Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls: Ice Bridges & Ice Booms - a history

a history







The Ice Bridge of Winter 1997

A view of the Ice Bridge and the Horseshoe Falls


The ice bridges of Niagara Falls formed in the Niagara Gorge winter after winter with few exceptions. They were caused by slush, ice and cakes of ice flowing over the Falls. The ice became choked in the gorge and would freeze into a solid mass forming the world famous ice bridge.

The ice bridge was only safe if it remained solidly anchored to the shorelines. This anchorage was quite often effected by mild temperatures and by rising water beneath the ice bridge causing the ice to lift and break free from the shoreline. If this happened the ice bridge would break apart into small pieces and drift in ice flows down the Whirlpool Rapids.

Since 1964, an ice boom has been stretched across the mouth of the Niagara River at Lake Erie. It has kept the ice build up from Lake Erie from flowing into the lower gorge of the Niagara River causing an ice bridge.

The ice bridge although a spectacular sight was also destructive by causing severe shoreline damage including threatening the Maid of the Mist docks and tour boats. Most importantly the ice threatened to jamb up and plug hydro generating station water intakes.

The ice boom extends 2680 meters (8800 feet) from the outer break wall at Buffalo, New York across the Lake Erie outlet to the Niagara River to near the Canadian shoreline. The boom is situated approximately 300 meters (1000 feet) southwest of the City of Buffalo water intake crib and is 2 miles (3 km) upstream of the International Peace Bridge.




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Pictures of the Ice Bridge


The ice boom is jointly owned by the New York State Power Authority (NYSPA) and Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

The ice boom installation begins each year when the water temperature in Lake Erie drops to 4° degrees Celsius (39° degrees Fahrenheit) or no later than December 16th of any year.




The old ice boom had been constructed of 30 foot (9.1m) floating timbers connected by steel cables. Twenty-two (22) span cables were used to connect each span section. Each span consisted of thirteen (13) timbers individually chained. Each span was anchored at the bottom at 400 foot (122m) intervals by using 2.5 inch (6.4cm) steel stay cables.



In 1997, the modern ice boom was utilized for the first time.

The boom is made up of twenty-two (22) spans.

Each boom span consists of a series of eleven (11) hollow steel surface floating pontoons which are anchored to the river bed at 400 foot (122 meter) intervals by a 2½ inch (6.4 cm) diameter steel stay cables.

Each pontoon is 30 inches (76 cm) in diameter and 30 feet (9m) long.

In 1999, the first seven spans were reduced to ten pontoons each instead of the usual eleven. This as done to create a more equal spacing between the pontoons to avoid them crashing into each other during rough weather causing damage.

The modern ice boom requires less maintenance and is more buoyant and efficient at restraining the ice pack.

The ice boom is flexible. It is designed to assist in the formation of a stable ice arch (cover) at the mouth of the Niagara River.

The ice boom will not stop all of the ice from flowing from Lake Erie into the Niagara River. During periods of storms or winds in excess of 30 miles per hour (50 km/h), the ice arch breaks and the pressure on the ice boom becomes excessive, the boom pontoons will submerge to allow the ice to flow over it. When the pressure returns to normal, the boom pontoons return to the floating position again cutting off the ice flow.

The ice boom prevents an excessive ice build up in the Niagara River which prevents ice build up at the hydro-electric water intakes downstream which has resulted in the reduction of hydro production in the years before the installation of the ice boom. It also reduces shoreline erosion and destruction to property along the shoreline of the Niagara River.

Lake Erie has an average depth of approximately 60 feet (18.2m) Lake Erie will during most winters freeze completely over creating 10,000 square miles (25,900 sq. km) of ice. The Niagara River is only 23 square miles (60 sq. km) and could not handle such a large volume of ice.

With or without the ice boom, only 2% of all ice from Lake Erie enters the Niagara River. The remainder (98%) of the ice pack melts in Lake Erie.

The ice boom does not prevent the ice in Lake Erie from melting any sooner or later. Studies have shown that the ice boom holding back the ice pack on Lake Erie has little effect on the daily weather in Buffalo, New York.

Each Spring, the International Niagara Board of Control determines the date when the ice boom is removed. The decision is based upon the amount of ice remaining in Lake Erie and the weather conditions. Normally, the ice boom has to be removed by April 1st of each year unless there is still more than 250 square miles (650 square kilometres) of ice in the eastern portion of Lake Erie. The earliest removal of the ice boom occurred on March 5th 1998 and the latest removal of the ice boom occurred on April 25th 1997.   


The Ice Bridge before the Ice Boom

A view of the Ice Bridge before the ice boom
courtesy of the Niagara Falls (Ontario) Public Library


On January 28th 1938, an ice bridge caused the Falls View International Bridge (Honeymoon Bridge) to collapse. 

On February 4th 1912, the Great Ice Bridge disaster occurred when the ice bridge suddenly broke apart carrying three persons to their deaths.



The Niagara River handles approximately 212,000 cubic feet of water per second. The average depth is approximately 16 feet with a flow rate of 4 to 8 miles per hour. The Niagara River does not freeze over. The Falls of Niagara and the river below is the same. The volume of water going over the Falls and the depth and speed of the water below the Falls also precludes freezing. The water will not be stopped or be frozen solid.

The ice bridge however does form at the base of Falls and over portions of the Niagara River below the Falls. The ice bridge is formed in late December to the end of February and into mid March dependant  on the weather.

Lake Erie which drains into the Niagara River is a large lake but rather shallow. By the end of December, the entire lake surface is frozen over. Although an ice boom has been put into place since the 1960's at the mouth of the Niagara River and Lake Erie. The boom holds back most of the ice but not all. When the ice goes over the Falls in volume the ice freezes to the edges of the gorge and builds upon itself until the river is covered in this giant layer of ice. This layer has grown to eighty feet thick in the past and currently 40 feet is not uncommon.

The Falls of Niagara still flows as does the water under the ice and the ice shelf seems to rise on layer of air that builds under the ice surface.

People are not allowed on the ice.

The ice shelf is constantly growing, shifting and breaking up. In most winters the ice bridge can build and suddenly break up several times.



During the winter, when Buffalo resident Rick Smith drives over the Skyway Bridge, he always looks out over the water to see the shimmering icebergs collected by the Lake Erie ice boom. When he no longer sees the 8800-foot long maze of steel pontoons, he knows spring is just around the corner. It was the same thought process that prompted Smith to start an event to celebrate the boom’s removal—and arrival of spring.

“Even though the ice boom is a part of the region and its geography, I realized that for most people in Buffalo, it was under the radar,” Smith says. “People knew about it, but most didn’t know what it was about, or what it was for.”

Quite simply, the purpose of the Lake Erie ice boom is to keep the Niagara River from freezing. The boom, owned jointly by the New York Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation, spans the entire length of the eastern tip of Lake Erie and was designed to catch ice before it enters the river. Keeping the river flowing is essential for powering the hydroelectric generating plants located there. The boom has been in use since 1964.

Extending from the Buffalo Harbor to the Canadian shore, the boom is usually anchored to the lake bottom when the temperature reaches 39 °F or around December 16 th (whichever comes first). It is normally removed around the 1 st of April, unless there are more than 250 square miles of ice at the east end of the lake.

Smith shared his idea to commemorate the removal of the Lake Erie ice boom with fellow Buffalonians and soon after, “Boom Days,” was born. “We wanted to celebrate our history, culture, and geography,” recalls Smith. “The ice boom really seemed to encapsulate that.”

The festival will celebrate six years this April hosting waterfront festivities from Old Fort Niagara to the Buffalo River. To kick off the event, participants known as boomers, sign a giant red ball that is dropped into the river to float downstream and over Niagara Falls. Festivities include food, drinks, music, fireworks, contests, and educational exhibits.

While boomers cheer the removal of the boom, the device itself, has not been without controversy. In the 70s local residents accused the boom of causing climate change in the region. The issue was studied and a report was released stating that the boom had no impact on local weather. But many still believe the boom causes the walloping lake effect snow Buffalo experiences in the winter because the eastern tip of Lake Erie doesn’t freeze over.

Smith laughs the theory off, “Our harsh Buffalo winters make us a hardy people. We should be thankful, because it makes us strong.”

With the kind of winter weather experienced in their region, it’s no wonder Buffalonians want to extol anything that symbolizes warmer temperatures. “Once the boom is removed in the spring and the ice starts breaking up and moving, temperatures in the region warm up significantly,” says Niagara Falls historian Rick Berketa, “The removal of the ice boom every year really is something to celebrate!”

Berketa and Smith can’t say for sure, but both suspect the nearly two-mile-long Lake Erie ice boom is the longest in the world. “Before the ice boom was installed in the 60s, ice would clog the water beneath Horseshoe Falls and create ice bridges. It was causing damage to the Niagara Falls’ attractions and even caused the collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge in 1938,” explains Berketa. “They would actually use dynamite to break up the ice.”

Even though it’s a small festival, Boom Days is growing in leaps and bounds and organizers are hoping for attendance to reach 1000 this year. They are also trying to make Boom Days a bi-national celebration by getting the Canadian side involved in the festivities. To watch the boom, check out where images are updated every five minutes.  - Lake Erie Living Magazine 2008





For hundreds of years, the public were allowed access to the ice bridges that formed yearly at the base of the Falls. For many years it was the only way in which to cross the river in winter before bridges were built to span the Niagara Gorge. Thousands of people came to play and cross the river upon the ice bridges year after year. favourite sports included tobogganing down huge ice mountains that formed at the base of the American Falls. Ice bridge activities were enjoyed by young and old alike.

The last major ice bridge occurred in 1954. Ice sheets as thick as 40 feet (12m) to 100 feet (30m) were common.


1835 - From information contained in an old diary kept by C. H. Witmer, he crossed the Niagara River at the ferry on the ice bridge on May 2nd 1835 on route to purchase clover seed. He returned on the same route on May 3rd 1835. The ice was piled 12 - 15 feet high and that it suddenly broke away a day or two later. 


1841 - This ice bridge was uncommonly large as described in Orr's Pictorial Guide of Niagara Falls. The ice bridge was not less than 100 feet thick and rising from the water from 30 - 40 feet. People crossed this ice bridge from the Biddle staircase on the American shore to the Canadian shoreline. At the ferry landing, the ice bridge was passable for several months. A small shed was built near the center of the ice bridge for the sale of liquor and other refreshments.


1880 - This ice bridge was known for a famous picture that was taken which featured a horse on the top of a huge ice mountain at the base of the American Falls. At about the time that the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise visited Niagara Falls, Andrew Wallace led or drove a horse to the top of this ice mountain. Here Wallace seated upon his horse remained for more than a half hour. This performance was witnessed by hundreds of spectators. In reports, the trip up the mountain was far more easy than the perilous journey down.


1883 - This ice bridge was claimed to have been the greatest ice bridge in the history of the Falls. The ice bridge extended from the base of the Horseshoe Falls to the beginning (head) of the Whirlpool Rapids. The water and ice rose to unprecedented heights which caused enormous shoreline and property damage. The foot of the incline railway was destroyed. The ferryman's house was carried 50 feet downstream and tipped over. Both the boathouse and carriage shed were destroyed.


1888 - In February 1888, local newspapers described this ice bridge and the large crowds which were playing sports upon it. Sundays attracted the largest numbers of people. The last Sunday of February was one great gala day and it was claimed that up to 20,000 people visited the ice bridge that day.


1899 - This ice bridge formed much earlier than usual and was of short duration. On January 22nd 1889, the ice bridge broke apart with three people caught on the ice. Fortunately all three were able to escape to shore unharmed.


1909 - The ice bridge formations in February have rarely been surpassed in their grandeur. The Ice King reigned supreme with the result being very little water flowing over the American Falls that they were nearly dry. For one of the very rare instances in history, people were able to walk across  the rapids channel between the mainland and the many islands upstream of the American Falls in contravention of police regulations.

On Saturday April 9th 1909, as a direct result of this great ice jam, Niagara Falls and several other cities were plunged into darkness.  Factories were forced to shut down and streets were darkened. Ice and water forced the closure of the Ontario Power Company Generating Station on Friday April 8th, and workmen were not able to connect power from the neighbouring Electrical Development Company into the local power grid until Sunday April 10th.

Heavy ice damage was inflicted along the river banks. The Maids of the Mist boats were damaged and the dock waiting room was carried up the bank. LaBlond's house had water in the second storey. The ice was 50 feet thick and the Ontario Power Plant had eighteen feet thick ice slabs on the generating floor. All boat houses between Queenston and Niagara on the Lake were destroyed. The suspension bridge at Queenston - Lewiston which was normally 60 feet above water level was now only 25 feet above water level. The Great Gorge Railway tracks were buried in ice and all the  poles and wires were torn down.

Thousands of people came to view this ice bridge. The lowlands downstream of Lewiston were in danger of being inundated with ice and water.

Captain Carter said that he had burned nearly 15 tons of coal to melt the ice near the Maid of the Mist boats. Damage inflicted to the Maid of the Mist property was estimated at $4,000 dollars.


1912 - The ice bridge formed about January 15th 1912.  From January 20th to February 4th, many people visited to view and venture onto the ice bridge to cross to the other side and otherwise play on the ice. Playing and walking on this ice bridge was considered safe. On Sunday February 4th, a large crowd had assembled near and on the ice bridge. At noon time, approximately 35 persons were standing on the ice bridge which had formed covering the Niagara River below the Falls. They included Mr. & Mrs. Eldridge Stanton and Burrell Hecock of Cleveland. With little warning the ice bridge broke apart stranding these three persons on the ice flow. The ice was quickly swept down river. Despite heroic efforts to rescue the Stanton's and Hecock, they were swept into the Whirlpool Rapids and drowned.

The catastrophic loss of life meant that all ice bridge activities and sports would no longer be allowed for safety reasons. Authorities decreed that from this time forward people would be prohibited from crossing the ice bridge.


for more information about this tragedy, please visit:

Niagara: Life & Death on the River


Death on an Ice Bridge - A Story of Love & Valour



1936 - The winter of 1935 - 1936 was noted for an extended period of extremely cold temperatures. This caused an ice jam at the eastern tip of Goat Island which reduced the water flow over the American Falls to a mere trickle. The American Falls ran dry. Soon hundreds of people were crossing the dry river channel on foot from the mainland to Luna Island only feet from the precipice of the American Falls.


1938 - On January 25th 1938, a south-west gale force wind sent an enormous amount of ice from Lake Erie down the length of the Niagara River and over the both the Horseshoe Falls and American Falls. Quickly two ice bridges developed. The first ice was located at the base of the Horseshoe Falls and extended downstream to the area of the Ontario Power Company Generating Station. The second ice bridge developed downstream of the Whirlpool and extended to the mouth of Lake Ontario. Ice began mounting higher and higher. Soon the river banks disappeared from sight. The rock talus at the base of the American Falls began to disappear under the cover of the ice as well. The river bed rose 30 feet at the Queenston Power Plant (Sir Adam Beck Generating Station) and the river water level rose a record 9 feet. The docks of the Maid of the Mist were crushed by the massive onslaught of ice.

Ice and water quickly began pouring into the Ontario Power Company Power Station. The Generators became buried in ice and the generating station was brought operations at this plant to a sudden halt.

The mounting ice began enveloping the abutments of the Falls View Steel Arch Bridge. The enormous pressure being applied to the girders of the bridge was causing the bridge to become unsafe despite the efforts of workers trying to remove the ice at the base of the bridge. At 9:15 a.m. on January 26th, all vehicle and pedestrian traffic was stopped from crossing the bridge. The ice had caused irreparable damage to the bridge and it was now only a matter of time before it would collapse. Crowds of people came to the Falls and lined the river banks in a death watch for the bridge. Finally, at 4:10 p.m. on January 27th 1938, the Falls View Bridge collapsed into the Niagara Gorge and onto the ice bridge below. No injuries were reported.




Walking On Thin Ice
by Alison Langley - Niagara Falls Review


Standing atop a massive chunk of ice amid the deafening roar of the Horseshoe Falls, John Gayder is both in awe and aware.

"It's extremely dangerous," the police officer said, after taking a brief walk atop a massive sheet of ice near the observation deck of the Journey Behind the Falls.

A constable with the Niagara Parks Police, Gayder has conducted countless rescue operations where people have fallen into the raging waters due to misadventure or in a suicide attempt.

Most often, a rescue turns into a recovery mission. Victims are no match against the mighty cataracts.

Despite the danger, each year people attempt to illegally enter the United States by crossing the Niagara River.

While the majority of the clandestine crossings occur on small boats and rafts in the summer, there have been cases of people attempting to walk across the river once an ice bridge has formed.

Such an endeavour is an extremely risky exercise, said Rick Berketa, an amateur historian and creator of Thunder Alley, a comprehensive website focused on Niagara Falls.

"The ice bridge has a life of its own: Beautiful, but often destructive. It is always evolving in motion as it undulates under the extreme stresses of the winds and the water. It is as dangerous as it is unpredictable and unstable."

The ice shelf is constantly growing, shifting and breaking apart.

"The danger here is that crevasses form on the ice and they get covered over with snow and mist, so that what may look like a solid sheet of ice is actually just an eggshell covering over a very deep pit," Gayder said.

Depending on temperature, wind conditions and river currents, the ice bridge can break up at a moment's notice.

"This ice is not like the ice you might get on your birdbath in the winter," said Gayder, who uses specialized equipment such as ice axes and crampons on his boots to scale the ice walls.

"This is a collection of frozen slush and chunks of ice loosely frozen together, and those chunks can be anywhere from fist-sized up to the size of vehicles. One spot can be (three metres) thick while the other - nothing."

Just last month, Niagara Falls, N. Y. firefighters had to rappel down the gorge in frigid temperatures to rescue a couple who had become stuck on the icy river. New York police say a British woman in her 50s walked across the frozen river just under the Rainbow Bridge and met up with her 38-year-old fiance, who was waiting on the other side. The couple ran into trouble when they realized they couldn't make it back up the steep, icy wall of the gorge.

"I don't know what was crazier ... the operation we had, or the people who thought they could walk across the Niagara River," fire Chief William Mackay told reporters. Firefighters had to rappel to the ice from a walkway under the international bridge to lift the couple to safety. While the couple were able to escape the bone-chilling abyss, the ice bridge has claimed a number of lives over the years.

In the 1800s, people were allowed to walk out onto the ice bridge and it quickly became a popular winter tourist attraction. Crowds of people would gather to watch revellers toboggan down the huge ice mountains that formed at the base of the American falls. Liquor, photographs and souvenirs were sold from small shacks built on the river near the centre of the ice bridge.

But the fun and frivolity came to an end Feb. 4, 1912. Around noon that day, approximately 35 people were standing on the bridge, including Eldridge Stanton, 32, his 28-year-old wife Clara, and Burrell Hecock, 17.
Without warning, the ice bridge broke apart, stranding the three on an ice floe.The ice was quickly swept down river. Despite heroic efforts to rescue the trio, they were swept into the Whirlpool Rapids and drowned. "Until 1912, it was a favourite playground for many in past generations who had ventured onto the ice field with often tragic or near tragic results," Berketa said. Following the tragedy, authorities banned all ice bridge activities and it became illegal to cross the bridge.

Twenty-six years later, a massive ice bridge led to the collapse of the Falls View International Bridge (commonly referred to as the Honeymoon Bridge). In January 1938, chunks of ice began enveloping the abutments that supported the bridge. Workers were unable to remove the ice at the base of the bridge, and on Jan. 16 it was closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Eleven days later, the bridge collapsed onto the ice below.

LAKE ERIE will, during most winters, freeze completely over, creating 25,900 square kilometres of ice.

But the Niagara River, which Lake Erie flows into, is only 60 square kilometres long and could not handle such a large volume of ice.In the past, ice has caused severe shoreline damage and plugged hydro generating station water intakes.

A removable ice boom that stretches across Lake Erie upriver from the Peace Bridge was built in 1960 to keep the ice build-up from breaking up and flowing into the lower gorge. The ice boom, which is jointly owned by the New York State Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation, extends 2,680 metres from the outer breakwall at Buffalo and across the Lake Erie outlet to the Niagara River to near the Canadian shoreline.

It is installed each year when the water temperature drops to 4 C and it remains in place until April.

The old ice boom is made up of a series of floating steel pontoons connected by steel cables. It is anchored at the bottom of the lake using steel cables. The boom holds back most of the ice, but not all of it.

The ice that does make it over the falls freezes to the edges of the gorge on both sides of the border. Over time, the river looks like it's covered in a giant layer of ice. Due to the volume and speed of water going over the falls, however, the river will never completely freeze over. "The water temperature here is around (0 C) so, technically, it should be ice. But because the water is moving so fast, it doesn't completely freeze," Gayder explained.

Gayder and Randall Chamberlain, a member of the Niagara-on- the-Lake Fire Department, have been tentatively exploring this year's ice bridge. An avid rock and glacier climber, Chamberlain is studying the ice formation in order to come up with an alternate method of rescuing a person in distress other than by helicopter.

"I've climbed all over the world and (the ice bridge) is not a walk in the park," he said. "Even someone with my experience or even more experience than me would question their techniques and abilities."

Meanwhile, 97 years after the ban was imposed, it's still illegal to set foot on the ice bridge. And the couple who cheated death on the frozen river last month now have a date with a judge: The woman is charged with illegal entry, and the man faces charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting.


for more information about the Falls View Bridge, please visit:

Bridges Over Niagara Falls












Date last updated: January 09, 2014





The following locations and facts about them are but a few of many famous sites & attractions to be found in Niagara Falls. The best of it is FREE to think of Niagara Falls when planning your next vacation. If you have questions of a current or historical nature about the Niagara Falls area or suggestions feel free to e-mail Rick at





Niagara Falls

a history