American Side of Niagara Falls to go Silent

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First in an occasional series on Niagara Falls

By Angelica Morrison

Parks officials in New York are planning a project of historic significance: temporarily shutting off the American Falls.

That will dramatically alter a natural wonder that attracts millions of tourists from around the world.

The Niagara Falls State Park project is designed to replace two pedestrian bridges that are over 100 years old. Those bridges connect the main section of the park to Goat Island, which splits the Niagara River into two falls -- one in Canada and the other in the U.S. 

Shutting off the flow of the river -- and the falls -- will give construction workers access to the bridge supports.

For decades, the bridges offered an intimate look at the water, putting visitors just few feet away from the river's rapids.

“I used to love being on those bridges because you did have that feeling," said Mark Thomas, western district director for the N.Y. State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. " The feeling of the rapids when you’re that close into them, it’s astounding. It was and it’s something we’d like to see happen again.” 

Currently, temporary bridges are being used; they stand about six feet above the existing structures. They're safe for tourists to cross, but the state wants a complete overhaul. 

The state plans to demolish the old bridges, build a new foundation and put in a new bridge. That means diverting the river.

About 90 percent of Niagara Falls' water flows over the Canadian side. The other 10 percent goes over the American side.

“So, it’s important to realize the whole falls isn’t going to be shut down," Thomas said. "You can’t shut down the whole Niagara River. Just not going to happen."

The dewatering has been done before.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led a 1969 project aimed at clearing rocks at the base of the falls. A temporary dam about 600 feet long was built, and water stopped flowing over the American Falls for about four months. 

But officials decided not to remove the rocks.

Thomas says the state is planning the same process, with a few changes.

The project will cost about $30 million, and officials aren’t sure where that money will come from. There are several potential sources, including the N.Y. Power Authority, says Rep. Brian Higgins, who represents the area. 

“The other source would be the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which would require a state match, and that would be a traditional means of funding for a project of this nature,” Higgins said.

He says new transportation legislation could get the project moving.

“But when Congress fails to enact a major transportation infrastructure bill, there’s very few resources available for these kinds of projects,” he said. “So my sense is after January, we will have a new administration that will have a new emphasis on doing nation-building. Not in Afghanistan, not in Iraq, but right here in America and in places like right here and in Buffalo, N.Y.”

But for now, unlike the Niagara River, the project is at a standstill.

If the bridges are built, tourists will once again have that up close and personal experience with the river and its rapids.

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