelectric plant downriver in Lewiston, New York, to rebuild walking paths on the Three Sisters Islands and to plant native vegetation on the islands. The state also renovated the area around Prospect Point at the brink of the American Falls in the state park.
Over the falls
In October 1829, Sam Patch, who called himself "the Yankee Leapster", jumped from a high tower into the gorge below the falls and survived; this began a long tradition of daredevils trying to go over the falls.
On October 24, 1901, 63-year-old Michigan school teacher Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over the falls in a barrel as a publicity stunt; she survived, bleeding, but otherwise unharmed. Soon after exiting the barrel, she said, "No one ought ever do that again." Before Taylor's attempt, on October 19 her domestic cat named Iagara was sent over the Horseshoe Falls in her barrel to test its strength. Contrary to rumours at the time, the cat survived the plunge unharmed and later posed with Taylor in photographs. Since Taylor's historic ride, over a dozen people have intentionally gone over the falls in or on a device, despite her advice. Some have survived unharmed, but others have drowned or been severely injured. Survivors face charges and stiff fines, as it is illegal, on both sides of the border, to attempt to go over the falls.
In 1918, there was a near disaster when a barge, known locally as the Niagara Scow, working upriver broke its tow, and almost plunged over the falls. The two workers on board saved themselves by grounding the vessel on rocks just short of the falls, where it has remained ever since.
In the "Miracle at Niagara", Roger Woodward, a seven-year-old American boy, was swept over the Horseshoe Falls protected only by a life vest on July 9, 1960, as two tourists pulled his 17-year-old sister Deanne from the river only 20 feet (6.1 m) from the lip of the Horseshoe Falls at Goat Island. Minutes later, Woodward was plucked from the roiling plunge pool beneath the Horseshoe Falls after grabbing a life ring thrown to him by the crew of the Maid of the Mist boat.
On July 2, 1984, Canadian Karel Soucek from Hamilton, Ontario, plunged over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel with only minor injuries. Soucek was fined $500 for performing the stunt without a license. In 1985, he was fatally injured while attempting to re-create the Niagara drop at the Houston Astrodome. His aim was to climb into a barrel hoisted to the rafters of the Astrodome and to drop 180 feet (55 m) into a water tank on the floor. After his barrel released prematurely, it hit the side of the tank and he died the next day from his injuries.
In August 1985, Steve Trotter, an aspiring stuntman from Rhode Island, became the youngest person ever (age 22) and the first American in 25 years to go over the falls in a barrel. Ten years later, Trotter went over the falls again, becoming the second person to go over the falls twice and survive. It was also the second-ever "duo"; Lori Martin joined Trotter for the barrel ride over the falls. They survived the fall but their barrel became stuck at the bottom of the falls, requiring a rescue.
On September 28, 1989, Niagara natives Peter DeBernardi (age 42) and Jeffery James Petkovich (age 25) became the first "team" to make it over the falls in a two-person barrel. The stunt was conceived by DeBenardi, who wanted to discourage youth from following in his path of addictive drug use. The pair emerged shortly after going over with minor injuries and were charged with performing an illegal stunt under the Niagara Parks Act.
On June 5, 1990, Jesse Sharp, a whitewater canoeist from Tennessee paddled over the falls in a closed deck canoe. He neglected to wear a helmet to make his face more visible for photographs of the event. He also did not wear a life vest because he believed it would hinder his escape from the hydraulics at the base of the falls. His boat flushed out of the falls, but his body was never found.
On October 1, 1995, Robert Douglas "Firecracker" Overacker went over the falls on a Jet Ski to raise awareness for the homeless. His rocket-propelled parachute failed to open and he plunged to his death. Overacker's body was recovered before he was pronounced dead at Niagara General Hospital.
Kirk Jones of Canton, Michigan, became the first known person to survive a plunge over the Horseshoe Falls without a flotation device on October 20, 2003. Though Jones had attempted to commit suicide, he survived the 16-story fall with only battered ribs, scrapes, and bruises. Jones died in another attempt to go over the falls in an inflatable ball in 2017.
A second person survived an unprotected trip over the Horseshoe Falls on March 11, 2009, and when rescued from the river, was reported to be suffering from severe hypothermia and a large wound to his head. His identity has not been released. Eyewitnesses reported seeing the man intentionally enter the water.
On May 21, 2012, an unidentified man in his early 40s became the fourth person to survive an unprotected trip over the Horseshoe Falls. Eyewitness reports show he "deliberately jumped" into the Niagara River after climbing over a railing.
On July 8, 2019, at roughly 4 am, officers responded to a report of a person in crisis at the brink of the Canadian side of the falls. Once officers got to the scene, the man climbed the retaining wall, jumped into the river and went over the Horseshoe Falls. Authorities subsequently began to search the lower Niagara River basin, where the man was found sitting on the rocks at the water's edge.
Other daredevils have made crossing the gorge their goal, starting with the successful passage by Jean François "Blondin" Gravelet, who crossed Niagara Gorge in 1859. Between 1859 and 1896 a wire-walking craze emerged, resulting in frequent feats over the river below the falls. One inexperienced walker slid down his safety rope. Only one man fell to his death, at night and under mysterious circumstances, at the anchoring place for his wire.
These tightrope walkers drew huge crowds to witness their exploits. Their wires ran across the gorge, near the current Rainbow Bridge, not over the waterfall itself. Among the many was Ontario's William Hunt, who billed himself as "The Great Farini" and competed with Blondin in performing outrageous stunts over the gorge. On three occasions Blondin carried his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back—on the final time being watched by the Prince of Wales.
In 1876, 23-year-old Italian Maria Spelterini was the only woman ever to cross the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope, making four crossings over 18 days. On July 12, she crossed wearing peach baskets strapped to her feet, on July 19 blind-folded, on July 22 with her ankles and wrists manacled and finally on July 26. Tightrope crossings of the falls ended—by law—in 1896, when James Hardy crossed.
On June 15, 2012, high wire artist Nik Wallenda became the first person to walk across the falls in 116 years, after receiving special permission from both governments. The full length of his tightrope was 1,800 feet (550 m). Wallenda crossed near the brink of the Horseshoe Falls, unlike walkers who had crossed farther downstream. According to Wallenda, it was the longest unsupported tightrope walk in history. He carried his passport on the trip and was required to present it upon arrival on the Canadian side of the falls.
Already a huge tourist attraction and favorite spot for honeymooners, Niagara Falls visits rose sharply in 1953 after the release of Niagara, a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten. In 1956, the Woody Woodpecker series released the episode Niagara Fools. The 1974 ABC Movie of the Week, The Great Niagara, featuring Richard Boone and Randy Quaid and filmed on location, told the story of a family of daredevils who challenged the falls. The falls was a featured location in the 1980 movie Superman II, and was itself the subject of a popular IMAX movie, Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic. Much of the episode "Return of the Technodrome" in the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series takes place near the Niagara Falls and its hydroelectric plant. Illusionist David Copperfield performed a trick in which he appeared to travel over the Horseshoe Falls in 1990.
The falls, or more particularly, the tourist-supported complex near the falls, was the setting of the short-lived Canadian-shot US television show Wonderfalls in early 2004. Location footage of the falls was shot in October 2006 to portray "World's End" of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Professional kayaker Rafa Ortiz's preparation to paddle over the falls in a kayak is documented in the 2015 film Chasing Niagara.
Composer Ferde Grofé was commissioned by the Niagara Falls Power Generation project in 1960 to compose the Niagara Falls Suite in honor of the completion of the first stage of hydroelectric work at the falls. Each movement is dedicated to the falls, or to the history of the greater Buffalo region. In 1997, composer Michael Daugherty composed Niagara Falls, a piece for concert band inspired by the falls.
Many poets have been inspired to write about the falls. Among them was the Cuban poet José Maria Heredia, who wrote the poem "Niagara". There are commemorative plaques on both sides of the falls recognising the poem.
In the original 1920s and 1930s Buck Rogers stories and newspaper cartoons, Buck Rogers, in his adventures in the 25th century that take place on Earth, helps in the fight for a free Northern America from the liberated zone around Niagara, New York (which by then has grown to a large metropolis—the capital of the liberated zone—that includes Niagara Falls, New York, Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York), against the Red Mongol Empire, a Chinese empire of the future which in the 25th century rules most of North America.
Part of Mark Twain's 1893 short story, "Extract from Adam's Diary" is set at Niagara Falls.
In 2014, the writer Alessandro Baricco published the book 'Smith & Wesson' counting the story of Rachel Green going over the falls.
The Niagara Falls were such an attraction to landscape artists that, writes John Howat, they were "the most popular, the most often treated, and the tritest single item of subject matter to appear in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and American landscape painting". Church's 1857 Niagara was exhibited on two continents to thousands of paying customers.
Peak visitor traffic occurs in the summertime, when Niagara Falls are both a daytime and evening attraction. From the Canadian side, floodlights illuminate both sides of the falls for several hours after dark (until midnight). The number of visitors in 2007 was expected to total 20 million, and by 2009 the annual rate was expected to top 28 million tourists.
The oldest and best known tourist attraction at Niagara Falls is the Maid of the Mist boat cruise, named for an ancient Ongiara Indian mythical character, which has carried passengers into the rapids immediately below the falls since 1846. Cruise boats operate from boat docks on both sides of the falls, with the Maid of the Mist operating from the American side and Hornblower Cruises from the Canadian side.
From the U.S. side, the American Falls can be viewed from walkways along Prospect Point Park, which also features the Prospect Point Observation Tower and a boat dock for the Maid of the Mist. Goat Island offers more views of the falls and is accessible by foot and automobile traffic by bridge above the American Falls. From Goat Island, the Cave of the Winds is accessible by elevator and leads hikers to a point beneath Bridal Veil Falls. Also on Goat Island are the Three Sisters Islands, the Power Portal where a huge statue of Nikola Tesla (the inventor whose patents for the AC induction motor and other devices for AC power transmission helped make the harnessing of the falls possible) can be seen, and a walking path that enables views of the rapids, the Niagara River, the gorge, and all of the falls. Most of these attractions lie within the Niagara Falls State Park.
The Niagara Scenic Trolley offers guided trips along the American Falls and around Goat Island. Panoramic and aerial views of the falls can also be viewed by helicopter. The Niagara Gorge Discovery Center showcases the natural and local history of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Gorge. A casino and luxury hotel was opened in Niagara Falls, New York, by the Seneca Indian tribe. The Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel occupies the former Niagara Falls Convention Center. The new hotel is the first addition to the city's skyline since completion of the United Office Building in the 1920s.
On the Canadian side, Queen Victoria Park features manicured gardens, platforms offering views of both the American and Horseshoe Falls, and underground walkways leading into observation rooms that yield the illusion of being within the falling waters. The observation deck of the nearby Skylon Tower offers the highest view of the falls, and in the opposite direction gives views as far as Toronto. Along with the Minolta Tower (formerly the Seagrams Tower and the Konica Minolta Tower, and since 2010 called the Tower Hotel), it is one of two towers in Canada with a view of the falls.
The Whirlpool Aero Car, built in 1916 from a design by Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, is a cable car that takes passengers over the Niagara Whirlpool on the Canadian side. The Journey Behind the Falls consists of an observation platform and series of tunnels near the bottom of the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side.