Bridging Niagara Falls From Past to Present

March 5, 2018 | Ann

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People travel far and wide to witness this wondrous phenomenon. The rich blue rushing waters, lush green vegetation, and bright colourful rainbows over the rising mist inspired artists to capture the dynamic scene in methodical detail and to inspire photographers to represent the landscape in film and digital form. The Toronto Public Library Digital Archives and the Virtual Reference Library (VRL) on our website collects over two hundred years worth of material on Niagara Falls for you to enjoy.

Niagara Falls (1750-1885)

One of the earliest glimpses of the Falls is through the fresh eyes of John Grave Simcoe's wife, Elizabeth Posthuma SimcoeNiagara Falls was painted in 1792 when Elizabeth Simcoe stood back within a safe distance to paint the greyish mist rising from the depths of the Falls. Using watercolours she captured the evergreen trees clinging to the sloping ledge above the rushing waters and the blurred trees in the distance. The landscape shows an uncultivated wilderness in a serene setting with the water roaring in the background.  Clearly, no barriers existed at that time to prevent the people from slipping and falling over the ledge into the Falls.  

Niagara Falls in 1792 as painted by SIMCOE, ELIZABETH POSTHUMA (GWILLIM) (1762-1850)


An even earlier image called, Water-Fall of Niagara was created in the 1750s by the artist, Robert Hancock. The fascinating aspect in this etching is the level of detail Hancock has placed on the flowing waters and the slanting evergreens in the picture. The people in the picture are worth mentioning, including the dog perched over the ledge staring at the rapidly descending water. Notice that some men wore extravagant 18th century uniforms and tricorn hats. Others dressed in more humble robe-like attire. One man -- possibly of royal ancestry -- wore a crown on his head, otherwise naked except for a pair of short pants. While conversing with another man in a tricorn hat, the crowned man pointed towards the Falls.  In contrast to the mild grayish watercolours of Elizabeth Simcoe's painting, Robert Hancock's etching reveals the dark greens of the grass and trees as well as the intricate brown rocky shelf as the water falls down below.

The Water-fall of Niagara (c 1750) by Robert Hancock


This next image, Horseshoe Falls of Niagara, from the Canadian Side, was painted in 1819 by John Elliott Woolford. The painting shows casual boaters rowing close to the plunging waters and the surrounding rocks. The painting shows an exaggerated view of overflowing water with huge plumes of vapour rising along the Fall's edges.

Horseshoe Falls of Niagara, from the Canadian Side in 1819 by John Elliott Wolford


This beautiful spherical lithograph on wove paper titled Niagara, View of the British Fall from the Table Rock was created in 1833 by Samuel Oliver Tazewell. What is truly amazing in this picture are the people standing on the Table Rock looking over the Falls. One of them stood precariously close to the edge with no barricades to obscure the glorious view of the Falls. Today, the Table Rock Centre now stands on the same location where those three men stood almost two centuries ago. Today's viewers stand behind the safety of heavy metal railings to glance at this scene. The artist 'tamed' the scene by aligning the trees along a straight line with the falling water evenly pouring over the ledge like hair running through the teeth of a comb.

Niagara, View of the British Fall from the Table Rock by Samuel Oliver Tazewell (1833)


This image named The Horseshoe Fall from Goat Island was taken in 1885 by an unknown photographer. The soft tone to the picture brings to mind the idea that this photograph may have been touched up to look more like a painting. The picture clearly depicts the rawness of the Horseshoe Falls. The soft grey lines of the flowing water and the background scenery gives this image a breathtaking view of a phantasmagorical landscape. The beginning of human structural development dots the background. Especially interesting is the walkway that enabled a group of men and women with parasols to stand directly over the precipice where the water falls away.

The Horseshoe Fall from Goat Island captured by an unknown photographer in 1885


Niagara Falls and Her Bridges

The beauty of Niagara Falls sometimes hides the danger that lurks underneath. The Falls in the winter draws tourists to explore the solid icy surfaces the Falls' mist creates. Unfortunately, because of the constantly moving waters, the terrain continues to reshape despite human intervention in reducing these dangers.

The Niagara Falls Ice Bridge is a natural structure that forms from the icy mist each winter and gradually melts away in the spring as the temperature warms. 

The colours have been painted on this 1910 photograph to give it a more realistic look. The tiny black specks on the ice below the Falls are visitors casually walking along the Ice Bridge from the American side to the Canadian side. There are even house-like structures strewn along the way at the bottom.

The Ice Bridge, Niagara Falls (1910) by Valentine & Sons' Publishing Co. Ltd


Here is another photograph from 1910 taken from the bottom of the Falls showing a view of the visitors. As you can see, many adults and children slid down ice hills next to the Falls on that day. Unbeknownst to these people, in two years' time on February 4, 1912, the temperature warmed up enough for The Ice Bridge Disaster to occur. The Ice Bridge collapsed and dropped people to their deaths into the icy water.

Ice Bridge, Niagara Falls (1910) by S.H. Knox & Co


Even the human-engineered bridges would face the same fate. The initial sag and then collapse of the "Honeymoon" (Duplesis) Bridge gives expression to the massive amount of energy behind the shifting ice and the roaring waters. Below is a photograph taken in 1933 when the bridge began showing signs of structural failing. Only a few years later, large chunks of ice floating on the currents collided with the bridge's foundations causing the structure to finally collapse.

Watchers on the Canadian side of the river saw the sag in the bridge floor when they looked along this up-river side.

This  top view looked down on the fallen bridge and was taken on January 31, 1938. The middle of the built bridge fell to rest on the naturally frozen Ice Bridge:

Collapse of Duplessis Bridge recalls the twisted mass of girders which was once the Niagara Falls View bridge. Picture taken by unknown photographer in 1937


Another close-up view from where the bridge joined to the cliff edge, as taken on January 27, 1938, showed the after effect of the destruction of the bridge. More information and pictures of this bridge collapse are available on the Niagara Frontier website. The immense devastation is clearly glimpsed in the shorn and twisted metal of this black and white photograph.

About 4,500 tons of scrap steel on the ice of Niagara Gorge where Niagara's ice jam pushed Falls View bridge from its foundations. Image by unknown photographer in 1938.


Not all was lost though. Plans for construction of a new bridge began right away. On November 3, 1941, the new Rainbow Bridge opened for service and this now stands 500 metres north of the old bridge's location. The opening ceremony took place at the border where United States meets Canada and is commemorated by the raising of the two flags.

On November 3, 1941 the rainbow bridge at Niagara Falls was formally opened


For digitized travel guides of Niagara Falls from the nineteenth century, here are some book titles to marvel at:

The Falls of Niagara  with supplementary chapters on the other famous cataracts of the world Holley  George W. (George Washington)  1810-1897  ebook 1883  English Descriptions of Niagara - Selected From Various Travellers; With Original Additions by William Barham  ebook 1847


When visiting Niagara Falls, most tourists enjoy gazing over the precipice to view the raging waters. The structures surrounding the Falls appear beautiful and yet are haunted by their own sense of mortality as the constantly rushing waters and floating ice pummel against their foundations. Time continues its march forward and the Falls continues to reshape its majestic glory.