• Photo: Library and Archives Canada

Niagara Falls made news this week when New York officials announced they might shut off the U.S. side of Niagara Falls in order to complete bridge repairs. The last time it happened was in 1969, when engineers temporarily dammed the Niagara River in order to study the erosion of the American Falls — but that wasn't the first time the mighty Falls slowed to a trickle.

One early spring morning more than a century earlier, residents on both sides of the river woke to discover stark rock cliffs where the night before there had been a raging torrent of water. Sometime around midnight on March 30, 1848, the Niagara River "ran dry from lake to lake."

The dramatic event is chronicled in an article by Marjorie Freeman Campbell that appeared in the January 1960 issue of the Canadian Geographic Journal.

For more than a day, no water flowed over the Falls. Work ceased at factories and mills along the river. Churches were crowded with penitents who feared the world was coming to an end. Thomas Clark Street, MP for Welland County, walked around the lip of the Horseshoe Falls almost a third of the distance from Table Rock to Goat Island, marvelling at the jagged rocks rising up from the dry riverbed below.

Not one to waste an opportunity, the captain of the Maid of the Mist offered a reward to anyone who would venture onto the riverbed and remove the rocks that had occasionally damaged his boat. "During the daylight hours of March 31st," Campbell wrote, "the canyon of the river reverberated to constant blasting."

Upstream, villagers in Chippewa discovered several muskets, bayonets and swords — likely remnants from the Battle of Lundy's Lane fought in the area 34 years earlier.

By the night of March 31st, the spectacle was over. The wind changed, the massive ice jam that had dammed the river between Fort Erie and Buffalo gave way, and the falls began to flow once more. Fearing that future generations might doubt the story, the Reverend Thomas Brock Fuller actually obtained signed statements from eyewitnesses swearing that the falls really had stood still.