Situated at the southern end of the Niagara Gorge the three waterfalls – Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls – that form Niagara Falls straddles the Canadian and United States international border between the province of Ontario and New York State. Originally drawn through the Horseshoe Falls in 1819, this border has long been disputed thanks to the natural erosion and construction that has since occurred. Due to their location on the Niagara River the falls drain Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, allowing for the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world over a vertical drop of more than 165 feet to make it the most powerful waterfall in North America. While not exceptionally high, the Niagara Falls more than make up for this in width, allowing at its highest rate of flow during the late spring and early summer for over six million cubic feet of water to crest the falls every minute. Which as you can imagine makes it a very valuable source of hydroelectric power, highlighted by its blockage in March 1848 when ice caused the falls to stop for almost 40 hours shutting down mills and factories.
In fact the enormous energy potential of the Niagara Falls had been recognized as far back as 1759 when the first known sawmill was built above the falls to harness their power. Almost a hundred years later the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Mining Company was chartered, who under the leadership of Jacob Schoellkopf would go on to construct the river’s first hydroelectric generating station in 1881 that would allow the local mill machinery and some of the village streetlights to run. Fifteen years later Westinghouse Electric would expand the system and shortly thereafter supply power to nearby cities like Buffalo, while the Ontario provincial government would set up public operations in 1906 to deliver Niagara’s energy to various parts of the province.
Now regulated by the 1950 Niagara Treaty the water flow is administered by the International Niagara Board of Control (IJC) who can divert the rate from the Horseshoe Falls thanks to a weir with moveable gates located upstream, and even allowed for a facelift the falls underwent in June 1969 when a team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the falls in order to clear rock from the base built up from rockslides and erosion on the American side of the waterfall, and then again in the early 1980s to divert water away from Terrapin Point and eliminating 400 feet of the Horseshoe Falls. Today the falls are the largest electricity producer in New York State.