Niagara Falls by Fr. Louis Hennepin

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"a vast and prodigious Cadence"

Fr. Louis Hennepin's historical drawing of Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls, by Nicholas Hennepin1

Tis true, Italy and Suedeland [Sweden] boast of some such Things; but we may well say they are but sorry Patterns, when compar'd to this of which we now speak." Thus began the first printed description of Niagara Falls, originally published in 1678 by the Franciscan missionary, Father Louis Hennepin (1626– c. 1705). This engraving appeared in the 1697 edition of his journal, and was reprinted the following year in the first English edition.

"Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erié," he continued, "is a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprizing and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its Parallel." The Niagara River, Hennepin wrote, "is so rapid above this Descent, that it violently hurries down the wild Beasts while endeavouring to pass it to feed on the other side, they not being able to withstand the force of its Current, which inevitably casts them down headlong above Six hundred foot."

Goat Island separates 185-foot-high Horseshoe Falls at left, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, from 190-foot-high American Falls, at right. The entire pitch between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, including the rapids above and below the falls, is 330 feet.

Hennepin also exaggerated another aspect of Niagara Falls. "The Waters which fall from this vast height, do foam and boil after the most hideous manner imaginable," he continued, "making an outrageous Noise, more terrible than that of thunder; for when the wind blows from off the South, their dismal roaring may be heard above fifteen Leagues off." With a league equal to approximately three statute miles, fifteen leagues would add up to nearly forty-five miles. It is possible that under certain atmospheric conditions the sound could be reflected off the lower margin of the stratosphere, but otherwise Hennepin's statement is on the far side of credibility.2 Meriwether Lewis, walking directly into a "pretty hard" wind from the southwest, was about seven miles from the Missouri's Grand Fall when he first heard "the agreeable sound of a fall of water."3 However, on 15 June, Clark wrote that the main party could hear the falls "verry distinctly" from nearly fifteen miles downriver.

The world's first large-scale hydroelectric plant was built at the Niagara River's American Falls in 1895. Fifteen years later, the potential for electrical power generation at the Falls of the Missouri was realized at Rainbow Dam.

1. Nicholas Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America, Extending Above Four Thousand Miles, Between New France and New Mexico, (London: Henry Bonwicke, 1699) 1:22.

2. For an example of such a sonic phenomenon, see "Mystery on the Mountain".

3. On 12 June 1805, with Clark and the main party nearly thirty river miles behind him, Lewis and his detail (Drouillard, Joseph Field, Gibson and Goodrich) camped in the vicinity of today's Middle Coulee, about fifteen river miles below the big falls. The next morning, according to Lewis's journal, they "again ascended the hills of the river and gained the level country" and proceeded toward the southwest. After walking about six miles, Lewis send Drouillard, Field and Gibson to "kill some meat and join me at the river" at lunchtime. Lewis, with Goodrich "at some distance behind," turned more to the south, and "proceeded on this course about two miles" when he heard the falls. He reached them, alone, "about 12 OClock having traveled by estimate about 15 Miles."

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust