ICE BRIDGES & THE ICE BOOM
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
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.
This picture will change every 20
Pictures of the Ice
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
The old ice boom
had been constructed of 30
foot (9.1m) floating timbers connected by steel cables. Twenty-two (22) span cables
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.
THE MODERN ICE BOOM
In 1997, the modern ice boom was
utilized for the first time.
The boom is made up of twenty-two (22) spans.
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 2˝ 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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
www.nypa.gov 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
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
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:
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
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
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
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 -
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,
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
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
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
for more information about
the Falls View Bridge, please visit:
Over Niagara Falls