Niagra Falls History

As of the last Ice Age, 18,000 years ago, southern Ontario was covered in ice sheets 2-3 kilometers thick. As the ice sheets moved southwards, they gouged out the basins of the Great Lakes. Then, as the basins melted they released vast quantities of fresh meltwater into these basins.

The Niagara Peninsula became free of the ice about 12,500 years ago. As the ice retreated northward, its meltwaters began to flow down through what became Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, down to the St. Lawrence River, and, finally, down to the sea. There were originally 5 spillways from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Eventually these were reduced to one, the original Niagara Falls, at Queenston-Lewiston. From here the Falls began its steady erosion through the bedrock.

Around 10,500 years ago, the meltwaters were rerouted through northern Ontario bypassing the southern route. For the next 5,000 years Lake Erie remained only half the size it is today, the Niagara River reduced to about 10% of its current flow.

About 5,500 years ago the meltwaters once again routed through southern Ontario restoring the river and Falls to full power, then the Falls reached the Whirlpool.

In a geological moment lasting only weeks, perhaps days, the Falls of the relatively youthful Niagara River intersected an old riverbed, one buried and sealed during the last Ice Age. The Falls turned into this buried gorge and tore out the glacial debris that filled it, scouring the river bottom clean. It was probably huge churning rapids rather than the Falls as it exists today. When it was over, it made the 90 degree turn known as the Whirpool today, and North America’s largest series of standing waves known today as the Whirlpool Rapids.

The falls then re-established at the area of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge upriver to our right, and resumed carving its way through the solid rock to its present location.

The Niagara River is relatively young, at only 12,000 years old. Plunging over a cliff of dolostone and shale, the Niagara Falls is the second largest falls on the globe next to Victoria Falls in southern Africa.

One fifth of the world’s fresh water lies in the four Upper Great Lakes – Michigan, Huron, Superior and Erie. All outflow empties into the Niagara River and eventually over the Falls.

Travelling 15 miles over many gorges towards Lake Ontario, the land between the lakes does not slope at an even grade, but forms a spectacular drop approximately the same height as a 20-story building known as the “Niagara Escarpment”.

To this point in the history of Niagara Falls, man has been unable to completely control the flow of water over the Falls. However, man has succeeded in diverting substantial flow through underground channels and pipes to generate considerable quantities of clean, renewable electricity at nearby hydro electric power stations.

Sources: Niagara Parks

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