Niagara Falls Frozen in 1911

The Phenomenon of the Ice Bridge

Niagara Falls during winter
Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Does Niagara Falls ever really freeze over? The answer is yes. During an extended winter cold snap a hardened crust of ice can accumulate over parts of the falls — American Falls in particular — creating an amazing, naturally formed ice sculpture that has been known to reach a thickness of 50 feet.

How Niagara Falls Freezes

Neither the river nor the falls ever freeze solid. The water continues to flow beneath the ice at all times, albeit reduced to a mere trickle on rare occasions when ice jams block the river above the falls. Historically, when this blanket of ice has spanned the entire Niagara River, the phenomenon has been known as the "ice bridge." Just as you see in the photos, people used to stroll and frolic on and around the frozen falls and even walk across the ice bridge, though no one has been allowed to do the latter since 1912, when the bridge unexpectedly broke apart and three tourists died.

As the Washington Post wrote,  a "frozen" Niagara falls was not an unusual occurrence:

Niagara Falls gets cold every year. The average temperature in Niagara Falls in January is between 16 and 32 degrees. Naturally, it being that cold, ice floes and giant icicles form on the falls, and in the Niagara River above and below the falls, every year. The ice at the base of the falls, called the ice bridge, sometimes gets so thick that people used to build concession stands and walk to Canada on it. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. It is not, to put it bluntly, big polar vortex news.

About the Images of the Frozen Falls

All of the photographs appear to be authentic, though it's unlikely any were actually taken in 1911.

The first in the set, a sepia-toned photograph found on the website of the Niagara Falls Public Library, is of unknown date and origin, according to the documentation. The image also appears on the Niagara Falls Live website, where its placement implies it was taken during the historic freeze of March 1848 when the falls actually "went dry" for a few days due to the formation of an ice dam on Lake Erie.

The second image, a panoramic view of American Falls, the infamous ice bridge, and the "ice mountain" dotted with ant-like human visitors, was reproduced a few years ago on a now-defunct website called Nostalgiaville. The photo was dated 1936. The Washington Post reported on February 2 of that year that the falls had indeed "frozen dry" for the second time in history.

Image three is a scan of a picture postcard, originally hand-tinted, displayed on the Niagara Falls Public Library Web site. The card was postmarked August 25, 1911 (though the photograph probably wasn't taken in that year), and bore the following caption:

"The cave of the Winds, gyved with a marvelous accumulation of ice and the great flow of water completely hidden by crystalline helmets. Such a sight is rarely to be witnessed, however for history records only three, the last time in 1886, when it is said, a million persons visited Niagara to see the marvelous exhibition of the ice king."

The fourth image, entitled "Great Mass of Frozen Spray and Ice-Bound American Falls Niagara," is also from the Niagara Falls Public Library collection, where it is cataloged as a stereo image by Underwood & Underwood. It is dated 1902.