A Tale of Two Bridges

Honeymoon Bridge

As I sit and write this article, the weather outside is about to be frightful!  This morning, the temperature reached a balmy high of 12 degrees Celsius. The temperature is expected to drop down to -11 degrees, which means that the rain may turn into freezing rain, followed by an expected snowfall of up to 10 cm. When we add to this the gusting winds that are expected to reach 50 km an hour, I envision a very slow commute home. The weather that we have been experiencing lately seems eerily similar to the weather in Niagara Falls in January of 1938.

I am sure that many readers are familiar with, or have seen old photos of ice bridges in the Niagara Gorge. These bridges were caused by slush and ice flowing over the falls from Lake Erie. The ice would become choked in the gorge, and would eventually freeze and form into the world famous ice bridges. Through the years, thousands of people flocked to the ice bridge to engage in many different activities, such as toboganning down the huge ice mountain near the American Falls. In 1841, the ice bridge was passable for several months and a small house was built near the centre for the sale of liquor and other refreshments. In 1880, a daring feat was performed to celebrate the visit of the Governor General. Andrew Wallace led a horse to the top of the huge ice mountain and remained there for 30 minutes. It wasn’t until 1912 that a fatal accident brought all ice bridge activities to an end, and authorities decreed that people would no longer be allowed to cross the ice bridge.


One of the largest ice jams on record occurred in 1938, and was blamed on a unique combination of weather circumstances. A meteorologist at the time said that, “Thin ice on Lake Erie, a five-day January thaw and high winds caused the disaster”. Vast masses of Lake Erie ice plunged down the falls and created massive jams of ice. The ice level rose even higher and shattered the docks of the Maid of the Mist and crumpled the caretaker’s cottage. The water level continued to rise to a record height of 59 feet and gushed through the windows of the Ontario Power Company, eventually burying the massive generators.


It was at this time that officials began to worry about the Falls View (a.k.a. Honeymoon) Bridge. As the ice continued to batter the bridge abutments, officials ended all travel across the bridge on January 26th at 9:15 a.m. When word spread of the impending danger, great crowds of people gathered to watch the inevitable final act. At ten minutes past four on the afternoon of January 27th, the bridge collapsed upon the ice.


Many bystanders were surprised at how little noise was produced by the collapse of 2,600 tons of steel and 300 tons of wood. Some described it as a “weary groan” and others likened the sound to “a rumble like distant thunder”. News of the collapse soon spread and thousands of visitors travelled from far and wide to view the wreckage. The remains of the bridge was compared to a contorted roller coaster that slowly folded into a giant “W”.  


Canadian and American engineers began to contemplate the removal of the ruins among speculation that the weight of the steel might cause an even greater ice jam. Salvaging operations began and the wreckage was cut into sections with torches and dynamite. Eventually, the last piece of the bridge floated downstream on a beautiful day in April, 1938.


Even with similar weather patterns today, we do not have to worry about history repeating itself. Beginning in 1964, an ice boom has been stretched across the mouth of the Niagara River at Lake Erie to prevent too much ice buildup. A more modern ice boom replaced the original structure in 1997. The Niagara Falls Public Library’s Historic Images Database has an extensive collection of exceptional photographs that depict this event, and many other historic moments from our City’s past. You can view them any time on our website at: http://www.nflibrary.ca/nfplindex/

Library Notes


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