The American edge of the Horseshoe Falls has perhaps undergone the most dramatic landscape alterations at Niagara. In 1833, a tower was built on the turtle-shaped rocks that gave Terrapin Point its name. Visitors—for a toll—could climb to the top and look down on the dizzying downrush of water over the brink below. Many visitors hated Terrapin Tower: British travel writer Anna Jameson called it “a signal yet puny monument of bad taste.” But most tourists found the tower a charming addition to the landscape, and climbing it enhanced their experience of the sublime. This Currier and Ives print from the Library of Congress captures the tower's picturesque appeal.
Terrapin Tower was deemed unsafe and destroyed in 1873. A walkway out to Terrapin Rocks remained. As you can see in this image, although there were sawmills and paper mills diverting water for motive power, their effect was negligible. There was a still a deep deluge of water flowing over the American edge of the waterfall.
Within a year of the creation of the Niagara Reservation in 1885, several power companies had received state charters to withdraw water from the river. Niagara Reservation commissioners complained that the increasing diversions were affecting flow over the Falls. By the late 1920s, with the walkway gone, the flow over Terrapin Rocks often thinned out to several narrow streams instead of a heavy curtain of water.
The engineers of the Niagara Falls Power Company were aware of the thinning water problem. In 1927 they had created a working model of Niagara to help them figure out how to fix it—without putting the water back. Here, the model was set up to show the results of future diversions if no “remedial works” were completed to boost the flow. At the same time, power company spin doctors were convincing the public that this reduced flow was beneficial to the Falls: it would reduce erosion and keep Niagara from dwindling away to a set of paltry rapids.
Oakes Garden Theater
In 1937, the Oakes Garden Theater was completed on the Canadian side, across from the American Falls. The land, formerly the site of the famous Clifton House hotel (see Lost Niagara) was donated by Harry Oakes, a wealthy gold-mine owner and member of the Canadian Niagara Parks Commission. At the top right, you can see the American edge of the Horseshoe (the left edge of that waterfall). By now, as the engineers and their model had predicted, the Terrapin Rocks were nearly dry.
International Control Structure
After the 1950 U.S.-Canadian treaty allowed greater diversions, the waterfall thinned even more. The International Control Structure, built by the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has 18 sluice gates that open and close to allow water to be precisely directed to thin areas as it flows over the brink. The Control Structure can be seen at the top right of this photo from 1969, when the Corps of Engineers dewatered the American Falls in order to study removing the rocky rubble at its base. Marketing surveys were distributed to tourists asking them how they'd like the waterfall to look: rocks gone? Rocks covered up with water? Rocks still there? In the end, the rocks had to be left alone: they were holding up the face of the American Falls.
The Control Structure helped boost the impression of volume at the rest of Niagara, but Terrapin Rocks continued to look like a relative trickle, as this postcard from the 1970s shows. Note, too, the delightful chemical smog. In 1940, the WPA Guide reported that “from the smokestacks along Buffalo Avenue constantly rise the fumes of industry.” By the seventies, the era of Love Canal, the toxic legacy of Niagara's cheap power was literally coming to light.
The Army Corps of Engineers plan to rebuild the waterfall
In 1979, a psychic predicted a rockslide at Terrapin Rocks that would swamp the Maid of the Mist and heave a boatload of deaf children into the treacherous Niagara River. The whole area was closed until the Corps of Engineers could complete the final transformation of Terrapin Rocks into Terrapin Point, expanding Goat Island with landfill out to incorporate 300 feet of the Horseshoe Falls—the entire American section. The Horseshoe Falls are now entirely in Canada.
Looking down on the waterfall's artificial edge
From the Skylon Tower on the Canadian side, tourists can enjoy a clear view of the artificial Terrapin Point. The Corps of Engineers carefully graded and sodded the made land and built a neat rip-rap wall to keep the waterfall from overflowing its new engineered edge. New York's Niagara State Park now has a viewing point to rival Canada's, a manmade hunk of land from which to marvel at nature's power.
Early guidebook print: Prospect Point
Prospect Point, the northern end of the American Falls, was changed less drastically than Terrapin Point, but it too went through many phases. Orr's 1842 Pictorial Guide to the Falls of Niagara shows a piece of land that has been cleared of trees, but little else. The stairway at the right leads down the Maid of the Mist ferry landing.
Stereoview: Prospect Point
Early tourists could get up close and personal with the American Falls at Prospect Point—then called Point View.
Stereoview: Prospect Park
Eventually, a park—with entrance fee, of course—was built at Prospect Point. A popular attraction, it included colored fountains, an art gallery, a dancing pavilion and restaurants. The public-minded men of the Free Niagara movement, led by Frederick Law Olmsted, thought Prospect Park was tacky and lowbrow. The Olmsted and Vaux plan for the Niagara Reservation eliminated it.
Stereoview: later Prospect Point
By the 1870s, a stone wall had been built for visitor safety, and to offer a smoother path for Victorian ladies in their trailing skirts.
Stereoview: Prospect Point after Olmsted & Vaux
The new Niagara Reservation, founded in 1885, was upgraded with more extensive walkways and viewpoints, all designed to be low-profile. The Olmsted and Vaux plan for the state Reservation began the tradition of rebuilding Niagara according to a new aesthetic: one that substantially changed nature, but banished all evidence of having done so.
Prospect Point today
Today, the size of the walkway at Prospect Point has increased again, and the asphalt path makes it easier for State Parks maintenance vehicles to access. The neatly mown lawns say “park” rather than “wilderness.”
Early print: Luna Island
Luna Island, the rocky chunk of land between Goat Island and the American mainland, was also once dense forest. Many of these trees remained throughout the nineteenth century. Today there are nine.
Luna Island from below today
Nineteenth-century visitors looked for the “three profiles” in Luna's rocky overhang into the gorge below. But because the Cave of the Winds attraction is directly beneath Luna Island, the rocky overhang, with its jutting profiles, was blasted away by the Army Corps of Engineers after the 1969 dewatering of the American Falls. Today, Luna's face is flat and flush with the gorge.
Early guidebook: Table Rock from below
On the Canadian side, Table Rock used to hang over the gorge below with an imposing brow, as in this etching from Orr's 1842 Pictorial Guide. Nineteenth-century visitors could descend into the gorge and pass into the furious spray behind the waterfall, clinging to ropes and metal rings drilled into the rock. The treacherous journey was called “Behind the Sheet,” and certificates were awarded to those who made it all the way to “Termination Point.”
Early guidebook: Table Rock rockfall
Dramatic rockfalls at Table Rock occurred throughout the nineteenth century; one especially exciting collapse in 1850 nearly killed a carriage driver. He and his horse just escaped as the carriage plunged into the gorge below. This guidebook engraving captures the excitement of the event.
Table Rock—sort of—today
The spot known as Table Rock moved south as the Falls receded, and the perilous trip behind the waterfall was replaced by a series of scenic tunnels, the first of which was drilled in 1889. In 1934, the last of the dangerous overhangs on the Canadian side were also dynamited off. The attraction known as “Journey Behind the Falls” remains, but today it's a series of cement-reinforced, electric-lit tunnels blasted out in 1944, with windows looking out onto falling water.
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