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Niagara Falls
Sharon Smith
Physical Geology
Spring 2009


The Niagara Falls and Niagara Gorge

     The Niagara River, as is the entire Great Lakes Basin of which the river is an integral part, is a legacy of the last Ice Age. 18,000 years ago southern Ontario was covered by ice sheets 2-3 kilometers thick. As they advanced southward the ice sheets gouged out the basins of the Great Lakes. Then as they melted northward for the last time they released vast quantities of meltwater into these basins. Our water is "fossil water", less than one percent of it is renewable on an annual basis, the rest leftover from the ice sheets. The word “Niagara” is derived from the Iroquois Indian word “Onguiaahra” meaning “the strait”.

     The Niagara Peninsula became free of the ice about 12,500 years ago. As the ice retreated northward, its meltwaters began to flow down through what became Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, down to the St. Lawrence River, and, finally, down to the sea. There were originally 5 spillways from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Eventually these were reduced to one, the original Niagara Falls, at Queenston-Lewiston. From here the Niagara Falls began its steady erosion through the bedrock.

     However, about 10,500 years ago, through interplay of geological effects including alternating retreats and re-advances of the ice, and rebounding of the land when released from the intense pressure of the ice (isostatic rebound), this process was interrupted. The glacial meltwaters were rerouted through northern Ontario, bypassing the southern route.  

     About 5,500 years ago the meltwaters were once again routed through southern Ontario, restoring the river and Falls to their full power. Then the Falls reached the Whirlpool. It was a brief and violent encounter, a geological moment lasting only weeks, maybe even only days. In this moment the Falls of the youthful Niagara River intersected an old riverbed, one that had been buried and sealed during the last Ice Age.

     The Falls turned into this buried gorge, tore out the glacial debris that filled it, and scoured the old river bottom clean. It was probably not a falls at all now but a huge, churning rapids. When it was all over it left behind a 90-degree turn in the river we know today as the Whirlpool, and North America's largest series of standing waves we know today as the Whirlpool Rapids. The Falls then re-established at about the area of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge upriver, and resumed carving its way through solid rock to its present location. There are three Falls collectively that are called the Niagara Falls. 

Photo credit: Al Melhinch 

The American and Bridal Vail Falls    

Length of brink: 1060 Feet
Height: 176 Feet
Volume of Water: 150,000 U.S. Gallons per Second

The Canadian “Horseshoe” Falls

Length of Brink: 2600 Feet
Height: 167 Feet
Volume of Water: 600,000 U.S. Gallons per Second 

Some Facts about Niagara Falls:

     The first humans arrived in Niagara Region almost 12,000 years ago, just in time to witness the birth of the Falls. The land was different then, consisting of tundra and spruce forest. During this time (the Palaeo-Indian Period, which lasted until 9,000 years ago), Niagara was inhabited by the Clovis people.


     The flow of water was completely stopped over both Falls on March 29th 1848 due to an ice jam in the upper river for several hours. This is the only known time to have occurred. The Falls did not actually freeze over, but the flow was stopped to the point people walked out and recovered artifacts from the riverbed.

     The flow over the American Falls was stopped completely for several months in 1969. The idea was to determine the feasibility of removing the large amount of loose rock from the base of the falls to enhance its appearance. But in the end the decision was made that the expense would be too great.

The Niagara Gorge

     In approximately 12,300 years the Niagara River has eroded a gorge (7.2) miles in length. Starting between the villages of Lewiston, NY and Queenston, Ontario the Niagara Gorge extends southwards to the cities of Niagara Falls, NY and Niagara Falls, Ontario. In the past, perhaps as many as 10 tributary streams spilled over the edge of the Niagara Gorge and fell to the Lower Niagara River. Sadly most have been drastically altered in the name of progress. Below you will find information on some of the waterfalls. 


     Locust Grove Falls is located on the Canadian side of the gorge about (0.7 mile) south of Queenston. The falls has a total vertical drop of (210 feet). The natural volume of the creek was greatly diminished by the construction of the 300 hectare (750 acre) storage reservoir.

      Fish Creek Falls is located on the American side of the gorge about (0.5 mile) south of Lewiston. In 1962 construction of the Robert Moses Parkway channeled the creek into a 1,300 foot (396 m) long culvert that exits at a spillway on the south side of Earl W. Brydges Artpark State Park. The original course of the creek was first changed by the construction of a railroad in early 1900's. 


   Smeaton Falls is located on the Canadian side of the gorge about (1.3 miles) south of Queenston and north of the Sir Adam Beck Power Plants. The creek has eroded back about 500 feet from the edge of the Niagara Gorge to form Smeaton Ravine. The first falls has a drop of about (87 feet). It was followed by a series of rapids and a 40 foot falls and more rapids all the way to the Niagara River. The creek has a total drop of (290 feet). The drainage area of the creek was destroyed by the construction of the Sir Adam Beck Power Plants and storage reservoir.

    Bloody Run Falls is located on the American side of the gorge about (1.7 miles) south of Lewiston in Devil's Hole State Park. The creek is named after a massacre of about 90 civilians and British soldiers by a party of Seneca Indians in 1763. The creek is said to of run red with their blood. The creek probably first fell vertically about (40 feet) and then continued down to the river as a series of smaller falls and steep rapids. The drainage area of the creek has been filled by construction of area streets. The total drop of Bloody Run down the Devil's Hole Ravine was roughly (275 feet).

     Harvie Fall was located on the Canadian side of the gorge about (4.1 miles) south of Queenston. Found in the upper reaches of Bowman Creek Ravine. Apparently the falls was destroyed by the construction of hydro canals for the Sir Adam Beck Power Plants.

    Colt's Creek Falls is located on the Canadian side of the gorge about (3.2 miles) north of the Niagara Falls. Today the source of the water for Colt's Creek is hard to determine. The hydro canal for the Sir Adam Beck Power Plants has reduced the area that the creek once drained. The creek exits a (3 foot) wide culvert, narrows to (2 feet) in width and then free falls (50 feet). It then descends a section of steep rapids, free falls (25 feet) and becomes a very steep cascade. The cascade is followed by another section of steep rapids followed by a free fall of (20 feet) to the Whirlpool. The total drop of Colt's Creek Falls is (246 feet).

   Muddy Run Falls is located on the Canadian side of the gorge about (2.4 miles) north of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Apparently during the construction of area roads and parking lots the creek bed was filled in as no trace can be seen of it today. Muddy Run Falls had a total drop of approximately (250 feet). South of Muddy Run Falls, across from the gorge from the American Falls, a small stream can be seen falling into the gorge in old engravings and paintings of the Horseshoe Falls. Apparently during the construction of the Queen Victoria Park the drainage area of stream was filled in. A small pond in the park may be the source of the stream.