03/07/2013 08:30 BST | Updated 02/09/2013 06:12 BST

The Curious History of Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls has been attracting billions of visitors to its shores since the first European laid eyes on this incredible landmark, many moons ago in 1678.

Niagara Falls has been attracting billions of visitors to its shores since the first European laid eyes on this incredible landmark, many moons ago in 1678.

Native Americans living in the region were likely to be the first to witness the magnitude of the Fall's power, though it remained unknown to the western world until the Fransiscan monk and explorer, Louis Hennepin, wrote of Niagara Falls in his book "A New Discovery". Having the book published on his return to France, Hennepin sparked the global intrigue in the natural phenomenon that we know today.

The development of the railway in 1800 opened up the area to hordes of travellers who came to revel in its magnificence. In 1804, the visit from Napoleon Bonaparte's young brother, Jerome, and his American wife would begin the tradition of Niagara as a honeymoon destination.

How it came to be

Niagara Falls is a group of three waterfalls straddling Ontario in Canada and New York: The Horseshoe, The American Falls and The Bridal Veil Falls. Their formation occurred at the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago and continues to erode today; this is despite industrial intervention in the nineteenth century to harness the massive power of the Falls for hydro-electricity.

Over 18,000 years ago in southern Ontario, 2-3 kilometre thick sheets of ice were drifting south and gouging out the Great Lakes Basin, as the ice melted they released vast quantities of water northwards into the basins. By the time the ice had fully melted 12,500 years ago, the water was flowing through Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Lake Ontario towards St Lawrence River and eventually out to sea.

At first there were five spillways into the basin that eventually eroded into one, the original Niagara Falls after which it gradually began to wear away the bedrock.

The Barrel Brigade

One of the most fascinating elements to Niagara Fall's history is since its discovery on a global scale, humans have been hurling themselves over its colossal edge to try and survive its power.

These dare devils have been nicknamed The Barrel Brigade since 63-year-old school teacher Annie Edson Taylor first made her way over the Falls, with her cat, in 1901. Annie's journey over the edge opened the floodgates for more adventurers, who have been making headlines with their inconceivable stunts, and have become part of Northern American folklore as their daring feats have shocked the world.

Twenty-one men and women have attempted the task and only sixteen have survived. The youngest survivor, seven-year-old Roger Westwood, tumbled over the side in a tragic boating trip with his uncle and sister in 1960. His sister, Deanne was rescued by onlookers before going over the edge, while Roger who had only a life-jacket to protect him was hurled over the brink.

Roger plummeted 190 ft into treacherous rapids, where he swam furiously against the churning water while the Maid of the Mist II veered off course in a valiant attempt to rescue the boy. Miraculously all ended well and the third attempt to toss the life ring to him was successful. Roger received instant fame after his encounter with death, though his uncle was not so fortunate and perished in the Falls.

Niagara today

The Fall's dispels 150,000 gallons of water per second since the intervention of industrialists to channel the water for hydro-electric power. Despite all we know about its history, there are still unanswered questions about the Fall's today, namely can the Fall's still completely freeze over as it did all those years ago?

We know that it can partially ice over as it has been well documented since its western discovery. Although the remarkable volume of water never stops pouring, the falling water and mist create ice formations that can stretch for several miles to over fifty feet thick. If the winter is cold enough, the ice can stretch from one side of the river to the other, forming what is known as The Ice Bridge.

Until 1912 tourists were allowed to walk on the bridge, in 1888 the local newspaper reported that 20,000 people had turned out to view the Fall's from below with shanties selling liqueur and photographs, while others watched or tobogganed on the ice. The practice was stopped on 4 February 1912 when the Ice Bridge came apart and three tourists lost their lives.

Today tourists can enjoy one of Canada's most famous destinations by day, or by night when they are brought to life with vivid coloured spotlights that shine on the torrents of water.