For hundreds of years, the public were allowed access to the ice bridges that formed at the base of the Falls. For many years it was the only way to cross the river in winter, since there weren’t any bridges built. Year after year, people, young and old, came to enjoy the river upon the ice bridges. Some favourite ice bridge sports included tobogganing. People would ride down huge the ice mountains that formed at the base of the American Falls.
In the past, ice sheets with a thickness of 40 feet (12m) to 100 feet (30m) were common. Today ice sheets like that are unheard of and haven’t occurred since 1954.
From information contained in an old diary kept by C. H. Witmer, he crossed the Niagara River on the ice bridge on May 2nd 1835 to purchase clover seed, and returned the following day. The ice was piled 12 – 15 feet high and it suddenly broke away a day or two later.
This ice bridge was unusually large, as described in Orr’s Pictorial Guide of Niagara Falls. The ice bridge was at least 100 feet thick and rising above the water roughly 30 – 40 feet. A small hut was built near the center of the ice bridge, the purpose was the sale of liquor and other refreshments. People crossed this ice bridge from the Biddle staircase on the American shore to the Canadian shoreline.
This ice bridge was known from a famous picture. It featured a horse on the top of a huge ice mountain at the base of the American Falls. Around the same time the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne, and Princess Louise visited Niagara Falls, Andrew Wallace led a horse to the top of this ice mountain. Wallace sat upon his horse and remained for more than a half hour. Hundreds of spectators witnessed this feat.
This ice bridge is claimed to be the greatest ice bridge in the history of Niagara Falls. The ice bridge began at the base of the Horseshoe Falls and extended to the head of the Whirlpool Rapids. The water and ice rose to extraordinary heights which caused massive shoreline damage. Also, the foot of the incline railway was destroyed. Both the boathouse and carriage shed were destroyed.
In February 1888, the local newspapers described this ice bridge, as well as the large crowds which were playing sports upon it. It was noticed that Sundays attracted the largest numbers of people. The last Sunday in February was claimed that up to 20,000 people visited the ice bridge.
This ice bridge formed much earlier than usual and lasted a short time. On January 22nd 1889, the ice bridge broke apart with three people caught on the ice. Fortunately all three were able to escape to shore unharmed.
Rarely the ice bridges formed in February have been surpassed in their splendor. The Ice King reigned supreme when very little water flowed over the American Falls that it appeared dry. For one very rare instance in history, people were able to walk across the rapids channel between the mainland and the many islands upstream of the American Falls in contravention of police regulations.
On Saturday April 9th 1909, as a direct result of this great ice jam, Niagara Falls and several other cities were plunged into darkness. Factories were forced to shut down and streets were darkened. Ice and water forced the closure of the Ontario Power Company Generating Station. Workmen were not able to connect power from the neighbouring Electrical Development Company into the local power grid for two days.
Heavy ice damage was inflicted along the river banks. The Maids of the Mist boats were damaged and the dock waiting room was carried up the bank. The ice was 50 feet thick and the Ontario Power Plant had 18 feet thick ice slabs on the generating floor. All boat houses between Queenston and Niagara on the Lake were destroyed. The suspension bridge at Queenston – Lewiston which was normally 60 feet above water level was now only 25 feet above water level.
Thousands of people came to view this ice bridge. The lowlands downstream of Lewiston were in danger of being swamped with ice and water.
The ice bridge formed on January 15th 1912. From January 20th to February 4th, many people visited to view and venture onto the ice bridge, either to cross or to play on the ice, since it was considered safe. On February 4th the Ice Bridge Disaster occurred.
That winter experienced an extended period of extremely cold temperatures. This caused an ice jam at the eastern tip of Goat Island which reduced the water flow over the American Falls to a mere trickle. Later on the American Falls ran dry and hundreds of people began crossing the dry river channel on foot from the mainland to Luna Island only feet from the brink of the American Falls.
On January 25th 1938, a powerful wind sent an enormous amount of ice from Lake Erie down the length of the Niagara River which went over the both the Horseshoe Falls and American Falls. Two ice bridges quickly developed. The first ice bridge was located at the base of the Horseshoe Falls continued to the area of the Ontario Power Company Generating Station. The second ice bridge formed downstream of the Whirlpool and extended to the mouth of Lake Ontario. Ice began mounting higher and higher causing the river banks to disappear from sight, and the rock talus at the base of the American Falls to disappear as well. The river bed rose 30 feet at the Queenston Power Plant (Sir Adam Beck Generating Station), and the river water rose a record 9 feet.
The docks of the Maid of the Mist were crushed by the massive onslaught of ice. Ice and water began to pour rapidly into the Ontario Power Company Power Station. The Generators became buried in ice, which brought operations at this plant to a sudden halt.
The mounting ice began enveloping the abutments of the Falls View Steel Arch Bridge. The enormous pressure being applied to the girders of the bridge was caused the bridge to become unsafe despite the best efforts by workers. At 9:15 a.m. on January 26th, all vehicle and pedestrian traffic was stopped from crossing the bridge. The ice had caused irreparable damage and it was now inevitable that the bridge would collapse. Crowds of people came to the Falls and lined the river banks in a death watch for the bridge. Finally, at 4:10 p.m. on January 27th 1938, the Falls View Bridge collapsed into the Niagara Gorge and onto the ice bridge below.