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Ken Westhues
20 October 2019

The walls of the Niagara Gorge are fragile. Sections of the cliffs at the top break off from time to time as a result of both natural erosion (ice jacking, for instance, or seismic tremors) and human activity (anything that causes vibration, from vehicular traffic to blasting to heavy machinery). This webpage documents with photographs a massive rockfall that occurred on 12 or 13 January 2018 near the corner of Eastwood Crescent and River Road, on the Canadian side of the gorge.

The aerial photo above, taken in October 1934, is a good starting point. This is the earliest aerial photo of the area on Google Earth Pro. You can see how River Road snakes along the edge of the cliff. Hubbard's Point, from which Charles Blondin strung his tightrope to walk across the gorge in 1859, is clearly visible. In 1934, unlike today, few trees were allowed to grow on the promontory. Indeed, though I can't be sure, it looks like River Road at that time was 20' to 40' (7 to 14 m) back from the edge of the cliffs, and that this space was pretty much kept free of trees and shrubs, probably to permit unobstructed views across the gorge. I've put a red dot where the big rockfall of 2018 occurred.

Fast forward 80+ years to 2017. The photo at right, taken from the American side of the gorge, shows the area just north of the intersection of Eastwood Crescent with River Road. You can make out the parapet wall that runs on the gorge side of the sidewalk along River Road. You can't see River Road itself, but the large inn, Niagara Grandview Manor, looms on the west side of River Road. Indicated in red is the top of the cliff: a ledge with nothing underneath on the left side, a ledge with more support on the right side.

By sheer chance, on 13 January 2018, three friends who often explore the gorge together — Americans Dan Davis and Joel Paradise, and Canadian Patrick Sirianni —were together on the American side and happened to notice that a huge rockfall had occurred on the Canadian side. They took the photo at right, the view almost identical to the one above taken nine months earlier. You can see that the left side of the ledge has broken off: a section of the cliff roughly 10' by 20', amounting to something like 75 tons of rock.

At right is the three friends' photo of the full extent of the rockfall, sliding down the side of the gorge roughly 150' (50 m) to the edge of the Niagara River, uprooting trees and gouging earth along the way. The rockfall must have occurred just that morning, or perhaps the night before, because there had been heavy rain the day before. It began to turn to snow only that morning. The photo shows that the rockfall was so recent that virtually no snow covered its path from the rim of the gorge all the way to the toe.

With a telephoto lens, the men captured what the rockfall looked like at its lowest point, the edge of the river.







The photo at right was taken by satellite five months later, in June 2018. From Google Earth Pro, it shows the intersection of Eastwood Crescent and River Road, and at upper right the rooftop of Niagara Grandview Manor. Lush green vegetation has replaced the snow and leafless trees of the previous winter — except where the rockfall occurred. There you can see the gaping cavity where the top of the cliff gave way the previous January.





Finally is a photo I took more than a year later, in September 2019, from the sidewalk along River Road, of the area where the cliff broke off. The parapet wall is in the lower left corner, and the edge of the cliff so close you can see all the way down to the river. The buffer between sidewalk and edge of cliff, which looks to have been perhaps 40' (14 m) in 1934, and about 15' (5 m) as late as 2017, has been reduced to about 5' (2 m).

Why did the rockfall happen? So far as I have been able to determine, no human activity near the site in the previous days or weeks produced unusually strong vibrations. The inn had been enlarged over the preceding several years, but this did not involve explosives or equipment that caused major vibrations in the earth. A mechanical rockbreaker was used for excavating a foundation, but this work was done several months after the rockfall of January 2018. I have no evidence of direct causation of the rockfall by construction at the inn.

More likely, the rockfall was the cumulative effect over many years of natural factors (seepage of precipitation into fissures in the rocks, then repeated freezing and thawing) combined with human activity (vibration mainly from cars and buses on River Road, possibly also from construction). No harm appears to have been done, and the rockfall might never have been noticed had three observant men not happened to be walking on the American side of the gorge on a cold winter's day.

What then is the takeaway? Only that the walls of the gorge are unstable, and that any human activity that might destabilize them further should be permitted only after careful, site-specific slope-stability assessments. The ban on tractor-trailer trucks from River Road should continue. Blasting near River Road should not be allowed. No development involving deep excavation or high-rise construction should be approved unless the risk of damage to the gorge is shown to be low, using the most advanced assessment techniques currently available.


Thanks to Patrick Sirianni, Dan Davis, and Joel Paradise for their concern for the Niagara Gorge, for noticing the rockslide, for taking pictures of it, and for sharing the pictures with me and the public. Patrick tells me their group includes another member not present that January day, American Lloyd Draper, whose father was killed in the Schoellkopf Power Plant disaster of 1956.


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