Several fascinating photographs and old postcards make the rounds on the internet depicting a frozen-over Niagara Falls. In 2014 a new set of photos circulated which showed the falls frozen. Does Niagara Falls completely freeze over?
Niagara Falls tourism officials have confirmed that the falls do not completely freeze over, but that partial freezes are common.
Niagara Falls is a group of three waterfalls which straddle the international border between the United States and Canada, separating the State of New York and the province of Ontario.
The three falls in order by size are the Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Side), the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, both located on the American side. The Horseshoe Falls and American Falls are separated by a mass called Goat Island. The American and Bridal Veil falls are separated by a mass called Luna Island. The original international boundary line was originally drawn through the Horseshoe Falls in 1819, but erosion and construction has long left the line in dispute.
Niagara Falls lies on the Niagara River which connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The falls combine to have the highest flow rate of any waterfalls in the world. The Horseshoe Falls has a vertical drop of 165 feet and it is considered the most powerful waterfall in the world. During high flow, more than six million cubic feet of water flows over the crest line every minute, with an average of four million cubic feet.
Niagara Falls was formed in the last ice age by glacier activity that carved out a path from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The Falls are located 17 miles (27 km) north-northwest of Buffalo, New York and 75 miles (121 km) south-southeast of Toronto.
Photos of Frozen Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls never completely freezes. It is not uncommon, however, for a thick crust of ice to cover the running water underneath the falls. In colder winters, the crust has extended from bank to bank and for miles down the river forming an “ice bridge.” In the later part of the 1800s and early part of the 1900s, visitors ventured out on the “ice bridge” to view the falls. This practice ended in 1912 when the ice broke and sent three visitors to their deaths.
Below are four commonly-circulated depictions of “frozen” Niagara Falls.
The origin of this sepia picture found in the digital image collection at the Niagara Falls public library is unknown. Some have suggested that it was taken as early as 1848, when the river stopped flowing for several hours due to an ice jam upstream. This seems unlikely, as sepia photography did not exist until decades later. Others have pointed to the year 1912, the year of the freeze in which the ice bridge spectators were killed. Note that a mist can still seen from sections of running water, indicating the falls were not completely frozen.
Regarding the ice bridge deaths, The Courier reported in February 1912:
After years of dangerous annual trips out onto the ice bridge, they were finally put to an end after a tragedy that took three lives; the lives of a honeymoon couple and a teenage boy. Yesterday’s accident will serve as an excuse for prohibiting tourists from entering upon any ice bridge that may form in the future…the bridge that proved fatal to three yesterday gave every promise of continuing intact for the remainder of the season and into Spring. In fact it gave such an appearance of solidity that three shacks were erected on it Saturday and much business was expected yesterday afternoon. Last night signs were posted forbidding any attempt to walk upon the ice.
Also found in the Niagara Falls public library, this image is titled, “Great mass of frozen spray and ice-bound American Niagara Falls.” The image is dated 1902. Again, mist can still be seen in this photo, indicating water flowing over the falls.
This photo was tweeted out on January 7, 2014 by Niagara Parks to compare the 2014 partial freeze with a mostly-frozen Niagara Falls of 1890, with the caption:
Might be cold today, but these folks standing on the FROZEN Niagara Falls didn’t seem to mind in 1890.
Despite the word “frozen” in the tweet, water can still be seen flowing in the photo above.
This version has been tweeted out by the popular Twitter page History in Pictures (which has been known to tweet out misinformation on occasion). This photo was allegedly taken in 1896.
Niagara Falls with part of the falls frozen, 1896 pic.twitter.com/YQET52fbDv
— History In Pictures (@HistoryInPics) January 12, 2015
The above photo was heavily shared in 2014 as an example of a recent freeze. Although many readers stated that this image shows the falls frozen over after the “polar vortex” of 2014, it appears to have been originally posted in 2011 on the website FrozenRigid with the caption, “American Falls, Rocks at base covered with snow and frozen river in foreground.” Water can clearly be seen flowing in this image. However, FrozenRigid is now a protected blog which can not be accessed by uninvited visitors.
As the above photo was passed around in 2014, many recent visitors to the falls noted that what they saw did not represent what was depicted in this photo. The Niagara Falls view cam also confirmed that water was still flowing at the falls.
Although the falls did not completely freeze over in 2014, partial freezing was reported, as noted by the LA Times:
The falls were not frozen solid, but extremely cold temperatures brought partial freezing. It was an icy white wonderland, a silver lining to the polar vortex. And now it’s melting.
Did Niagara Falls freeze in 1911?
A common post online – especially prior to the 2014 “polar vortex” – included several old Niagara photos, with the claim that they were all examples of a great freeze which occurred in 1911. As with 2014, it is most likely that only a partial freeze actually occurred.
Does Niagara Falls Ever Freeze?
The images which allegedly show a “frozen” Niagara Falls clearly show a mist emanating from the falls, indicative of running water. The Associated Press asked tourism officials about reports of past freezes. The response? “Despite the urban legends, Niagara Falls doesn’t freeze solid in the winter, tourism officials say.”
Niagara Falls live also writes, “The tremendous volume of water never stops flowing.”
Tourism officials have confirmed that Niagara Falls never completely freeze, although an ice bridge can form across the top to give this impression, as seen in many popularly-shared photos.
- The Niagara Falls Public Library digital image collection
- Historic photos and postcards of frozen Niagara Falls and their explanations
- The urban legend analysis of the phenomenon by About.com
Updated January 12, 2015
Originally published January 2014