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Niagara, Its Origin, Progress, And Future

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

A CONNECTED image of the origin and progress of A the cataract is easily obtained. Walking northward from the village of Niagara Falls by the side of the river, we have to our left the deep and comparatively narrow gorge, through which the Niagara flows. The bounding cliffs of this gorge are from 300 to 350 feet high. We reach the whirlpool, trend to the northeast, and, after a little time gradually resume our northward course. Finally, at about seven miles from the present falls, we come to the edge of a declivity, which informs us that we have been hitherto walking on table-land. At some hundreds of feet below us is a comparatively level plain, which stretches to Lake Ontario. The declivity marks the end of the precipitous gorge of the Niagara. Here the river escapes from its steep mural boundaries, and in a widening bed pursues its way to the lake which finally receives its waters.

The fact that in historic times, even within the memory of man, the fall has sensibly receded, prompts the question, How far has this recession gone? At what point did the ledge which thus continually creeps backwards begin its retrograde course? To minds disciplined in such researches the answer has been, and will be—At the precipitous declivity which crossed the Niagara from Lewis-ton on the American to Queenston on the Canadian side. Over this transverse barrier the united affluents of all the upper lakes once poured their waters, and here the work of erosion began. The dam, moreover, was demonstrably of sufficient height to cause the river above it to submerge Goat Island; and this would perfectly account for the finding by Sir Charles Lyell, Mr. Hall, and others, in the sand and gravel of the island, the same fluviatile shells as are now found in the Niagara River higher up. It would also account for those deposits along the sides of the river, the discovery of which enabled Lyell, Hall, and Ramsay to reduce to demonstration the popular be-lief that the Niagara once flowed through a shallow valley.

The physics of the problem of excavation, which I made clear to my mind before quitting Niagara, are revealed by a close inspection of the present Horseshoe Fall. We see evidently that the greatest weight of water bends over the very apex of the Horseshoe. In a passage in his excel-lent chapter on Niagara Falls, Mr. Hall alludes to this fact. Here we have the most copious and the most violent whirling of the shattered liquid; here the most powerful eddies recoil against the shale. From this portion of the fall, indeed, the spray sometimes rises without solution of continuity to the region of clouds, becoming gradually more attenuated, and passing finally through the condition of true cloud into invisible vapor, which is sometimes reprecipitated higher up. All the phenomena point distinctly to the centre of the river as the place of greatest mechanical energy, and from the centre the vigor of the fall gradually dies away towards the sides. The Horseshoe form, with the concavity facing downwards, is an obvious and necessary consequence of this action. Right along the middle of the river the apex of the curve pushes its way backwards, cutting along the centre a deep and comparatively narrow groove, and draining the sides as it passes them. Hence the remarkable discrepancy between the widths of the Niagara above and below the Horseshoe. All along its course, from Lewiston Heights to its present position, the form of the fall was probably that of a horseshoe; for this is merely the expression of the greater depth, and consequently greater excavating power, of the centre of the river. The gorge, moreover, varies in width, as the depth of the centre of the ancient river varied, being narrowest where that depth was greatest.

The vast comparative erosive energy of the Horseshoe Fall comes strikingly into view when it and the American Fall are compared together. The American branch of the river is cut at a right angle by the gorge of the Niagara. Here the Horseshoe Fall was the real excavator. It cut the rock, and formed the precipice, over which the American Fall tumbles. But since its formation, the erosive action of the American Fall has been almost nil, while the Horseshoe has cut its way for 500 yards across the end of Goat Island, and is now doubling back to excavate its channel parallel to the length of the island. The river bends ; the Horseshoe immediately accommodates itself to the bending, and will follow implicitly the direction of the deepest water in the upper stream. The flexures of the gorge are determined by those of the river channel above it. Were the Niagara centre above the fall sinuous, the gorge would obediently follow its sinuosities. Once suggested, no doubt geographers will be able to point out many examples of this action. The Zambesi is thought to present a great difficulty to the erosion theory, because of the sinuosity of the chasm be-low the Victoria Falls. But, assuming the basalt to be of tolerably uniform texture, had the river been examined before the formation of this sinuous channel, the present zigzag course of the gorge below the fall could, I am persuaded, have been predicted, while the sounding of the present river would enable us to predict the course to be pursued by the erosion in the future.

But not only has the Niagara River cut the gorge ; it has carried away the chips of its own workshop. The shale, being probably crumbled, is easily carried away. But at the base of the fall we find the huge boulders al-ready described, and by some means or other these are removed down the river. The ice which fills the gorge in winter, and which grapples with the boulders, has been regarded as the transporting agent. Probably it is so to some extent. But erosion acts without ceasing on the abutting points of the boulders, thus withdrawing their support and urging them gradually down the river. Solution also does its portion of the work. That solid matter is carried down is proved by the difference of depths between thè Niagara River and Lake Ontario, where the river enters it. The depth falls from 72 feet to 20 feet, in consequence of the deposition of solid matter caused by the diminished motion of the river.

In conclusion, we may say a word regarding the proximate future of Niagara. At the rate of excavation as-signed to it by Sir Charles Lyell, namely, a foot a year, five thousand years ,or so will carry the Horseshoe Fall far higher than Goat Island. As the gorge recedes it will drain, as it has hitherto done, the banks right and left of it, thus leaving a nearly level terrace between Goat Island and the edge of the gorge. Higher up it will totally drain the American branch of the river; the channel of which in due time will become cultivable land. The American Fall will then be transformed into a dry precipice, forming a simple continuation of the cliffy boundary of the Niagara gorge. At the place occupied by the fall at this moment we shall have the gorge enclosing a right angle, a second whirlpool being the consequence. To those who visit Niagara a few millenniums hence I leave the verification of this prediction. All that can be said is, that if the causes now in action continue to act, it will prove itself literally true.

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