There is a long history of Niagara Falls being vulnerable, and the affronts the river has suffered weigh heavily on Tom Cole, the riverman central to the plot of The Day the Falls Stood Still
. With the story opening in 1915, the massive diversion of water away from the falls for the production of hydroelectricity is a short ways off, and he writes to his wife, Bess, about the threat to his beloved river.
I have been to the whirlpool twice when there wasn't a whirlpool at all. Both times the wind was unusual, from the east and strong, and there wasn't much water flowing into the river from Lake Erie. At both shores of the falls the riverbed was dry. There wasn't any mist. No thunder either. The water in the river was down, enough so that there weren't any standing waves. The Niagara wasn't all that different than any other river in the world, definitely not something that would cause a man walking by to stop, and maybe fill with wonder for a bit and be lifted up from the drudgery of his day. With Beck's powerhouse, the river will be drained as never before and those two times when there wasn't a whirlpool at all, I saw what lies ahead with the river swallowed up by tunnels and canals.
The character of Tom Cole was inspired by Niagara's most famous riverman, William "Red" Hill. Like Tom, Red Hill had an uncanny knowledge of the river, a knowledge he would pass on to his sons. It was said he could predict the weather simply by listening to the roar of the falls; also, that he would wake in the night knowing he would find a body tossing in the river the following day. In his lifetime (1888-1942), he hauled 177 bodies from the river, rescued 29 people, and assisted a handful of stunters. He also shot the lower rapids of the river in a barrel three times, feats that would have distressed Tom Cole. In Tom's mind, the river is not a river to be mocked. His reverence for it is deep, and he is acutely aware of man's latest efforts to harness the power of the Niagara for themselves.
Long before the days of hydroelectric development, fear for the future of Niagara Falls ran high, mostly on account of the unsightly factories and bazaars taking over the wilderness that had once framed the falls. As early as 1869, a group of prominent men led by Frederick Law Olmsted, most widely known for designing New York City's Central Park, began lobbying the governing officials of both New York and Ontario to expropriate tracks of land on either side of the falls, demolish the buildings, and restore the scenery to that which was "originally laid out by the hand of nature." Their appeal failed, despite a petition signed by 700 highly regarded men, including the vice president of the United States, members of Canadian parliament, Supreme Court justices, university presidents, Cabinet ministers, powerful businessmen, and literary luminaries such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Ruskin. Olmstead's group mounted a new campaign, this time directed at voters. After a 16-year, hard-fought battle, the group's vision was realized, and the New York State Reservation at Niagara Falls was opened to visitors. For the first time in American history, public money had been used by a state to expropriate land for purely aesthetic purposes. Close to 150 buildings, including mills and factories built along the river to exploit its power, were demolished. The book's epigraph comes from an oration delivered at the opening.
[We are here at Niagara Falls] to declare that the awful symbol of Infinite Power, in whose dread presence we stand — these visions of Infinite Beauty here unfolded to the eye, are not property, but a shrine — a temple erected by the hand of the Almighty for all the children of men; that it cannot be desecrated...that [we] mark out the boundaries of the sanctuary, expel from the interior all ordinary human pursuits and claims, so that visitors and pilgrims from near or far may come hither, and be permitted to behold, to love, to worship, to adore.
Canada followed suit two years later, establishing Queen Victoria Park at Niagara Falls, Ontario's first publicly owned park. The falls themselves were not yet considered vulnerable.
By 1906, U.S. legislators had awoken to the unchecked hydroelectric development on the Niagara River and the diversion of water away from the falls, and they passed the Burton Act. Often considered a landmark piece of legislation in environmental law, the act was meant to preserve the falls and in effect put a freeze on power development.
In The Day the Falls Stood Still, Tom Cole tells Bess about his grandfather, Fergus, waiting for news of the act at the end of his life.
My grandmother paid a boy and he brought the newspaper every day. She'd flip through the pages and then one day she said the act had been passed. Once she'd left us alone, Fergus said, "It's good news. There'll be something left for my great-grandchildren." It was the most he'd said in a week and he had a fit of coughing. Then my grandmother was back, stroking his forehead and telling him to take a deep breath. They were his last words.
Fergus's sentiment was in stark contrast to that of many others, including Lord Kelvin, the most highly regarded physicist of the day. His feelings about the falls: "I look forward to the time when the whole water from Lake Erie will find its way to the lower level of Lake Ontario, through machinery...I do not hope that our children's children will ever see the Niagara cataract."
By the final chapters of The Day the Falls Stood Still in 1923, true to history, four turbines are operational at the Queenston powerhouse that Tom had written to Bess about, and he is mourning the river as it once was. The Burton Act had been quietly swept aside in favour of the more lenient Boundary Waters Treaty. As long as the agreement was enforced, about 75 percent of the water flowing into the Niagara River from Lake Erie would continue to plummet over the Horseshoe or American falls.
By 1930 another six turbines were generating electricity at the Queenston powerhouse. With ever-increasing demands for electricity, the Boundary Waters Treaty was sometimes ignored and twice set aside in favour of more lenient temporary diversion agreements. In 1950, the Boundary Waters Treaty was replaced by the Niagara Diversion Treaty. The minimum flow over the falls was set at 100,000 cubic feet/second during the daylight hours of the tourist season and 50,000 cubic feet/second at all other times. With the treaty still in effect today, the "tourist flow" over the falls amounts to about 50 percent of the water entering the Niagara River and the "non-tourist flow" about 25 percent.
Needless to say, the treaty paved the way for more hydroelectric development on both sides of the river. Today, with the Sir Adam Beck II plant generating electricity alongside the renamed Queenston powerhouse, Sir Adam Beck I, on the Canadian side of the river and the Niagara Power Project generating electricity on the American side of the river, the minimum flow set out in the treaty are frequently met.
To facilitate the increased diversion set out in the 1950 treaty and at the same time ensure the continued beauty of Niagara Falls, remedial work was necessary. The International Control Dam, built in 1953, extends half a mile into the upper river from the Canadian shore. By holding back the river, more water is made available to the diversion tunnels. The dam's movable sluice gates allow the reduced flow to be spread more evenly over the crests of the Horseshoe and American falls. Nearly 90,000 cubic yards of rock was excavated from the flanks of the Horseshoe Falls, deepening the riverbed, again to more evenly spread the flow over the crest.
Are the falls still vulnerable today? In the words of Ontario Power Generation (formerly the Hydro Electric Power Commission): "Excess water above and beyond what is required for tourism is now 'spilling' over the falls some of the time." With existing diversion tunnel and canal capacity, Ontario Power Generation contends that water beyond the legislated requirement flows over the falls 65 percent of the time. To remedy the situation, at a cost of over $1 billion, the world's largest rock-boring machine began cutting the largest-ever diversion tunnel under the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario, in 2006. This, despite that 1885 proclamation marking out the boundaries of a sanctuary and expelling from its interior all ordinary human pursuits and claims.