THE RIVER AND THE
Story by Stan Griffin
Graphics by Heather Peck
The name "Niagara" comes from an Indian word: "onguiaahra." It
translates to "throat" or "the strait," probably referring to its
location between two large lakes. The Niagara River is a great water highway that connects
Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, running a total of 35 miles. It is one of the best sources of
hydroelectric power in North America.
This river forms part of the border between the United States (New York State) and Canada (Ontario Province). Most of its waters drop over the great Falls that bear its name, located midway along the Niagara's course. Those Falls are one of the major scenic spectacles in North America. Cities with the name "Niagara Falls" are situated on each bank of the river: one in New York, the other in Ontario.
The Niagara River was formed about 10,000-20,000 years ago during what is called the "Pleistocene Epoch," a period of earth's history during which glaciers (huge masses of moving ice) appeared and then melted. During this process, the water produced formed lakes. One of those lakes (called Algonquin) was located where Lake Erie is now. It overflowed and ran downhill toward a lake which was then situated in Lake Ontario's place. (Its name was Iroquois.) The channel of water created is now called the Niagara River.
This river was an important trade route of the Indians. A major problem, however, was that the waterfalls made traveling the full length of the river impossible. So it was necessary for them to create a "portage" (a route used for carrying boats and supplies overland between two waterways) around them. This same puzzle was faced later by Americans and Canadians, but they solved it in a somewhat different manner.
French explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier de LaSalle reached the Niagara River in 1679. He claimed the entire Niagara region for France. Following Great Britain's defeat of France in the French and Indian War (1763), the British came into control of Canada. Then, with the British loss in the American Revolution (1783), control of the Niagara River's eastern bank was awarded to the new United States while the western bank remained part of British Canada.
When the Niagara River begins near Lake Erie, it is a quiet stream about 600 feet wide. As it flows north, it widens; and then (five miles along) it splits into two channels, traveling past Grand Island. Beyond the island, the two channels merge; and the river becomes two miles wide and about 200 feet deep. It is then moving at an estimated speed of five miles per hour, heading for the Falls which are about three miles away.
Soon the river turns sharply west. Its speed increases to around 40 miles per hour, and it narrows before plunging over the Falls (American and Canadian). Beyond them, it turns north again, flowing swiftly through Niagara Gorge for a distance of seven miles.
In this narrow gorge, the river passes "Maid of the Mist Pool," moving northwestward through Whirlpool Rapids to the Whirlpool. There the Niagara twists violently at speeds of 27 miles per hour. At this point it is about 1/4 mile wide and about 200-500 feet deep.
Below the Whirlpool, the gorge makes a 90-degree bend to the northeast for two miles and then turns north for another 1 1/2 miles to the foot of the Niagara Escarpment at Lewiston, New York. (An "escarpment" is a steep slope separating two level areas of differing heights.) From that point, the Niagara is a broad, quiet river that flows across a lake plain to Lake Ontario.
Shipowners of both countries soon discovered the dilemma that plagued the Indians when they tried to travel on the Niagara: their vessels could not make voyages between the two Great Lakes because of the Falls.
During the period 1829-1833 the Canadian government built the Welland Ship Canal to solve this navigation problem. Its purpose: allow ships to bypass the Falls, traveling from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie by way of the Welland River. The Canal is 27 miles long and consists of a series of locks to raise and lower ships. This was necessary because Lake Erie is 325 feet higher than Lake Ontario.
Railroad lines were built in the early 19th century by both Canada and the United States, primarily to bring passengers to the Falls. The logical next step was to link the railroads of the two countries with a bridge across the Niagara. Somewhat amazingly, the first step in finally spanning this river was accomplished by a boy and his kite!
The man responsible for getting the Welland Ship Canal built, William Hamilton Merritt, convinced the governments of Canada and the United States to permit the construction of a Niagara bridge which would be paid for by private companies in both countries.
In 1847 a Philadelphia architect named Charles Ellett received a contract to design and build the bridge. He inspected the river and chose the narrowest part of Niagara Gorge, just above the beginnings of Whirlpool Rapids, as the site.
The situation dictated construction of a suspension bridge. (Such a bridge would have its roadway suspended from cables firmly anchored at each end and supported by at least two towers.) Even if supports could be driven into the riverbed for a conventional bridge, they would very likely be swept away by broken ice during the thaws of early spring. Up to that time, no one had completed a suspension bridge that could hold the weight of railroad trains, but this fact did not discourage Ellett or Merritt.
Ellett's first problem was how to get a cable 700 feet across the fierce waters and up the cliff on the other side. Water in the rapids moved too swiftly for a swimmer to carry a cable to the opposite shore, and there was no way to throw it across.
Ellett reasoned that a single rope could haul the first cable across and that a STRING might be able to carry the first rope over. This brought to his mind the idea of using a kite (or a number of kites)! He decided to hold a kite-flying contest. A prize of $10 was offered to the first boy who could get a kite string across the Niagara River from the American bank to the Canadian side. It could have been only $5--historians disagree on the amount.
Dozens of boys came out to make the attempt and win the money. As it turned out, the contest lasted two days. On Day 1, the winds were blowing the wrong way; and none of the boys managed to maneuver their kite into Canadian territory. On Day 2, the winds were more favorable.
An American boy, Homan Walsh, managed to snag his kite in a tree on the Canadian cliffs. Attached to his string was a lightweight rope. It was used to pull a heavier rope across, and that one was used to get an even heavier rope across. Finally, a steel cable was pulled over to the Canadian side.
Added to this first cable were heavy iron wires attached to stout wood pylons at opposite sides of the river. They supported an eight-foot-wide carryway. When construction was completed in July, 1848 the first Niagara Suspension Bridge opened for business. The main span was 762 feet long with an oak-planked surface 220 feet above the Whirlpool Rapids. Traffic on it consisted of carts, carriages, and wagons--no railroad locomotives with cars. That goal was still to be achieved.
Ellett resigned at the end of 1848 because of a disagreement over revenue. A German-born engineer, Thomas Roebling, was hired to build the railroad bridge originally intended: a suspension bridge sturdy enough to carry trains of both countries over the Niagara River. Despite much skepticism on the part of conventional bridgebuilders, Roebling was successful. Seven years later, the steam engine "London" (weight 23 tons) made the crossing, only the first of many. Roebling's bridge, officially opened in 1855, was the world's first suspension railroad bridge. It was in service for 42 years before being replaced in 1897 by the "Whirlpool Rapids Bridge."
How many of the people who crossed these bridges knew that a kite played a large part in getting them across the Niagara River?