Niagara Falls in Winter: Beauty and Tragedy

February 24, 2020 | Raya

Comments (0)

Niagara Falls in Winter
Horseshoe Falls (part of Niagara Falls). Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1985.

Tourists, honeymoon couples, traffic jams and wax museums. These might come to mind when we think of Niagara Falls. But in winter Niagara Falls is transformed into a peaceful, frozen wonderland that has attracted tourists for decades. Lamp posts, trees and buildings near the falls are turned into natural pieces of art that change every year.

Below are highlights from Digital Archive Ontario, a database of over 170,000 digitized photos, maps and more from Toronto Public Library.

Old Photographs

Frozen tree in front of water falls
One of our oldest photos of Niagara Falls. Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, circa 1860.


Ice Bridge

Starting in the mid-1800s tourists would walk on what was called the "ice bridge" located along the base of the frozen falls. It connected the American side to the Canadian side. Local newspapers claimed that up to 20,000 people visited the ice bridge on February 26, 1888.

Crowds gather on a snowy landscape with waterfall in background
Crowds gather to see unique ice and snow formations. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1947.

Both American and Canadian visitors gathered on the bridge to admire the strange ice and snow formations created by the water crashing onto the rocks. Entrepreneurs would set up concession stands to serve fresh food and beverages. A favourite sport on the bridge was to toboggan down the huge ice mountains that formed at the base of the American Falls.

Postcard of illustrated frozen Niagara Falls
Postcard printed in Germany of the ice bridge. Baldwin Collection of Canadiana, 1910.


Ice Bridge Disaster

On February 4, 1912 part of the bridge broke off in what was later named the Ice Bridge Disaster. Approximately 35 people had been standing on the bridge. Torontonians Eldridge and Clara Stanton were strolling across the bridge. Ignatius Roth and Burrell Hecock, both 17, from Ohio were throwing snowballs and playing games. William "Red" Hill was just opening his little refreshment stand that he built every year. With him were Monroe Gilbert and William Lablond.

As a loud groaning sound came from the base of the Falls, Hill shouted for the others to follow him as he ran towards the Canadian shore. Lablond, Gilbert and the two boys followed Hill while the Stantons began running for the American shore. The Stantons were just a short distance from the shore when the ice separated to reveal icy water. Lablond and Hill pulled Roth to shore and shouted to Hecock to jump, but when he heard cries for help from the Stantons he rushed to them. As the gap between the ice and shore widened the three became stranded on a piece of the ice bridge as it floated downstream.

Further down the river on two bridges, police and firefighters lowered ropes to try to help. Hecock managed to grab one of the ropes, but lost his grip after being pulled 60 feet up and fell into the river near the rapids. He was never seen again. The Stantons also failed to successfully grab the rope and were killed.

Extreme Danger sign
Sign reading "Extreme danger, keep off ice." Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1976.


Fallsview Bridge Collapse

On January 25, 1938 a huge amount of ice from Lake Erie went over the Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls quickly creating two ice bridges. The first bridge ran from the base of the Horseshoe Falls to the Ontario Power Company Generating Station. The second ice bridge formed further downstream and extended to the mouth of Lake Ontario.

As ice began mounting higher and higher the river banks disappeared. The river bed rose 30 feet at the Queenston Power Plant and the river water by nine feet. Eventually the ice began surrounding the girders of the Fallsview Bridge, exerting enormous pressure. On January 26 all traffic was stopped from crossing the bridge. The next day crowds lining the river banks watched in horror as the Fallsview Bridge collapsed into the Niagara Gorge.

Falls View Steel Arch Bridge in ruins on snow
Fallsview Bridge turned to 4,500 tons of scrap steel. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1938.
Falls View Bridge fallen apart on top of snow
Collapsed Fallsview Bridge. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1938.


Explore More

Discover historical documents, paintings and more images of Niagara Falls dating back to the 17th century on Digital Archive Ontario.