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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/June 1873/Some Observations on Niagara

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 3‎ | June 1873

By Prof. JOHN TYNDALL, LL. D., F. R. S.

IT is one of the disadvantages of reading books about natural scenery that they fill the mind with pictures, often exaggerated, often distorted, often blurred, and, even when well drawn, injurious to the freshness of first impressions. Such has been the fate of most of us with regard to the Falls of Niagara. There was little accuracy in the estimates of the first observers of the cataract. Startled by an exhibition of power so novel and so grand, emotion leaped beyond the control of the judgment, and gave currency to notions regarding the water-fall which have often led to disappointment.

A record of a voyage in 1535, by a French mariner named Jacques Cartier, contains, it is said, the first printed allusion to Niagara. In 1603 the first map of the district was constructed by a Frenchman named Champlain. In 1648 the Jesuit Rageneau, in a letter to his superior at Paris, mentions Niagara as "a cataract of frightful height."[2] In the winter of 1678 and 1679 the cataract was visited by Father Hennepin, and described in a book dedicated "to the King of Great Britain." He gives a drawing of the water-fall, which shows that serious changes have taken place since his time. He describes it as "a great and prodigious cadence of water, to which the universe does not offer a parallel." The height of the fall, according to Hennepin, was more than 600 feet. "The waters," he says, "which fall from this great precipice do foam and boil in the most astonishing manner, making. a noise more terrible than that of thunder. When the wind blows to the south, its frightful roaring may be heard for more than fifteen leagues." The Baron la Hontan, who visited Niagara in 1687, makes the height 800 feet. In 1721, Charlevoix, in a letter to Madame de Maintenon, after referring to the exaggerations of his predecessors, thus states the result of his own observations: "For my part, after examining it on all sides, I am inclined to think that we cannot allow it less than 140 or 150 feet"—a remarkably close estimate. At that time, viz., a hundred and fifty years ago, it had the shape of a horseshoe, and reasons will subsequently be given for holding that this has been always the form of the cataract from its origin to its present site.

As regards the noise of the cataract, Charlevoix declares the accounts of his predecessors, which, I may say, are repeated to the present hour, to he altogether extravagant. He is perfectly right. The thunders of Niagara are formidable enough to those who really seek them at the base of the Horseshoe Fall; but on the banks of the river, and particularly above the fall, its silence, rather than its noise, is surprising. This arises, in part, from the lack of resonance, the surrounding country being flat, and therefore furnishing no echoing surfaces to reënforce the shock of the water. The resonance from the surrounding rocks causes the Swiss Rouss at the Devil's Bridge, when full, to thunder more loudly than the Niagara.

On Friday, the 1st of November, 1872, just before reaching the village of Niagara Falls, I caught, from the railway-train, my first glimpse of the smoke of the cataract. Immediately after my arrival, I went with a friend to the northern end of the American Fall. It may be that my mood at the time toned down the impression produced by the first aspect of this grand cascade; but I felt nothing like disappointment, knowing, from old experience, that time and close acquaintanceship, the gradual interweaving of mind and Nature, must powerfully influence my final estimate of the scene. After dinner we crossed to Goat Island, and, turning to the right, reached the southern end of the American Fall. The river is here studded with small islands. Crossing a wooden bridge to Luna Island, and clasping a tree which grows near its edge, I looked long at the cataract, which here shoots down the precipice like an avalanche of foam. It grew in power and beauty as I gazed upon it. The channel, spanned by the wooden bridge, was deep, and the river there doubled over the edge of the precipice like the swell of a muscle, unbroken. The ledge here overhangs, the water being poured out far beyond the base of the precipice. A space, called the Cave of the Winds, is thus enclosed between the wall of rock and the cataract.

Goat Island terminates in a sheer dry precipice, which connects the American and the Horseshoe Falls. Midway between both is a wooden hut, the residence of the guide to the Cave of the Winds, and from the hut a winding staircase, called Biddle's Stair, descends to the base of the precipice. On the evening of my arrival I went down this stair, and wandered along the bottom of the cliff. One well-known factor in the formation and retreat of the cataract was immediately observed. A thick layer of limestone formed the upper portion of the cliff. This rested upon a bed of soft shale, which extended round the base of the cataract. The violent recoil of the water against this yielding substance crumbles it away, undermining the ledge above, which, unsupported, eventually breaks off, and produces the observed recession.

At the southern extremity of the Horseshoe is a promontory, formed by the doubling back of the gorge, excavated by the cataract, and into which it plunges. On the promontory stands a stone building, called the Terrapin Tower, the door of which had been nailed up because of the decay of the staircase within it. Through the kindness of Mr. Townsend, the superintendent of Goat Island, the door was opened for me. From this tower, at all hours of the day, and at some hours of the night, I watched and listened to the Horseshoe Fall. The river here is evidently much deeper than the American branch; and, instead of bursting into foam where it quits the ledge, it bends solidly over and falls in a continuous layer of the most vivid green. The tint is not uniform, but varied, long stripes of deeper hue alternating with bands of brighter color. Close to the ledge over which the water rolls, foam is generated, the light falling upon which, and flashing back from it, is sifted in its passage to and fro, and changed from white to emerald green. Heaps of superficial foam are also formed at intervals along the ledge, and immediately drawn down in long white striæ.[3] Lower down, the surface, shaken by the reaction from below, incessantly rustles into whiteness. The descent finally resolves itself into a rhythm, the water reaching the bottom of the fall in periodic gushes. Nor is the spray uniformly diffused through the air, but is wafted through it in successive veils of gauze-like texture. From all this it is evident that beauty is not absent from the Horseshoe Fall, but majesty is its chief attribute. The plunge of the water is not wild, but deliberate, vast, and fascinating. From the Terrapin Tower, the adjacent arm of the Horseshoe is seen projected against the opposite one, midway down; to the imagination, therefore, is left the picturing of the gulf into which the cataract plunges.

The delight which natural scenery produces in some minds is difficult to explain, and the conduct which it prompts can hardly be fairly criticised by those who have never experienced it. It seems to me a deduction from the completeness of the celebrated Thomas Young, that he was unable to appreciate natural scenery. "He had really," says Dean Peacock, "no taste for life in the country; he was one of those who thought that no one who was able to live in London would be content to live elsewhere." Well, Dr. Young, like Dr. Johnson, had a right to his delights; but I can understand a hesitation to accept them, high as they were, to the exclusion of

"That o'erflowing joy which Nature yields

To her true lovers."

To all who are of this mind, the strengthening of desire on my part to see and know Niagara Falls, as far as it is possible for them to be seen and known, will be intelligible.

On the first evening of my visit, I met, at the head of Biddle's Stair, the guide to the Cave of the Winds. He was in the prime of manhood—large, well built, firm and pleasant in mouth and eye. My interest in the scene stirred up his, and made him communicative. Turning to a photograph, he described, by reference to it, a feat which he had accomplished some time previously, and which had brought him almost under the green water of the Horseshoe Fall. "Can you lead me there to-morrow?" I asked. He eyed me inquiringly, weighing, perhaps, the chances of a man of light build and with gray in his whiskers in such an undertaking. "I wish," I added, "to see as much of the fall as can be seen, and where you lead I will endeavor to follow." His scrutiny relaxed into a smile, and he said, "Very well; I shall be ready for you to-morrow."

On the morrow, accordingly, I came. In the hut at the head of Biddle's Stair I stripped wholly, and redressed according to instructions—drawing on two pairs of woollen pantaloons, three woollen jackets, two pairs of socks, and a pair of felt shoes. Even if wet, my guide urged that the clothes would keep me from being chilled, and he was right. A suit and hood of yellow oil-cloth covered all. Most laudable precautions were taken by the young assistant of the guide to keep the water out, but his devices broke down immediately when severely tested.

We descended the stair; the handle of a pitchfork doing in my case the duty of an alpenstock. At the bottom my guide inquired whether we should go first to the. Cave of the Winds, or to the Horseshoe, remarking that the latter would try us most. I decided to get the roughest done first, and he turned to the left over the stones. They were sharp and trying. The base of the first portion of the cataract is covered with huge bowlders, obviously the ruins of the limestone ledge above. The water does not distribute itself uniformly among these, but seeks for itself channels through which it pours torrentially. We passed some of these with wetted feet, but without difficulty. At length we came to the side of a more formidable current. My guide walked along its edge until he reached its least turbulent portion. Halting, he said, "This is our greatest difficulty; if we can cross here, we shall get far toward the Horseshoe."

He waded in. It evidently required all his strength to steady him. The water rose above his loins, and it foamed still higher. He had to search for footing, amid unseen bowlders, against which the torrent rose violently. He struggled and swayed, but he struggled successfully, and finally reached the shallower water at the other side. Stretching out his arm, he said to me, "Now come on." I looked down the torrent as it rushed to the river below, which was seething with the tumult of the cataract. De Saussure recommended the inspection of Alpine dangers with the view of making them familiar to the eye before they are encountered; and it is a wholesome custom, in places of difficulty, to put the possibility of an accident clearly before the mind, and to decide beforehand what ought to be done should the accident occur. Thus wound up in the present instance, I entered the water. Even where it was not more than knee-deep its power was manifest. As it rose around me, I sought to split the torrent by presenting a side to it; but the insecurity of the footing enabled it to grasp the loins, twist me fairly round, and bring its impetus to bear upon the back. Further struggle was impossible; and, feeling my balance hopelessly gone, I turned, flung myself toward the bank I had just quitted, and was instantly swept into shallower water.

The oil-cloth covering was a great incumbrance; it had been made for a much stouter man, and, standing upright after my submersion, my legs occupied the centres of two bags of water. My guide exhorted me to try again. Prudence was at my elbow, whispering dissuasion; but, taking every thing into account, it appeared more immoral to retreat than to proceed. Instructed by the first misadventure, I once more entered the stream. Had the alpenstock been of iron it might have helped me; but, as it was, the tendency of the water to sweep it out of my hands rendered it worse than useless. I, however, clung to it by habit. Again the torrent rose, and again I wavered; but, by keeping the left hip well against it, I remained upright, and at length grasped the hand of my leader at the other side. He laughed pleasantly. The first victory was gained, and he enjoyed it. "No traveller," he said, "was ever here before." Soon afterward, by trusting to a piece of drift-wood which seemed firm, I was again taken off my feet, but was immediately caught by a protruding rock.

We clambered over the bowlders toward the thickest spray, which soon became so weighty as to cause us to stagger under its shock. For the most part nothing could be seen; we were in the midst of bewildering tumult, lashed by the water, which sounded at times like the cracking of innumerable whips. Underneath this was the deep, resonant roar of the cataract. I tried to shield my eyes with my hands, and look upward; but the defence was useless. My guide continued to move on, but at a certain place he halted, and desired me to take shelter in his lee and observe the cataract. The spray did not come so much from the upper ledge as from the rebound of the shattered water when it struck the bottom. Hence the eyes could be protected from the blinding shock of the spray, while the line of vision to the upper ledges remained to some extent clear. On looking upward over the guide's shoulder I could see the water bending over the ledge, while the Terrapin Tower loomed fitfully through the intermittent spray-gusts. We were right under the tower. A little farther on, the cataract, after its first plunge, hit a protuberance some way down, and flew from it in a prodigious burst of spray; through this we staggered. We rounded the promontory on which the Terrapin Tower stands, and pushed, amid the wildest commotion, along the arm of the Horseshoe, until the bowlders failed us, and the cataract fell into the profound gorge of the Niagara River.

Here my guide sheltered me again, and desired me to look up; I did so, and could see, as before, the green gleam of the mighty curve sweeping over the upper ledge, and the fitful plunge of the water as the spray between us and it alternately gathered and disappeared. An eminent friend of mine often speaks to me of the mistake of those physicians who regard man's ailments as purely chemical, to be met by chemical remedies only. He contends for the psychological element of cure. By agreeable emotions, he says, nervous currents are liberated which stimulate blood, brain, and viscera. The influence rained from ladies' eyes enables my friend to thrive on dishes which would kill him if eaten alone. A sanative effect of the same order I experienced amid the spray and thunder of Niagara. Quickened by the emotions there aroused, the blood sped exultingly through the arteries, abolishing introspection, clearing the heart of all bitterness, and enabling one to think with tolerance, if not with tenderness, on the most relentless and unreasonable foe. Apart from its scientific value, and purely as a moral agent, the play, I submit, is worth the candle. My companion knew no more of me than that I enjoyed the wildness; but, as I bent in the shelter of his large frame, he said, "I should like to see you attempting to describe all this." He rightly thought it indescribable. The name of this gallant fellow was Thomas Conroy.

We returned, clambering at intervals up and down so as to catch glimpses of the most impressive portions of the cataract. We passed under ledges formed by tabular masses of limestone, and through some curious openings formed by the falling together of the summits of the rocks. At length we found ourselves beside our enemy of the morning. My guide halted for a minute or two, scanning the torrent thoughtfully. I said that, as a guide, he ought to have a rope in such a place; but he retorted that, as no traveller had ever thought of coming there, he did not see the necessity of keeping a rope. He waded in. The struggle to keep himself erect was evident enough; he swayed, but recovered himself again and again. At length he slipped, gave way, did as I had done, threw himself flat in the water toward the bank, and was swept into the shallows. Standing in the stream near its edge, he stretched his arm toward me. I retained the pitchfork handle, for it had been useful among the bowlders. By wading some way in, the staff could be made to reach him, and I proposed his seizing it. "If you are sure," he replied, "that, in case of giving way, you can maintain your grasp, then I will certainly hold you." I waded in, and stretched the staff to my companion. It was firmly grasped by both of us. Thus helped, though its onset was strong, I moved savely across the torrent. All danger ended here. We afterward roamed sociably among the torrents and bowlders below the Cave of the Winds. The rocks were covered with organic slime which could not have been walked over with hare feet, but the felt shoes effectually prevented slipping. We reached the cave and entered it, first by a wooden way carried over the bowlders, and then along a narrow ledge to the point eaten deepest into the shale. When the wind is from the south, the falling water, I am told, can be seen tranquilly from this spot; but, when we were there, a blinding hurricane of spray was whirled against us. On the evening of the same day, I went behind the water on the Canada side, which, I confess, struck me, after the experience of the morning, as an imposture.

To complete my knowledge it was necessary to see the fall from the river below it, and long negotiations were necessary to secure the means of doing so. The only boat fit for the undertaking had been laid up for the winter; but this difficulty, through the kind intervention of Mr. Townsend, was overcome. The main one was, to secure oarsmen sufficiently strong and skilful to urge the boat where I wished it to be taken. The son of the owner of the boat, a finely-built young fellow, but only twenty, and therefore not sufficiently hardened, was willing to go; and up the river I was informed there lived another man who could do any thing with the boat which strength and daring could accomplish. He came. His figure and expression of face certainly indicated extraordinary firmness and power. On Tuesday, the 5th of November, we started, each of us being clad in oil-cloth. The elder oarsman at once assumed a tone of authority over his companion, and struck immediately in among the breakers below the American Fall. He hugged the cross freshets instead of striking out into the smoother water. I asked him why he did so, and he replied that they were directed outward not downward. At times, the struggle to prevent the bow of the boat from being turned by them was very severe.

The spray was in general blinding, but at times it disappeared, and yielded noble views of the fall. The edge of the cataract is crimped by indentations which exalt its beauty. Here and there, a little below the highest ledge, a secondary one jets out; the water strikes it, and bursts from it in huge, protuberant masses of foam and spray. We passed Goat Island, came to the Horseshoe, and worked for a time along the base of it, the bowlders over which Conroy and myself had scrambled a few days previously lying between us and the base. A rock was before us, concealed and revealed at intervals, as the waves passed over it. Our leader tried to get above this rock, first on the outside of it. The water, however, here was in violent motion. The men struggled fiercely, the elder one ringing out an incessant peal of command and exhortation to the younger. As we were just clearing the rock, the bow came obliquely to the surge; the boat was turned suddenly round, and shot with astonishing rapidity down the river. The men returned to the charge, now trying to get up between the half-concealed rock and the bowlders to the left. But the torrent set in strongly through this channel. The tugging was quick and violent, but we made little way. At length seizing a rope, the principal oarsman made a desperate attempt to get upon one of the bowlders, hoping to be able to drag the boat through the channel; but it bumped so violently against the rock, that the man flung himself back, and relinquished the attempt.

We returned along the base of the American Fall, running in and out among the currents which rushed from it laterally into the river. Seen from below, the American Fall is certainly exquisitely beautiful, but it is a mere frill of adornment to its nobler neighbor the Horseshoe. At times we took to the river, from the centre of which the Horseshoe Fall appeared especially magnificent. A streak of cloud across the neck of Mont Blanc can double its apparent height, so here, the green summit of the cataract shining above the smoke of the spray appeared lifted to an extraordinary elevation. Had Hennepin and La Hontan seen the fall from this position, their estimates of the height would have been perfectly excusable.


From a point a little way below the American Fall, a ferry crosses the river in summer to the Canadian side. Below the ferry is a suspension bridge for carriages and foot-passengers, and a mile or two lower down is the railway suspension bridge. Between the ferry and the latter the river Niagara flows unruffled; but at the suspension bridge the bed steepens and the river quickens its motion. Lower down the gorge narrows, and the rapidity and turbulence increase. At the place called the "Whirlpool Rapids" I estimated the width of the river at 300 feet, an estimate confirmed by the dwellers on the spot. When it is remembered that the drainage of nearly half a continent is compressed into this space, the impetuosity of the river's escape through this gorge may be imagined. Had it not been for Mr. Bierstädt, the distinguished photographer of Niagara, I should have quitted the place without seeing these rapids; for this, and for his agreeable company to the spot, I have to thank him. From the edge of the cliff above the rapids, we descended, a little I confess to a climber's disgust, in an "elevator," because the effects are best seen from the water-level.

Two kinds of motion are here obviously active, a motion of translation, and a motion of undulation—the race of the river through its gorge, and the great waves generated by its collision with, and rebound from, the obstacles in its way. In the middle of the river the rush and tossing are most violent; at all events, the impetuous force of the individual waves is here most strikingly displayed. Vast pyramidal heaps leap incessantly from the river, some of them with such energy as to jerk their summits into the air, where they hang suspended as bundles of liquid spherules. The sun shone for a few minutes. At times, the wind, coming up the river, searched and sifted the spray, carrying away the lighter drops, and leaving the heavier ones behind. Wafted in the proper direction, rainbows appeared and disappeared fitfully in the lighter mist. In other directions the common gleam of the sunshine from the waves and their shattered crests was exquisitely beautiful. The complexity of the action was still further illustrated by the fact that in some cases, as if by the exercise of a local explosive force, the drops were shot radially from a particular centre, forming around it a kind of halo.

The first impression, and, indeed, the current explanation of these rapids is, that the central bed of the river is cumbered with large bowlders, and that the jostling, tossing, and wild leaping of the water there are due to its impact against these obstacles. This may be true to some extent, but there is another reason to be taken into account. Bowlders derived from the adjacent cliffs visibly cumber the sides of the river. Against these the water rises and sinks rhythmically but violently, large waves being thus produced. On the generation of each wave there is an immediate compounding of the wave-motion with the river-motion. The ridges, which in still water would proceed in circular curves round the centre of disturbance, cross the river obliquely, and the result is that, at the centre, waves commingle which have really been generated at the sides. In the first instance we had a composition of wave-motion with river-motion; here we have the coalescence of waves with waves. Where crest and furrow cross each other, the motion is annulled; where furrow and furrow cross, the river is ploughed to a greater depth; and, where crest and crest aid each other, we have that astonishing leap of the water which breaks the cohesion of the crests, and tosses them shattered into the air. From the water-level the cause of the action is not so easily seen; but from the summit of the cliff the lateral generation of the waves and their propagation to the centre are perfectly obvious. If this explanation be correct, the phenomena observed at the Whirlpool Rapids form one of the grandest illustrations of the principle of interference. The Nile "cataract," Mr. Huxley informs me, offers examples of the same action.

At some distance below the Whirlpool Rapids we have the celebrated whirlpool itself. Here the river makes a sudden bend to the northeast, forming nearly a right angle with its previous direction. The water strikes the concave bank with great force, and scoops it incessantly away. A vast basin has been thus formed, in which the sweep of the river prolongs itself in gyratory currents. Bodies and trees which have come over the falls are stated to circulate here for days without finding the outlet. From various points of the cliffs above, this is curiously hidden. The rush of the river into the whirlpool is obvious enough; and, though you imagine the outlet must be visible, if one existed, you cannot find it. Turning, however, round the bend of the precipice to the northeast, the outlet comes into view.

The Niagara season had ended; the chatter of sight-seers had ceased, and the scene presented itself as one of holy seclusion and beauty. I went down to the river's edge, where the weird loneliness and loveliness seemed to increase. The basin is enclosed by high and almost precipitous banks—covered, when I was there, with russet woods. A kind of mystery attaches itself to gyrating water, due perhaps to the fact that we are to some extent ignorant of the direction of its force. It is said that at certain points of the whirlpool pine-trees are sucked down, to be ejected mysteriously elsewhere. The water is of the brightest emerald-green. The gorge through which it escapes is narrow, and the motion of the river swift though silent. The surface is steeply inclined, but it is perfectly unbroken. There are no lateral waves, no ripples with their breaking bubbles to raise a murmur; while the depth is here too great to allow the inequality of the bed to ruffle the surface. Nothing can be more beautiful than this sloping, liquid mirror formed by the Niagara in sliding from the whirlpool.


The green color is, I think, correctly accounted for in the "Hours of Exercise in the Alps." In crossing the Atlantic I had frequent opportunities of testing the explanation there given. Looked properly down upon, there are portions of the ocean to which we should hardly ascribe a trace of blue; at the most a hint of indigo reaches the eye. The water, indeed, is practically black, and this is an indication both of its depth and its freedom from mechanically-suspended matter. In small thicknesses water is sensibly transparent to all kinds of light; but, as the thickness increases, the rays of low refrangibility are first absorbed, and after them the other rays. Where, therefore, the water is very deep and very pure, all the colors are absorbed, and such water ought to appear black, as no light is sent from its interior to the eye. The approximation of the Atlantic Ocean to this condition is an indication of its extreme purity.

Throw a white pebble into such water; as it sinks it becomes greener and greener, and, before it disappears, it reaches a vivid blue-green. Break such a pebble into fragments, each of these will behave like the unbroken mass; grind the pebble to powder, every particle will yield its modicum of green; and, if the particles be so fine as to remain suspended in the water, the scattered light will be a uniform green. Hence the greenness of shoal water. You go to bed with the black Atlantic around you. You rise in the morning and find it a vivid green; and you correctly infer that you are crossing the bank of Newfoundland. Such water is found charged with fine matter in a state of mechanical suspension. The light from the bottom may sometimes come into play, but it is not necessary. A storm can render the water muddy by rendering the particles too numerous and gross. Such a case occurred toward the close of my visit to Niagara. There had been rain and storm in the upper-lake regions, and the quantity of suspended matter brought down quite extinguished the fascinating green of the Horseshoe.

Nothing can be more superb than the green of the Atlantic waves when the circumstances are favorable to the exhibition of the color. As long as a wave remains unbroken, no color appears, but, when the foam just doubles over the crest like an Alpine snow-cornice, under the cornice we often see a display of the most exquisite green. It is metallic in its brilliancy. But the foam is necessary to its production. The foam is first illuminated, and it scatters the light in all directions; the light which passes through the higher portion of the wave alone reaches the eye, and gives to that portion its matchless color. The folding of the wave, producing, as it does, a series of longitudinal protuberances and furrows, which act like cylindrical lenses, introduces variations in the intensity of the light, and materially enhances its beauty.


We have now to consider the genesis and proximate destiny of the Falls of Niagara. We may open our way to this subject by a few preliminary remarks upon erosion. Time and intensity are the main factors of geologic change, and they are in a certain sense convertible. A feeble force, acting through long periods, and an intense force, acting through short ones, may produce, approximately, the same results. Here, for example, are some stones kindly lent to me by Dr. Hooker. The first examples of the kind were picked up by Mr. Hackworth on the shores of Lyell's Bay, near Wellington, in New Zealand, and described by Mr. Travers in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. Unacquainted with their origin, you would certainly ascribe their forms to human workmanship. They resemble flint knives and spear-heads, being apparently chiselled off into facets with as much attention to symmetry as if a tool guided by human intelligence had passed over them. But no human instrument has been brought to bear upon these stones. They have been wrought into their present shape by the wind-blown sand of Lyell's Bay. Two winds are dominant here, and they in succession urged the sand against opposite sides of the stone; every little particle of sand clipped away its infinitesimal bit of stone, and in the end sculptured these singular forms.[4]

You know that the Sphinx of Egypt is nearly covered up by the sand of the desert. The neck of the Sphinx is partly cut across, not, as I am assured by Mr. Huxley, by ordinary weathering, but by the eroding action of the fine sand blown against it. In these cases Nature furnishes us with hints which may be taken advantage of in art; and this action of sand has been recently turned to extraordinary account in the United States. When in Boston, I was taken by Mr. Josiah Quincy to see the action of the sand-blast. A kind of hopper containing fine silicious sand was connected with a reservoir of compressed air, the pressure being variable at pleasure. The hopper ended in a long slit, from which the sand was blown. A plate of glass was placed beneath this slit, and caused to pass slowly under it; it came out perfectly depolished, with a bright opalescent glimmer, such as could only be produced by the most careful grinding. Every little particle of sand urged against the glass, having all its energy concentrated on the point of impact, formed there a little pit, the depolished surface consisting of innumerable hollows of this description. But this was not all. By protecting certain portions of the surface, and exposing others, figures and tracery of any required form could be etched upon the glass. The figures of open iron-work could be thus copied, while wire gauze placed over the glass produced a reticulated pattern. But it required no such resisting substance as iron to shelter the glass. The patterns of the finest lace could be thus reproduced, the delicate filaments of the lace itself offering a sufficient protection.

All these effects have been obtained with a simple model of the sand-blast devised for me by my assistant. A fraction of a minute suffices to etch upon glass a rich and beautiful lace pattern. Any yielding substance may be employed to protect the glass. By immediately diffusing the shock of the particle, such substances practically destroy the local erosive power. The hand can bear without inconvenience a sand-shower which would pulverize glass. Etchings executed on glass, with suitable kinds of ink, are accurately worked out by the sand-blast. In fact, within certain limits, the harder the surface, the greater is the concentration of the shock, and the more effectual is the erosion. It is not necessary that the sand should be the harder substance of the two; corundum, for example, is much harder than quartz; still, quartz-sand can not only depolish, but actually blow a hole through a plate of corundum. Nay, glass may be depolished by the impact of fine shot; the lead in this case bruising the glass before it has time to flatten and turn its energy into heat.

And here, in passing, we may tie together one or two apparently unrelated facts. Supposing you turn on, at the lower part of this house, a cock which is fed by a pipe from a cistern at the top of the house, the column of water, from the cistern downward, is set in motion. By turning off the cock, this motion is stopped; and, when the turning off is very sudden, the pipe, if not strong, may be burst by the internal impact of the water. By distributing the turning of the cock over half a second of time, the shock and danger of rupture may be entirely avoided. We have here an example of the concentration of energy in time. The sand-blast illustrates the concentration of energy in space. The action of flint and steel is an illustration of the same principle. The heat required to generate the spark is intense, and the mechanical action, being moderate, must, to produce fire, be in the highest degree concentrated. This concentration is secured by the collision of hard substances. Calc-spar will not supply the place of flint, nor lead the place of steel, in the production of fire by collision. With the softer substances, the total heat produced may be greater than with the hard ones, but, to produce the spark, the heat must be intensely localized.

But we can go far beyond the mere depolishing of glass; indeed, I have already said that quartz-sand can wear a hole through corundum. This leads me to express my acknowledgments to General Tilghman,[5] who is the inventor of the sand-blast. To his spontaneous kindness I am indebted for these beautiful illustrations of his process. In this plate of glass you find a figure worked out to a depth of ⅜ of an inch. Here is a second plate ⅞ of an inch thick, entirely perforated. Here, again, is a circular plate of marble, nearly half an inch thick, through which open-work of the most intricate and elaborate description has been executed. It would probably take many days to perform this work by any ordinary process; with the sand-blast it was accomplished in an hour. So much for the strength of the blast; its delicacy is illustrated by this beautiful example of line-engraving, etched on glass by means of the blast.

This power of erosion, so strikingly displayed when sand is urged by air, will render you better able to conceive its action when urged by water. The erosive power of a river is vastly augmented by the solid matter carried along with it. Sand or pebbles caught in a river-vortex can wear away the hardest rock; "pot-holes" and deep cylindrical shafts being thus produced. An extraordinary instance of this kind of erosion is to be seen in the Val Tournanche, above the village of this name. The gorge at Handeck has been thus cat out. Such water-falls were once frequent in the valleys of Switzerland; for hardly any valley is without one or more transverse barriers of resisting material, over which the river flowing through the valley once fell as a cataract. Near Pontresina, in the Engadine, there is such a case, the hard gneiss being now worn away to form a gorge through which the river from the Morteratsch Glacier rushes. The barrier of the Kirchet, above Meyringen, is also a case in point. Behind it was a lake, derived from the glacier of the Aar, and over the barrier the lake poured its excess of water. Here the rock, being limestone, was in great part dissolved, but, added to this, we had the action of the solid particles carried along by the water, each of which, as it struck the rock, chipped it away like the particles of the sand-blast. Thus, by solution and mechanical erosion, the great chasm of the Fensteraarschlucht was formed. It is demonstrable that the water which flows at the bottoms of such deep fissures once flowed at the level of what is now their edges, and tumbled down the lower faces of the barriers. Almost every valley in Switzerland furnishes examples of this kind; the untenable hypothesis of earthquakes, once so readily resorted to in accounting for these gorges, being now, for the most part, abandoned. To produce the canons of Western America, no other cause is needed than the integration of effects individually infinitesimal.

And now we come to Niagara. Soon after Europeans had taken possession of the country, the conviction appears to have arisen that the deep channel of the river Niagara below the Falls had been excavated by the cataract. In Mr. Bakewell's "Introduction to Geology," the prevalence of this belief has been referred to: it is expressed thus by Prof. Joseph Henry in the Transactions of the Albany Institute: "In viewing the position of the Falls, and the features of the country round, it is impossible not to be impressed with the idea that this great natural race-way has been formed by the continued action of the irresistible Niagara, and that the Falls, beginning at Lewiston, have, in the course of ages, worn back the rocky strata to their present site."[6] The same view is advocated by Mr. Hall, by Sir Charles Lyell, by M. Agassiz, by Prof. Ramsay—indeed, by almost all of those who have inspected the place.

A connected image of the origin and progress of the fall 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 widened 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 backward 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 Lewiston, on the American, to Queenstown, 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 Mr. Hall, Sir Charles Lyell, 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 belief 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. Here we see evidently that the greatest weight of water bends over the very apex of the Horseshoe. In a passage in his excellent 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 toward the sides. The horseshoe form, with the concavity facing downward, is an obvious and necessary consequence of this action. Right along the middle of the river the apex of the curve pushes its way backward, cutting along the centre a deep and comparatively narrow groove, and draining the sides as it passes them.[7] 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 upper 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 a channel parallel to the length of the island. This point, I have just learned, has not escaped the acute observation of Prof. Ramsay.[8] The river above the fall bends, and the Horseshoe immediately accommodates itself to the bending, following implicitly the direction of the deepest water in the upper stream. The flexibility of the gorge, if I may use the term, is determined by the flexibility of the river-channel above it. Were the Niagara above the fall far more sinuous than it is, 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 below the Victoria Falls. But, 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 bowlders already 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 bowlders, 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 bowlders, 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 depth between the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, where the river enters it. The depth falls from 12 feet to 20 feet, in consequence of the deposition of solid matter caused by the diminished motion of the river.[9]

In conclusion, we may say a word regarding the proximate future of Niagara. At the date of excavation assigned to it by Sir Charles Lyell, namely, a foot a year, five thousand years 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. 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 of this. To those who visit Niagara five millenniums hence, I leave the verification of this prediction; for my own part, I have a profound persuasion that it will prove literally true.


  1. A lecture before the Royal Institution, delivered April 4, 1873.
  2. From an interesting little book presented to me at Brooklyn by its author, Mr. Holly, some of these data are derived: Hennepin, Kalm, Bakewell, Lyell, and others, I have myself consulted.
  3. The direction of the wind, with reference to the course of a ship, may be inferred with accuracy from the foam-streaks on the surface of the sea.
  4. "These stones, which have a strong resemblance to works of human art, occur in great abundance, and of various sizes, from half an inch to several inches in length. A large number were exhibited, showing the various forms, which are those of wedges, knives, arrow-heads, etc., and all with sharp cutting edges.

    "Mr. Travers explained that, notwithstanding their artificial appearance, these stones were formed by the cutting action of the wind-driven sand, as it passed to and fro over an exposed bowlder-bank. He gave a minute account of the manner in which the varieties of form are produced, and referred to the effect which the erosive action thus indicated would have on railway and other works executed on sandy tracts.

    "Dr. Hector stated that, although, as a group, the specimens on the table could not well be mistaken for artificial productions, still the forms are so peculiar, and the edges, in a few of them, so perfect, that, if they were discovered associated with human works, there is no doubt that they would have been referred to the so-called 'stone period.'"—Extracted from the Minutes of the Wellington Philosophical Society, February 9, 1869.

  5. The absorbent power, if I may use the phrase, exerted by the industrial arts in the United States, is forcibly illustrated by the rapid transfer of men like Mr. Tilghman from the life of the soldier to that of the civilian. General McClellan, now a civil engineer, whom I had the honor of frequently meeting in New York, is a most eminent example of the same kind. At the end of the war, indeed, a million and a half of men were thus drawn, in an astonishingly short time, from military to civil life. It is obvious that a nation with these tendencies can have no desire for war.
  6. Quoted by Bakewell.
  7. In the discourse this action was illustrated by a model.
  8. His words are: "Where the body of water is small in the American Fall, the edge has only receded a few yards (where most eroded) during the time that the Canadian Fall has receded from the north corner of Goat Island to the innermost curve of the Horseshoe Fall." Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, May, 1859.
  9. Near the mouth of the gorge at Queenstown, the depth, according to the Admiralty Chart, is 180 feet; well within the gorge it is 132 feet.