Since time immemorial, the Paiute people have made the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation their home. It’s an area steeped in Native American history, as geologist Larry Benson knows well. There, on the shores of Winnemucca Lake, the geologist became bewitched by several curious-seeming boulders. And as Benson was to discover, these unusual rock formations actually provide a stunning link to the past.
Mind you, Winnemucca Lake has been arid on and off for decades now, and so the boulders that so entranced Benson were far from a secret. Husband-and-wife team Frances and Robert E. Connick recorded details of the site back in 1992, in fact, and claimed that its remarkable geographical features may be very old indeed. But years would elapse before Benson finally came along and revealed all.
And, in fact, the Winnemucca Lake basin hasn’t always been dry as a bone. Yes, just a hundred or so years ago, there was still water here – even though this is one of the driest regions of the United States. So, what changed? Well, the Bureau of Reclamation decided to build a dam in the area.
Unfortunately, the federal agency’s decision to block up the Truckee River – which fed Winnemucca and still helps fill Pyramid Lake to the west – had far-reaching consequences. As you may know, this part of the U.S. isn’t exactly blessed with water. Nevada actually has the lowest average amount of rainfall in the entire United States at just 10 inches annually. So, while the nearby Carson River Valley would go on to become prosperous farmland, the area around Winnemucca suffered.
And for local wildlife, the decision to dam the Truckee was catastrophic. “When the Truckee River was abruptly diverted during the dam’s inaugural celebration, thousands of cutthroat trout were left flopping in the mud. Cheering spectators, rolling up pantaloons and pant legs, wallowed in the slime and clubbed the fish to death,” the Reno Gazette-Journal rather gruesomely reported at the time.
The ramifications for the native people were no less devastating. You see, the Paiute relied on Pyramid and Winnemucca Lakes – both situated within the confines of their reservation – as sources of food and economic support. And to this day, Pyramid Lake, which is still resplendent with water, remains the most valuable resource available to members of the tribe.
Traditionally, the Paiute people of this part of Nevada are named after the food that predominantly make up their diet. And what they eat is, of course, dictated by the local ecosystem. Living in small bands situated by the lakes or neighboring rivers and marshes, the Paiute were dependent upon the bounty offered up by the water.
As we’ve already mentioned, though, fish stocks at Pyramid Lake were decimated after the damming of the Truckee River. And this remained the case until the 1990s, when Paul Wagner led a restoration program. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1993, Wagner said, “One generation took something wonderful and turned it into nothing. We’ve turned it back into something. If we’re careful – and lucky – maybe one day it’ll grow back into something wonderful again.”
But both this body of water and the nearby Winnemucca Lake mean so much more to the people who live in this place. The Paiute tribe actually call Pyramid Lake “Tupepeaha,” and it sits at the heart of what is considered sacred land by the indigenous people.
In the local tongue, Tupepeaha means “Stone Mother.” And the Stone Mother’s tears are said by the Paiute to be the source of the saltwater in the lake. Joe Ely, a former chairman of the tribe, neatly summed up the significance of the icon to the Los Angeles Times. He explained that both the Stone Mother and the fables surrounding her “set [the Paiute] identity and forever fix the components that make up [their] way of life.”
But then the explorers came, and everything changed. In 1844 Captain John C. Frémont arrived in the area and temporarily settled at the water’s edge. “We’ve encamped on the shore opposite a very remarkable rock in the lake, which had attracted our attention for many miles. This striking feature suggested a name for the lake, and I called it Pyramid Lake,” the native Georgian wrote in his journal.
The visitors also branded a nearby expanse of dry ground “Mud Lake.” Then, in 1862, a flood replenished this arid basin with water, and it was renamed Winnemucca Lake after a Paiute chief of the same name. And without too much delay, the area went on to become a major fishing spot for cutthroat trout.
In the 1880s a fishing camp – one that ultimately supplied a cannery in the local town of Wadsworth – was even created on the banks of Winnemucca Lake. A man named Adobe Charlie set up a nearby convenience store, too, and operated a handful of fishing vessels on the lake. Thanks to Winnemucca and its spoils, then, these were prosperous times in the area.
Then the Federal Bureau of Reclamation decided to construct a dam. This project was successfully completed in 1907, and it blocked the flow of the Truckee River into Winnemucca Lake. Water levels there would plunge even more dangerously in the 1920s. And when the U.S. entered WWII, the basin was desert once again.
So, Tupepeaha – the Paiute’s Stone Mother – had already had its name changed to Pyramid Lake. Then, nearly a century later, a dam had dried up nearby Winnemucca Lake. In just a few decades, the lives of the tribe’s members had been irreparably altered. But that wasn’t all. As Winnemucca’s waters receded, a set of boulders were revealed in all their glory.
And, incredibly, these rocks on the Winnemucca Lake site boasted petroglyphs, or rock carvings. Surveying the site in 1992 for the University of California, the Connicks – that married duo we mentioned earlier – recognized that these particular etchings were unique, too.
What exactly did the couple discover? Well, these were meter-scale carvings cut deeply into the rock. Situated close together, the carvings were also identified by the Connicks as being potentially thousands of years old. And, curiously, it was found that the markings weren’t actually on boulders but instead tufa mounds that had partially collapsed.
These charmingly named geological features occur naturally and, according to the Parks Canada website, are “created by the precipitation of dissolved minerals, primarily calcium carbonate, from thermal spring water.” Tufa mounds aren’t uncommon, either – especially in an area of the U.S. known as the Lahontan Basin.
Once upon a time, the Lahontan Basin was a great lake. Today, though, it forms a major part of what is appropriately known as the Great Basin region of the western United States that encompasses parts of Nevada and California. Why is this significant? Well, it just so happens that Pyramid Lake and Winnemucca Lake are two of three sub-basins that make up the Lahontan Basin’s western edge.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before other experts descended on the Winnemucca Lake site to see what the Connicks had unearthed. And one of these intrepid explorers was none other than University of Colorado Boulder geologist Larry Benson. Benson has previously focused his research on the impact of climate change on Native Americans. He’s also studied how lakes in the western United States have reflected shifts in weather patterns.
Benson had been intrigued by Native American life ever since he had been a boy scrambling for arrowheads in Missouri. And upon seeing the Winnemucca boulders – or, more accurately, the tufa mounds – and their array of petroglyphs, the scientist was left stunned. But what exactly was it about these carvings that prompted Benson to describe them as “incredibly beautiful”?
Well, rudimentary by today’s standards they may be, but the carvings at Winnemucca Lake are still impressive. “Some look like multiple connected sets of diamonds, and some look like trees or veins in a leaf. There are few petroglyphs in the American Southwest that are as deeply carved as these – and few that have the same sense of size,” Benson was quoted as saying in a 2013 press release from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Still, in terms of size and shape, petroglyphs like these at Winnemucca Lake have been witnessed before. There are similar carvings – once believed to be the oldest in North America – at a site near Long Lake in Oregon, for instance. One of these petroglyphs was even apparently buried by the ash from a volcanic explosion estimated to have taken place 6,700 years ago.
But it wasn’t just the appearance of the petroglyphs that excited Benson. While Winnemucca had, as we’ve mentioned, not always been dry, there had still been dramatic rises and falls in its water levels over millennia. Knowing this, Benson had a hunch. And if that hunch was proven correct, then it was about to have a profound impact on what was known about human settlement in the region.
First, though, Benson needed hard data. So, a team from the University of Colorado Boulder collected a number of samples from the area, including specimens of carbonate crust and even algal formations found in shallow water. And the main objective for this work was clear: establish when humans could have had access to these rocks to complete the carvings.
With that goal in mind, Benson and the team performed a dating analysis on their gathered materials using strontium isotopes. These findings, alongside information collected from within Pyramid Lake, would enable the experts to establish when water levels had risen and fallen over the epochs. But to be precise in their investigation, the specialists needed to take one more step: they had to analyze the grooves in the petroglyphs themselves.
And it was here that Benson and his colleagues hit a stumbling block. Basically, they needed the permission of the Paiute to take scrapings from the carvings. They were located on the tribe’s land, after all. But the Paiute were initially reluctant to let the researchers in. So much of their world had already been turned upside down by interlopers.
Eventually, though, the native people relented, and a compromise was reached: Benson and his team were only granted permission to gather samples unintrusively. The experts used radiocarbon dating, then, to uncover that last piece of the puzzle.
Finally, after this part of the investigation had come to a close, the scientists could make an estimate with some degree of accuracy. According to their research, it appeared that the boulders on Winnemucca Lake had been above water during two distinct periods. And, realistically, it was only within these two eras that the petroglyphs could have been carved.
So, what happened next? Well, the group ultimately submitted a research paper to the Journal of Archaeological Science. This work, which was published in 2013 and delivered on behalf of the U.S. Geological Survey, was co-authored by Benson and colleagues John Southon, Eugene Hattori and Ben Aleck. It was a collaborative effort, and the findings were revelatory.
And the paper explains why the petroglyphs were so incredibly significant. “The lake in the Winnemucca Lake subbasin fell beneath its spill point between 14,800 and 13,000 years ago and also between 11,300 and 10,500 years ago (or between 11,500 and 11,100 years ago), exposing the base of the collapsed tufa mound to petroglyph carving,” it reads.
Simply put, the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs were the earliest ones ever known to have been created in the Americas. Even allowing for the latest time estimate of 10,500 years, that would still be true. And, in fact, an earlier date could also be possible. “This does not rule out the possibility that petroglyph carving occurred between 14,800 and 13,000 years ago when Pyramid Lake was relatively shallow and Winnemucca Lake had desiccated,” the paper adds.
In layman’s terms, then, these petroglyphs are of staggering importance, and the historical and sociological value of this find definitely shouldn’t be underestimated. For one, there is now evidence of cultural activity by some of the earliest peoples known to have inhabited the Americas. But even today, there is no common consensus as to when those men and women actually arrived on the land.
For most of modern U.S. history, it was believed that the first American people arrived via the Beringia landmass that connected Siberia and Alaska during the most recent ice age. This event is estimated to have occurred around 13,000 years ago. And although recent finds in modern-day Chile have blown open what was a previously closed debate, those Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs could still be attributed to Paleo-Indians from around this era.
Hardly any examples of artwork from these early peoples have been discovered, and barely any artifacts remain at all from this period of human settlement in North America. But the sophisticated nature of the artwork only added to the mystery. “To get something this complex this early is very, very rare,” University of Oregon archaeologist Dennis Jenkins told NPR in 2013.
And so a groundbreaking discovery about the petroglyphs had finally been made. Or, at least, it was confirmed, as Benson’s hunch was proven correct. Of the find, the man himself said to NPR, “I think it’s really amazing that people that far back were creating such wonderful things.” Yet that’s far from the end of the matter. After all, Benson added, “We have no idea what [the petroglyphs] mean.”
Let’s face it: humans are always seeking answers, and it would be good to clear up the mystery once and for all. Even if we don’t, though, the petroglyphs can still be enjoyed even if little is known about who made the carvings – or why they chose to so. “I think they are absolutely beautiful symbols,” the University of Colorado Boulder press release quotes Benson as saying. And anyone who sees these intricate works would surely agree.
There’s something else that you should know, too. If the petroglyphs at Winnemucca Lake were created at the younger end of Benson and his colleagues’ timeframe, then that would tie in with another incredible archaeological development. This find was made in the mid-20th century in a location to the east of Reno. Back then, though, it wasn’t a piece of art that was unearthed, but the mummified remains of one of the people who had once dwelled in this region.
And Spirit Cave Man – as the mummy came to be known – was no ordinary guy. For starters, his clothes, hair and skeleton have all been identified as approximately 10,600 years old. His remains were also wrapped in a shroud made of marsh plant and came complete with moccasins and a fur robe. All in all, it was another notable discovery on a par with the Winnemucca Lake petroglyphs.
So, while archaeological breakthroughs of this kind are rare, they’re still hugely useful at giving us a clear window into the past. And even before Benson realized the greater significance of the petroglyphs, these “incredibly beautiful” pieces of art had brought him under their spell. Still, all of this raises one more question: what else lies below the earth and the lakes of the inland United States and beyond?
We already know of one gruesome sight that emerged when a very famous body of water was drained back in 1969. Niagara Falls was dammed in that year, you see, while experts carried out vital conservation work. And as the team approached the huge task at hand, they uncovered something truly shocking.
It’s June 1969, and a team of engineers has succeeded in a Herculean task. Against the odds, they have stemmed the flow of Niagara Falls, thus silencing one of the most famous attractions on planet Earth. But as the water dries up for the first time in thousands of years, a secret is revealed on the rocks below – and it’s a horrific one, too.
Today, the mighty roar of Niagara Falls draws millions of tourists to the area every year. And for many, the churning waters are a constant reminder of just how powerful Mother Nature can be. But over five decades ago, the famous torrent became a mere trickle while engineers investigated what was happening behind the scenes.
On that occasion, man trumped nature in a staggering show of what engineering can achieve. And as the waterfall began to recede, visitors gathered to witness a spectacle that had never been seen before. But what was revealed after Niagara Falls was stopped in its tracks? Well, as it turned out, something sinister had been hiding beneath the spray.
The story of Niagara Falls began around 18,000 years ago, when advancing ice sheets carved great swathes into the landscape that would become North America. Then, when the ice melted, it sent a cascade of water flowing into the Niagara River. And over time, this torrent eroded nearby cliffs and created the natural wonder that we know and love today.
Now, Niagara Falls sits on the border of the United States and Canada and is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. That said, it’s not known exactly how long humans have been aware of its existence. And while there are no written records of such events, it’s likely that the region’s indigenous communities were the first to marvel at the wonder of the falls.
But although the French explorer Samuel de Champlain first heard rumors of a vast waterfall in the region at the beginning of the 17th century, it wasn’t until 1678 that Niagara was first recorded by Europeans. That year, a priest named Father Louis Hennepin witnessed the astonishing spectacle while on an expedition into what was then known as New France.
Then, five years after stumbling across the falls, Hennepin published A New Discovery, in which he described his incredible find. There, the name Niagara – thought to come from the Iroquoian word “onguiaahra,” meaning “the strait” – appeared for the first time. And with Westerners now aware of the cascades, more and more travelers started to flock to the region.
In the 1800s railroad passenger numbers increased, too, and Niagara Falls began to develop as a tourist destination. Soon, a wide variety of amenities had sprung up to cater for the influx of visitors – many of whom were honeymooning couples. But it wasn’t just local hoteliers who saw potential for profit in the mighty attraction.
By the end of the 19th century, you see, industrialists had realized that the water tumbling over the falls had a value all of its own. By harnessing the force of the torrent, in fact, they could power their factories and mills. So in 1895 a hydroelectric generating station – the first major facility of its kind that the world had ever seen – opened in the region.
But although the station was innovative, it could only carry electricity some 300 feet. Thankfully, then, in 1896 the famous inventor Nikolas Tesla took things to the next level. By using his knowledge of alternating current, he was able to divert power more than 20 miles away to Buffalo, New York.
Tesla made history with his alternating current induction motor, in fact, while his Niagara experiments marked the earliest use of a system that still carries electricity around the world today. And more than 100 years later, hydroelectricity is still generated by the falls, with the plants there able to produce up to 2.4 million kilowatts of power.
Today, Niagara Falls is divided between two nations, with both a U.S. and a Canadian side. And between them, the two communities host around 30 million tourists every year. During peak times, visitors watch water tumble down at a rate of six million cubic feet per minute.
Interestingly, though, the amount of water coming over the falls significantly decreases at night. You see, a treaty from 1950 allows local companies to divert more of the flow into their power plants at times when the spectacular view will be least affected. And that’s not the only time that the volume of Niagara Falls has altered over the years.
In 2019, for example, the attraction took on an entirely different appearance when unusually cold temperatures saw it freeze over in places. And although some water still made it over the edge of the cataract, great quantities proceeded to turn into clouds of vapor long before it reached the basin. But while this has happened a number of times over the years, experts insist that the flow never actually stops.
So has Niagara Falls ever really ground to a halt? Well, part of it has. Technically, the famous landmark is actually three separate waterfalls. As well as the iconic Horseshoe Falls, which span the border between the United States and Canada, there are two smaller cataracts situated solely on U.S. soil: the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls.
By 1965, however, citizens of Niagara Falls, New York, had grown concerned that the natural wonder on their side of the border was beginning to lose its charm. In particular, a growing deposit of talus – the rock that accumulates at the base of a waterfall – was a major worry. Apparently, the talus was preventing water from descending in a sheer drop – and, according to some, affecting the aesthetic appeal of the American Falls.
On January 31, 1965, an article highlighting the issue appeared on the front of the Niagara Falls Gazette newspaper. In the piece, local journalist Cliff Spieler argued that persistent erosion may eventually eradicate the American Falls altogether. And soon after that, a campaign to save the landmark began, with the crusade aiming to put pressure on the government to come up with a solution.
Hoping to tackle the issue, the American and Canadian authorities thus looked to the International Joint Commission (IJC) – an organization that oversees regulations relating to shared waters. But while the experts buckled down to find an answer, a temporary operation was launched to eliminate any detritus from the waters above the falls.
In order to achieve this, it was first necessary to deflect the flow of water over the American Falls. And so on November 13, 1966, a clever plan was put into action. Upriver, the International Water Control Dam was pushed into overdrive, its gates wrenched wide open to allow the current in. At the same time, the hydro-generating stations were also upped to complete capacity.
Owing to these measures, the amount of water flowing over the falls was reduced from 60,000 gallons per second to just 15,000. And as the river receded, workmen duly waded out and began clearing away the debris. In the meantime, officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, also grabbed the opportunity to take a closer look at the exposed bed.
Keen to come up with a long-term plan to protect the American Falls, the USACE team also snapped aerial photographs of the scene. After six hours, however, the diversions were closed and the flow of the river returned to normal. And, as it happens, this short exercise laid the groundwork for a far more ambitious operation that would take place down the line.
Then, two years after the campaign to save the American Falls first gained traction, the IJC initiated the American Falls International Board. And soon, the board realized that an even more ambitious approach was required. If the problem of erosion was to be solved, it seemed, a way of completely dewatering the falls had to be found.
Ultimately, this undertaking fell to a group of engineers from USACE. And, soon, a plan began to form. Indeed, while the 1966 approach had succeeded in reducing the volume of water moving over the American Falls to 25 percent of its usual flow, more drastic action was now needed. So, officials drew up a plan for a type of temporary structure known as a cofferdam.
Typically, these dams are constructed inside bodies of water when a certain section of, for example, a lake needs to be dried out. In the case of the Niagara River, however, the engineers sought to take a different approach. Instead, their cofferdam would take the form of a 600-foot barrier stretching across the current.
USACE also handed a contract of almost half a million dollars to the Albert Elia Construction Company. And in exchange for its fee – the equivalent of almost $4 million in today’s money – the firm took on the task of making the cofferdam. But it wasn’t just responsible for drying out the falls, as it happens.
In particular, the Albert Elia Construction Company was also tasked with scouring the riverbed while it was exposed. On top of this, its workers were also directed to remove any loose boulders from the surface of the falls and to introduce a sprinkler system that would deliver moisture to the rock.
So, on June 9, 1969, the operation began. But as workmen attempted to construct a dam across the raging rapids, they found themselves in a precarious situation. If someone fell into the water, for example, there would have been nothing to stop them from plunging over the edge of the falls. Ultimately, then, it was decided to install a lifeline in the middle of the river that would connect Goat Island and the mainland.
Apparently, the idea was that any workers unlucky enough to plummet down towards the river would have had something to grab onto before being pushed over the edge. Fortunately, though, no incidences of this lifeline being used were recorded at the time. And gradually, over the course of three days, the dam began to take shape.
However, it was no simple task. In fact, over the course of construction, in excess of 1,200 trucks carried multiple loads of earth and rock to the American Falls and dumped them upstream of the cataract. And so by the end of the operation, almost 28,000 tons of material had been shifted to the site.
Finally, on June 12, 1969, the workmen completed their task by plugging up the final breach in the cofferdam. Stretching all the way from the mainland to Goat Island, the structure successfully accomplished the seemingly impossible. And for the first time in more than 12,000 years, the American Falls ran dry.
Despite this impressive feat, however, some locals worried that halting the falls would impact tourism in the region. And it was a valid concern; after all, five million visitors helped the local economy every year. Others believed, by contrast, that the unique opportunity to see what was beneath the water would actually attract crowds.
Ultimately, visitor numbers did decline during 1969 after the drying up of the falls. Nevertheless, those who did make it to the area were rewarded with a spectacular sight. And as the waters receded, several coins appeared on the riverbed – prompting delighted tourists to scoop these up as souvenirs.
In fact, curious visitors had begun arriving the day after USACE successfully turned off the falls. According to reports, the braver among them took tentative steps out onto the riverbed, with some even approaching the edge of the waterfall. However, most at the scene appeared content with a glimpse of the cofferdam that had achieved such an apparently improbable task.
But alongside all the novelty and excitement, something gruesome was revealed beneath the weight of the American Falls that year. On the riverbed, observers spotted two sets of remains from a man and a woman who had each met their fate somewhere in the fearsome waters.
According to contemporary reports, the deceased male had jumped into the channel above the American Falls on the day before the waters had dried up. In fact, observers at the time initially assumed that he was part of the official operation. But when the young man, clad in green pants and a similarly hued shirt, plunged into the current, the onlookers ultimately realized that something was amiss.
Given the timing of the man’s fatal leap, the authorities didn’t have to wait long to be able to recover his body. During the next day, then, four police officers scanned the now-dry riverbed in search of human remains. But while they ultimately located the deceased, whose name has not been recorded, they made another grim discovery along the way.
While scouring the riverbed, the officers also stumbled upon the remains of a woman wearing a red-and-white striped garment. And, apparently, her body was significantly decomposed, indicating that she had been in the water for quite a while prior. But who was she, and how had she ended up in the falls?
Hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery, authorities removed the remains and ordered that an autopsy take place. But again, the identity of the woman has not been recorded. What was revealed at the time, though, was the tragic fact that she had been wearing a wedding band. And on the inside of the ring, there was a heartrending inscription: “Forget me not.”
Sadly, these two were far from the only people to have lost their lives at Niagara Falls. It seems surprising that the operation did not reveal more bodies hiding beneath the water, in fact. After all, there are many people who – unwittingly or otherwise – have tumbled from the top over the years. These days, experts estimate that up to 40 deaths occur every year as a result.
And although many of the deceased are people who had attempted to take their own lives, a number of accidents have also contributed to the death toll at Niagara Falls. Since 1829 a series of daredevils have also attempted to survive the terrifying plunge – although only a handful have actually succeeded.
Among the most famous of these adventurers is 63-year-old teacher Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901 survived a plunge over the falls while encased in a wooden barrel. And upon emerging from her stunt relatively unscathed, she reportedly exclaimed, “No one ought ever do that again.” Yet not everyone has taken Taylor’s advice, as many have since followed in her footsteps – to varying degrees of success.
In 1984, for example, Canadian stuntman Karel Soucek managed to survive a trip in a barrel over the falls. Sadly, though, he died the following year at the Houston Astrodome in Texas while trying to relive his famous stunt. And in 1990 American Jesse Sharp attempted to tackle the cascades armed with just a canoe – but he was never seen again.
For those watching the draining of the American Falls, the discovery on the riverbed was a stark reminder of the water feature’s deadly power. But it was business as usual for the authorities, who took out the remains and continued with the operation. Apparently, the first step was to get rid of the loose rocks located on the face of the waterfall.
In order to do so, workers were encased in cages attached to cranes and dangled over the lip of the falls. And at the same time, engineers put in a sprinkler system designed to continually moisten the layer of shale on the face of the waterfall. According to experts, the rock had been drying out, making it more vulnerable to erosion.
Meanwhile, workers set about drilling into the riverbed at the top of the American Falls. Then, once the team had reached the 180-foot point, they began setting up tests to measure the absorbency levels of the rock. Elsewhere, surveyors seized the opportunity to chart the contours of the surface of the falls.
As geological surveys continued at the falls, construction commenced on a walkway that would allow visitors to travel safely along the riverbed. And on August 1, 1969, this attraction opened to the public for the first time. But even though the walkway proved popular, it was not enough to boost visitor numbers to normal levels.
Finally, on August 19, researchers began studying the deposit of talus at the foot of the falls. By drilling holes deep into the rocks, it seems, they hoped to learn more about the formation. However, it soon became apparent that the clean-up operation would not be as simple as the specialists had hoped.
In fact, engineers studying the American Falls concluded that the talus played a vital role in supporting the cliff face behind. Faced with the challenges of removal, then, the authorities initially put forward an alternative plan. By constructing a permanent dam, they reasoned, they could boost the water level in the basin and submerge the offending rocks.
But creating a dam would be far from a flawless solution, as it would weaken the American Falls significantly. Consequently, the authorities ultimately decided that they would leave the talus as it was. But the entire operation was not completely in vain, as engineers utilized the unusual situation to perform vital conservation work on the cliff face.
Over the course of six months, teams got to work with anchors, bolts and cables to stabilize the American Falls. Elsewhere, they introduced sensors designed to alert the authorities if a landslide was imminent. And the crew’s work has apparently had a significant impact on conserving the waterfall for many generations to come, too.
Eventually, in November 1969, the work was done. And after the cofferdam was destroyed using dynamite, the American Falls returned to its former glory. At the time, moreover, the IJC felt that it had taken steps towards protecting the natural wonder rather than turning it into something artificial.
Ironically, though, the Niagara Falls of 1969 was very different to the one that European explorers had discovered centuries earlier. Early industry had taken such a toll on the region, in fact, that conservation efforts were already under way by the 1800s. The businesses dependent on the power of the cascades, however, merely relocated downstream.
And by the beginning of the 20th century, a significant amount of water was being redirected from the falls to power various establishments – thus convincing many that the natural beauty of the cascades was diminishing. A debate therefore began as to how to best balance industry with conservation.
According to the industrialists, their plants were actually helping to conserve the falls by limiting the amount of water pouring over the lip. And while erosion had typically been occurring at a rate of four and a half feet per year, the businesspeople believed that a decreased water flow would help prevent this from happening.
Then the United States and Canada reached an agreement. Ultimately, you see, both nations wanted industrial activity to continue in the region but with the illusion that it was not affecting the mighty flow of Niagara Falls. So, how could they continue to divert the river without creating a noticeable impact on the famous attraction?
Well, in the end, Canada and the U.S. agreed to an innovative solution. During evenings and in winter, they’d divert as much as 75 percent of the water destined for Niagara Falls. At peak times when visitors were more likely, however, that amount would be reduced to 50 percent. In the meantime, experts artificially altered the lip of the famous Horseshoe Falls in order to create the illusion of a powerful flow.
Amazingly, these diversions still exist today, meaning tourists see only a fraction of the water actually meant for Niagara Falls. Nevertheless, the cascades remain one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. And soon, visitors may get another chance to see what secrets are hiding beneath the spray.
In 2016 the Niagara Frontier State Park Commission announced plans to dry out the American Falls again in the near future. More than a century earlier, you see, two stone bridges had been built to span the gap between the mainland and Goat Island. By 2005, however, these structures had deteriorated to the point where restoration was no longer an option.
So, in order to replace the bridges, the commission announced, it would be necessary for engineers to once again stop the flow of water over the falls. To begin with, then, authorities planned to construct another cofferdam in 2019. Yet they failed to secure the necessary $30 million in funding, meaning the project ultimately had to be postponed.
According to officials, though, the project is still very much on the cards. They believe, too, that thanks to the power of social media, this future dewatering could be more beneficial for tourism than the previous attempt had been. But with an unknown number of people missing and presumed dead in the area since 1969, the falls may yet have more gruesome secrets to reveal.