Partially dry Niagara Falls could be boon for tourism

It might seem counterintuitive, but some residents of Niagara Falls, Ont., believe the potential temporary shutdown of the U.S. portion of the town's world-renowned tourist attraction might actually help the local economy.

New York state considering temporary diversion of Niagara River to enable repair of pedestrian bridges

The New York state parks department is considering shutting down the American and Bridal Veil Falls for nine months while it replaces two dilapidated pedestrian bridges, possibly starting in 2019 1:56

The small public meeting drew about 100 people. That's not many considering the tourism industry of two cities will be deeply impacted by the spectacular decision being considered: whether to temporarily turn off part of Niagara Falls.  

The crowd came to hear about plans to shut down the American and Bridal Veil Falls for up to nine months and divert the water over the Canadian Horseshoe Falls so that work can go ahead to replace two 115-year-old pedestrian bridges.

New York state is considering temporarily shutting down the American Falls and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls so that it can demolish two aging pedestrian bridges and put up new ones. (James Murray/CBC)

When it comes to vantage points for experiencing the power and beauty of the world-famous Niagara Falls, geography favours Canada. Even on a grey, January day, a walk along the fence on the Canadian side provides breathtaking sights. 

Ben and Sam Hayden came to Canada from Brisbane, Australia, for that very reason.

"We came to see the falls," says Ben Hayden, lifting his camera to snap away.

"It's awesome," adds his wife, Sam. "It's the most beautiful waterfall in the world."

Mapbox Streets/Canadian Press

The Americans have always had to work a little harder to draw a crowd. A hundred years ago, bridges were built linking the mainland United States with tiny Green and Goat islands on the Niagara River. Viewing stations on Goat Island have become a crucial draw, luring tourists from the Canadian side with the promise of an intense, visceral experience.

"They are our stock in trade," said Mark Thomas, the western district director of New York state parks department, which organized Tuesday night's hearing together with the state's transportation department.

The steel inside is worn out, the concrete is worn out. These bridges absolutely must be replaced.- Mark Thomas, New York state parks department

"Our Canadian counterparts have the beautiful views of both the Horseshoe and the American Falls, and we don't have as good a view as they do. But what we have is we can get people right out onto the water, on these islands, over these low-slung bridges, and they get the feeling of the power and force of the Niagara River. It's very special."

The concrete arch bridges that span the river rapids and link the U.S. mainland to Green Island and Green Island to Goat Island were built in 1901 and have undergone a couple of renovations, most spectacularly in 1969, the last time the American Falls were shut down.

The bridges that need replacing link the U.S. mainland to Green Island and Goat Island. 'They are tired. The steel inside is worn out, the concrete is worn out,' says Mark Thomas of the New York state parks department. (James Murray/CBC)

Now, they are past the point of repair.  

"They are tired," said Thomas. "The steel inside is worn out, the concrete is worn out. These bridges absolutely must be replaced."

That replacement won't take place until 2019 at the earliest, Thomas said, but nevertheless it already has people talking about the potential impact on the local tourism industry.

Dam will divert river to Canadian side

Three different designs for the new bridges are being considered, with a total price tag for the project of $25 million to $35 million US.

As in 1969, the Niagara River presents a significant obstacle to construction. The solution, then as now, is to divert the river during building using a so-called cofferdam. 

The last time the American Falls were shut down was in 1969 for repair of the same two pedestrian bridges that are now being considered for demolition 1:35

Heavy equipment will be used to place massive boulders, two to three metres in diameter, into the river's path. The rocks need to be heavy enough that they won't get swept away by the force of the river, an engineering expert said at the hearing. Smaller stones, gravel, and other materials will fill in the holes in between until a barrier is formed that is large and strong enough to divert the water toward Canada and leave a dry area on the U.S. side where demolition and construction can take place.

Asked whether a more high-tech solution wouldn't be more suitable, Thomas said high-tech is expensive, and rock is cheap in comparison.

The last major repair of two pedestrian bridges on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls took place in 1969 and required the diversion of part of the Niagara River from the U.S. to the Canadian side 1:24

Provincial officials and tourism operators on the Canadian side seem to have been caught by surprise by the American plans to remove what some see as half the reason for coming to Niagara Falls. But, business people aren't panicking. They may even profit from the temporary change.

Locals see opportunity in dry falls

Wayne Thomson was mayor of Niagara Falls, Ont., for 17 years. He was a city councillor in 1969 and remembers watching the American falls dry up. He still talks about being able to walk out and stand in the very place where he'd seen water rushing all his life

(New York State Parks Department)
(New York State Parks Department)
The above renderings show the three designs being considered for the new pedestrian bridges. The project is expected to cost $25 million to $35 million US and to start in 2019 at the earliest. (New York State Parks Department)

"Right in the centre, about 30 feet back from the edge of the rock," he said.

Now the head of Niagara Falls Tourism, Thomson thinks a city that's so used to selling —- everything from haunted houses and glow-in-the-dark mini-golf to luxurious hotel suites overlooking the gorge — can sell this, too.

"It probably is going to be a great boom for us in tourism because people like to see things that are unusual and they've never experienced before."

A waterfall without water, he thinks, certainly fits the bill.

While the Canadian side of Niagara Falls might offer the more spectacular views, the pedestrian bridges on the U.S. side get visitors close to the 'power and force of the Niagara River,' says Thomas. (James Murray/CBC)

With files from The Canadian Press