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Geek Trivia: High and dry

On what date did both Niagara waterfalls go dry, and what was the cause?


For the average person (read: not trivia geeks), Niagara Falls often conjures up images of a single giant waterfall that idiots attempt to traverse, protected only by wooden barrels.

This image is, of course, inaccurate—not because idiots don't go over Niagara Falls (there have been several notable attempts in recorded history), but because Niagara Falls is actually a pair of waterfalls: the smaller American Falls and the larger Canadian or Horseshoe Falls, separated by Goat Island. (In addition, Luna Island divides the American Falls at one end, creating the comparatively diminutive Bridal Veil Falls.)

Moreover, despite its reputation as an unstoppable force of nature, Niagara Falls is actually a carefully controlled waterway precisely regulated by parallel hydroelectric facilities in Ontario and New York. Less than half of the more than 200,000 cubic feet per second of water that flows between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario via the Niagara River actually passes over the falls—and that's only during visiting hours!

Roughly 100,000 cubic feet per second of water pass over the twin falls during daylight hours from April 1 to Oct. 31 (tourist season), while only 50,000 cubic feet per second make the journey the rest of the time. A complex system of canals and tunnels diverts the remaining 100,000 to 150,000 cubic feet per second of water to the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant in Lewiston, NY, and the Sir Adam Beck Power Plant in Queenston, Ontario.

Engineers devised this precise level of control primarily to ensure regular power availability at the hydroelectric plants—as well as to retard the surprisingly rapid erosion of the falls themselves. In fact, in 1969, the U.S. Army "shut off" the American Falls, reducing water flow to a riverbed-exposing trickle, to make repairs and study the feasibility of removing debris caused by several rockslides within the waterfall itself.

This marked one of the few times in recorded history that either of the two falls have "gone dry." Indeed, only once have both the Niagara Falls "gone dry"—and human beings had nothing to do with it.

ON WHAT DATE DID BOTH NIAGARA WATERFALLS GO DRY, AND WHAT WAS THE CAUSE?

What caused both the American and Horseshoe waterfalls of Niagara Falls to "go dry," and when did this bizarre event occur?

In the wee hours of the night between March 29 and 30, 1848, ice flows traveling down from Lake Erie lodged upriver from Niagara Falls, creating a natural dam that reduced water flows to virtually nothing over both the American and Horseshoe falls—the only such occurrence in recorded history. While ice has similarly blocked the American Falls on six subsequent occasions, this marks the only known instance of the much larger Horseshoe Falls running dry.

Given the rather suspect communications and journalistic resources of the day, reliable accounts of the incident are hard to come by. However, most records agree that thousands of people traveled to Niagara on March 30, 1848 to see the suddenly visible riverbed at the base of the great waterfalls, and some brave spectators even ventured out beneath the dry falls to inspect the area.

Supposedly, sightseers recovered a small fortune in military artifacts dating back to the War of 1812 from the basin beneath the falls, along with massive timbers that had been pinned by the water's flow. Other events said to have taken place "beneath" the blocked waterfalls include an ad hoc equestrian exhibition by a group of U.S. Army Cavalry soldiers and the blasting out of previously unreachable rock outcroppings that impeded tour boats that normally operated in the basin below the waterfall.

The only certainty associated with the event is that the ice blockage did occur and that it ended during the night of March 31, 1848, when the inexorable waters of the Niagara River finally broached the natural dam. Today, ice-breaking booms guard the waterway to prevent ice from damaging the hydroelectric intakes near the falls, preventing another such case of Niagara Falls naturally running dry.

The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

In the Jan. 14 Geek Trivia, "The accidental genius," TechRepublic member Money pointed out that my description of Lionel as "perhaps the most famous model train company in the world," may not hold water on the other side of the Atlantic. Hornby, known in the U.S. for its Thomas the Tank Engine line of railroad toys, apparently holds sway in Merry Olde England. See his post below for elaboration. (And remember, this is why the Trivia Geek is fond of the verbal mitigation, "perhaps.")

"I lived in the U.K. for a couple of years, and to say that Lionel is not popular in the U.K. is correct. I looked for Lionel in Swansea, Swindon, and London. I did find a shop in London and Swindon that sold Lionel… Lionels were for what the shop owner called 'deep pocket collectors.' Many true train enthusiasts knew of and could show you either models or catalogs containing pictures of Lionel."

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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