Draining Niagara Falls

George Burns via Wikimedia Commons

How the story of Niagara Falls starts

One of the seven World Wonders, Niagara Falls is located on the border of New York state and Ontario, Canada.

A mainstay popular tourist destination, onlookers have been coming to visit the falls for years. Made up of three falls, the water submerges all that’s on the bottom.

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NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory via Flickr

There’s differing theories on how it got the name “Niagara.” One of them is that it originates from the Native American tribe the Iroquois. Their town was called “Onguiaahra.”

During the 19th century, tourism became popular. This led to what it’s like today …

This is what Niagara Falls is like today

Tourists still flock to the falls in the 21st century. Other than viewing the falls, visitors can take guided tours, boat rides, hike, or even watch firework shows at night (depending on the season).

“Whether you’re seeking adventure or craving some R&R, Niagara Falls USA is a sightseer’s dream,” says Niagara Falls’ website.

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Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons

While tourists and locals gaze at the rapid waters, little do they know the falls have a deep (literally), dark secret …

What do you think lurks beneath the surface of Niagara Falls today? Many grisly events have happened at the Falls, leaving many to wonder if there are some morbid discoveries to be made.

Scientific discoveries in Niagara Falls

Being a famous natural wonder, many interesting scientific discoveries have been made using the falls. For instance, people realized the water could be used as power.

Famous inventor Nikolas Tesla (inventor of the Tesla coil, namesake for the company) was able to divert power more than 20 miles away from the falls to Buffalo New York.

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U.S. Air Force

In more science-related news: Talus — rock that gathers at bases of waterfalls — was increasing. As interesting as that is, the growing talus was actually believed to be a growing problem.

People invested in Niagara’s tourism thought the talus might make it lose its charm. (In reality, what was beneath the surface would make it lose its charm …)

Warning that erosion may ruin the falls

Local journalist Cliff Spieler highlighted the issue in the Niagara Falls Gazette on January 31, 1965. Spieler made a horrifying point: Persistent erosion could ruin Niagara Falls altogether.

If this happened, it could impact tourism forever — the very industry that held the surrounding town together.

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Niagara Gazette

Spieler’s article pushed the government to do something about the deng talus. Niagara Falls was (and still is) one of the most iconic natural wonders in the U.S. and Canada.

The U.S. and Canadian officials looked to resolving the problem.

A temporary operation was launched

The International Joint Commission (IJC) was tapped by the U.S. and Canadian governments to look into resolving the talus issue.

In 1966, a temporary operation was thought to be the best resolution for the moment to at least remove the detritus from the waters.

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Tab59 via Wikimedia Commons

Water flow had to be deflected in order to make this plan work. So, the International Water Control Dam worked overtime. Hydro-generating stations upped their power as well. Gates were opened to allow the current in.

The results of the operation were surprising …

The results of this operation

Thus with a small amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls (went from 60,000 gallons to 15,000), workers could walk in and clear the debris.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) would also get in there to take a closer look at the falls’ exposed bed.

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US Army Signal Corps via Wikimedia Commons

USACE took aerial photos of the falls’ bed to come up with a long term solution to the talus problem.

Since the water of Niagara Falls wasn’t drained completely, the mystery of what lay beneath the surface still remained …

USACE pondered the best plan to pursue

The short term plan and aerial photographs served as inspiration for the USACE to come up with a better plan for a permanent solution — at least, until more talus forms!

The IJC started the American Falls International Board, which realized a more ambitious plan was needed.

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Clifford & Madeline Valentine via Niagara Frontier

Niagara Falls had to be completely drained — every last drop — in order to properly remove the debris once and for all.

This plan might reveal what’s on the bed of the falls — no matter how gruesome it might be.

Draining the falls begins

Starting in June 1969, USACE began the project. They were going to dewater the American Falls, the smaller of the two main cataracts that make up the wonder that is Niagara Falls.

This project would help determine the feasibility of giving the falls that much needed face lift.

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Rare Historical Photos

USACE gathered some of its best engineers to begin this intense project.

As the best of the best engineers traveled to Niagara Falls for the job, they undoubtedly wondered what exactly has been hiding underneath the Falls’ surface all these years?

How the operation started

True, the 1966 effort did succeed in reducing the falls’ water to 25% of its usual flow. (Now wouldn’t y’all like to reduce flow during that time of the month? A gal can dream!) However, this next project required a more ambitious approach.

USACE decided to make use of a “cofferdam.”

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Rare Historical Photos

What’s a cofferdam, you ask? Well, it’s a temporary dam structure made within bodies of water when certain parts of it needs to drain. Indeed Niagara Falls needed to be drained, so a cofferdam was the perfect tool to do this.

Here’s how those boys did it:

The process of the operation

USACE paid a construction company to build a 600-foot cofferdam barrier that stretched across the current of the falls. If you can’t imagine how long that might be, it’s about two Statues of Liberty. (That’s a massive cofferdam!)

The cost of the project ended up being the equivalent of $4 million in today’s money.

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Rare Historical Photos

The length of the cofferdam appeared very promising in terms of stopping the flow of water.

As the operation began on June 9, 1969, however, engineers began to realize that the operation was getting dangerous. The project involved working in raging rapids, for Jah’s sake …

The locals were worried about tourism declining

While these workers were risking their lives for the betterment of Niagara Falls, the locals were worried about the precious economy. (Sounds a lot like a certain current administration during a pandemic, no?)

The basis for their worries is the fact that the region basically thrives off the tourism industry.

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Levan Ramishvili via Flickr

(Never mind that the engineers had to delve into Niagara Falls’ raging white rapids! Totally fine!)

Fortunately, no grisly incidents happened during the operation. However, there were some other people that weren’t as lucky …

Tourists that did make it to the falls discovered this

Coins! As you can imagine, tourists had been treating the Falls like a giant wishing pond throughout the years. They made wishes, and tossed coins into the billowing waters, hoping for their dreams to come true.

Clifford & Madeline Valentine via Niagara Frontier

As the engineers worked on draining Niagara Falls, tourists and locals alike watched as the waters receded. With the water parted, they could see down below — many coins were now reachable!

They made a good souvenir for tourists and some pocket change for locals.

Other tourists that made it out watched the cofferdam in awe

Tourists gathered to watch the building of the dam take place. It wasn’t an easy feat by any means — 28,000 tons of material had moved to the site. It took a whopping 1,200 trucks to carry it all.

Can you imagine all this taking place at one of the world’s most famous and iconic natural wonders?

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Rare Historical Photos

We can’t picture such an event of this magnitude happening at the site now. (It was supposed to happen a bit more recently in 2019 but more on that later.)

But there was something morbid hiding underneath the surface of the waters unbeknownst to the tourists and engineers …

A gruesome discovery was made

Unknown human remains were found among the coins in the waters.

The man had jumped into the American Falls right before the waters dried up. Onlookers assumed he was another engineer as he was dressed in green pants and matching shirt.

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Unknown Artist/New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons

But then he jumped into the water — people watching realized that something was obviously very wrong.

Authorities were able to recover his body quickly, but discovered another set of remains while searching for the man.

She was wearing a red and white striped garment

The second set of remains was a woman in striped clothing. It was thought that she’d been underwater for quite some time — much longer than the man who’d recently taken that fatal jump.

This horrific discovery prompted the public to ask many questions.

Clifford & Madeline Valentine via Niagara Frontier

Who was this woman? How and why did she end up at the very bottom of Niagara Falls?

Like the man, the identity of the woman wasn’t recorded. A piece of jewelry she was wearing at the time had a heartbreaking message written into it …

This message left more questions than answers

Besides her striped red and white garment, the woman had been wearing a wedding ring. The inscription on the wedding ring read a heartbreaking message:

“Forget me not.”

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Charles J Sharp via Wikimedia Commons

What could this mean? Did her spouse jilt her or die tragically?

Either way, this discovery on her ring finger suggested that perhaps the woman had a tragic end to her marriage. Thus leading her to end her life in the Falls. |

These aren’t the only remains underwater

Experts have estimated that at least 40 people per year throw themselves into the deep, dark depths of this World Wonder. So why didn’t the 1969 operation reveal more bodies hiding underwater? This man and woman are far from the only remains hiding in Niagara Falls.

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M. H. Zahner via Wikimedia Commons

Not only are there a lot of individuals that purposely throw themselves over the edge like the mystery man in green did. A lot of these falls are accidents.

A good number of these accidents happened in 1829 when various daredevils attempted stunts at the Falls.

She fell down the Falls in a barrel

Her name was Annie Edson Taylor, a 63 year old teacher. (Not the type of person you’d expect to be a daredevil, no?)

Taylor attempted her stunt in 1901 in which she encased herself in a wooden barrel and plunged over the falls.

Unknown Artist/Francis J. Petrie Photograph Collection via Wikimedia Commons

Surprisingly, she survived!

“No one ought ever do that again,” Taylor was reported saying.

Don’t have to tell me twice … Can’t say the same about many other people that attempted stunts at Niagara Falls.

Stuntmen after Taylor try their hand at the falls

There was Bobby Leach with his barrel (pictured) in 191 after his perilous trip.

Fast forward to 1990 when American stuntman Jesse Sharp took to the cascades in just a canoe. That’s one heck of a dangerous stunt, considering the Niagara Falls is 167 feet tall. As you can imagine, he was never seen again.

Robert Leach/Library and Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Those that witnessed the draining — or the engineers that drained it — perhaps were reminded of the falls’ power and danger. If you go to visit the falls yourself, make sure you respect its power and don’t attempt dangerous stunts like Sharp or Taylor.

Despite finding remains, it was business as usual for the engineers

As grisly as the discoveries were, USACE engineers had to keep on keepin’ on and finish the draining of Niagara Falls job.

Post-draining, the engineers’ first job was to get rid of loose rocks at the face of Niagara Falls.

Rare Historical Photos

The way they did it was insane! Imagine this: Engineers were encased in cages, which were lowered over the lip of the falls.

Sprinkler systems were added to moisten the shale layer on the face of Niagara Falls. Rocks had been drying out, making erosion more possible.

While that happened, other workers did this

Other workers drilled into the riverbed at the top of the American Falls. Eventually the engineers were able to set up tests to gage the absorbency of Niagara Falls’ rocks.

Construction also took place on a walkway for visitors to stroll across the riverbed safely.

denisbin via Flickr

If you’ve ever visited Niagara Falls, it’s likely that your visit was aided by the work of these brave engineers.

Perhaps you walked the same steps they did, had the same thoughts about what lies beneath.

August 1, 1969: The falls reopen

Finally, visitors were able to come and experience Niagara Falls to its full extent when it reopened on August 1, 1969. However, tourism numbers weren’t the same as they were before despite the addition of the walkway along the riverbed.

George Burns via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, tourism numbers recovered eventually. If you’ve ever visited Niagara Falls recently (you probably can’t during this global pandemic but maybe once travel resumes) you might have noticed all the tourists around you. So clearly things picked back up.

Researchers made an important discovery

Later on that month — August 19, 1969 — researchers took a closer look into the talus rock that had been removed from Niagara Falls. They drilled holes deep into the rocks to learn more. Turns out, the USACE operation wouldn’t be that simple.

Shenandoah National Park via Flickr

Talus actually played a role in supporting the cliff face at Niagara Falls. An alternative plan was offered:

A permanent dam would boost the water levels in the basin and submerge unnecessary rocks.

Plans to drain Niagara Falls in 2019 were delayed

Three years prior to 2019, there were government plans to shut down Niagara Falls again. However, a lack of funds was unavailable — the project needed $30 million in order to move forward.

Ken Lund via Flickr

“The dewatering is part of the efforts to replace a pair of historic bridges which connect the mainland United States to Goat Island ‘in the most physically responsible way,’” reads a news report in Niagara News by Theresa Redula.


Elite Herald. “When Engineers Drained The Niagara Falls In 1969, They Made A Stomach-Churning Discovery.” Accessed April 8, 2020.
Niagara Falls USA. Accessed April 9, 2020.
Redula, Theresa. Niagara News. “Plans to ‘shut off’ American Falls in 2019 delayed.” February 5, 2019.