NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — The sightseers and wayfarers came on a February morning to see Niagara Falls. It was, maybe, the worst time of year — the end of winter, frigid and icy, with heaps of dirty snow dotting the city and cold winds chilling the soul.
Still, the people came, converging in small clusters at a point on Goat Island overlooking the Horseshoe Falls. Some visitors pulled gloved hands from pockets to take pictures. Other stood silently, taking in the otherworldly view.
“I’m really happy that we did this,” said Nelson Tovar, 34, a traveler from Bogotá, Colombia.
He described the view, speaking in Spanish: “Muy hermosa. Muy hermosa. Para mí, es algo nuevo, muy lindo.” In English, roughly: “Very lovely. It’s something new for me — very beautiful.”
On Goat Island, all around Tovar, mist from the falls had frozen onto trees, coating bare branches in an inch-thick layer of white. Water tumbled over the Horseshoe’s half-moon cliff (thousands of bathtubs worth per second). In the canyon below, strips of ice drifted on the river’s surface, like whitecaps cresting on a steel gray sea.
Tovar had ridden the Greyhound up from New York City with his sister, Adriana, and her boyfriend, Adam Carr. The trio was among a handful of tourists who had come specifically to see the falls.
For others, the visit seemed to be more of a sideshow, an afterthought. Many people were going to a George Strait concert and concluded that it would be a shame to miss one of the world’s great wonders while in town. Craig Valente and Mark Olstad, a pair of engineers, had driven in from the Albany area to scope out a bridge replacement project their company was thinking of bidding on. They decided to drop by Niagara Falls before heading home.
Might as well. Why not?
There’s no way to track how many people tour the falls in winter, especially since attractions like the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds are closed for much of the season, said Angela Berti, Western District marketing and public affairs coordinator for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which oversees Niagara Falls State Park.
Visitor volume is, of course, much lower than in summer. But that doesn’t mean the wonder of the falls erodes with the changing weather.
“I always say winter is the prettiest and best time of year to come, just because of the way the mist freezes on the trees and encapsulates the trees,” Berti said. “It is a wonderful place to walk in the wintertime.”
Despite the water’s roar, everything seems still and silent. The calm imbues the landscape with a magic that diminishes in summer months, when traffic is heavier and throngs of tourists pack every lookout.
At the turn of the 20th century, winter at the falls was more of a Bacchanalian affair. Large crowds would gather on an ice bridge that formed when icebergs spilled over the falls and jammed in the channel below, and when water simply froze.
Photographers set up shacks on this glacial expanse, hawking their services to thrill-seekers, according to a database of photographs from the Niagara Falls Public Library in Ontario, Canada.
Boys slid down an ice mountain, riding sleds or just their pants. Women in ankle-length dresses moved across the ice. Concessioners sold coffee, alcohol and “wienerwurst” (sausages).
An excerpt from the database, attributed to the book “Niagara Falls Canada: A History,” which in turn cited an 1888 newspaper article in The Drummondville Recorder, describes the scene as such:
“Last Sunday was a gala day on the ice bridge. The visitors to the ice bridge amused themselves all day either watching toboggans go coasting down the ice mound at Prospect Point Corner or in trying the fun themselves. What laughing and yelling as some of the unlucky sports came to grief. The seven shanties on the ice bridge were doing a good business in liquor, photographs and [curiosities], all day long. The police were on the watch for a gang of gamblers but the ligh[t]-fingered gentry scented danger and took a back seat somewhere.”
Images from that era are beautiful, haunting: Men and women in their Sunday clothes, silhouetted against a great wall of white. The figures, black smudges in the grainy old snapshots, seem so tiny against the ice and wonder of the falls.
The parties on the ice bridge ended long ago. Safety is now paramount. A century before, in 1912, three revelers died when the ice bridge broke and began carrying them downstream. The forsaken included a married couple, Elridge and Clara Stanton of Toronto, who were marooned on an ice floe racing toward rapids.
“There was no hope now,” wrote historian Sherman Shavitz in the Niagara Falls Review on the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. “An eyewitness reporter described the final moments of the drama: ‘He raised the woman to her feet, kissed her and clasped her in his arms. The woman then sank to her knees. The man knelt beside her, his arms clasped close about her. So they went to their death. The ice held intact until it struck the great wave. There it was shattered. There the gallant man and the woman at his side disappeared from view.'”
Today, with the dangers clear, the ice bridge is off-limits. Gone are the sleds and the fêtes and the adventurers. But what persists is the landscape’s beauty: Quiet, calm, alluring — like no place on Earth.
“We’re going to a concert in Buffalo, but we have a day to kill, so we said we’d come out and see the falls in the wintertime,” said Adam Collins, 31, a mechanic from Croghan, N.Y. in town for the George Stait show.
Though Niagara Falls wasn’t the main attraction, Collins and his wife, Victoria, were glad they made the trip.
That’s how Victoria, 30, an attorney, described the view.
Adam Carr, 41, a writer from New Jersey and the boyfriend of Tovar’s sister, offered a similar assessment: “Beautiful. It’s kind of a winter postcard.”
The words the visitors chose were plain, mirroring the falls’ winter elegance: White and muted, but somehow grand.
Berti, the park’s public affairs coordinator, posts images on Facebook on particularly pretty mornings. Even at the coldest times of year, locals walk their dogs by the river. Tour buses unload passengers. Glancing out of the window one frigid day, Berti spotted a bride in a strapless gown.
It’s easy to forget about Niagara Falls in the off-season, when frozen roads and uninviting winds dishearten even the heartiest souls. But, as Berti says, the falls are a year-round marvel.
As winter draws to a close, the snow will melt and the green buds of tulips will rise from the wet, brown earth. Summer will bring sunny days, Dippin’ Dots, hot dog vendors, ice-cold Colas and droves of tourists. The Maid of the Mist will ferry visitors to the foot of the falls. In autumn, as the days grow colder, the leaves will change and fall, filling the park with a chaos of color.
Then, everything will grow quiet, snow will fall, time will seem to stand still, and — before you know it — it will be winter at the falls again.
Robert Salonga, a crime and public safety reporter for the San Jose Mercury News in the San Francisco Bay Area, edited this story. Special thanks goes to Angela Berti of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for providing much useful information, and to Andrew Porteus of Niagara Falls Public Library in Canada for help in obtaining old photographs.