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So long, Niagara Falls
I loved the Old Man of the Mountain. I first saw him as a kid and had been back half a dozen times over the years. It’s 5 hours away from where I have always lived and in a direction I rarely took for any other reason, so imagine my dismay when I woke up to the news, back in May of 03 - The Old Man of the Mountain was gone. My first thought was, gone? What do you mean, gone? Someone swiped him? A 40 foot tall granite likeness of an old man? A mountainside? How do you steal a mountainside? And what do you do with it, once you’ve got it?
Turns out, of course, it wasn’t stolen. It collapsed. The newspapers called it a geologic mishap. (You think?) I called it a tragedy. It wasn’t unexpected. We knew it was going to happen someday, we just weren’t sure when, and someday, in geologic terms, isn’t supposed to mean now.
Daniel Webster, gazing at the Old Man early in the nineteenth century, said the Old Man was proof God came to the New Hampshire mountains to show how men are made. Old Dan was a politician, sure, but you know, if you’re God and you want to make a 40 foot high, craggy profile of a man in granite, northern New Hampshire would be the place to do it.
Anyway, and thinking about the demise of the Old Man, I got to worrying about another of my favorite natural wonders, Niagara Falls. (My wife says I worry too much about things I can’t control.) They wouldn’t steal Niagara Falls, would they? Turns out they already did. Seriously. Back in the 1840s, they turned off the tap.
A Niagara farmer out for a late-night stroll made a sudden realization - if you lived in the vicinity of the falls, the roar was always there and that night, it wasn’t. He had a look and there was no water going over the falls. Daylight came and still without any water and people were astounded and what’d they do? They hurried off to church, thinking the disappearance of the water presaged the end of the world and after church, well, after church they did what any red-blooded American would do once they’d finished their church business - they got down into the riverbed to collect fish and coins and old Indian tomahawks and whatever else was down there. How could they resist? They’d got word from the outside world about the ice flow - big ice chunks at the northeastern tip of Lake Erie had blocked the flow of water, so it wasn’t the end of the world. It was just a temporary interruption. The water would be back, abruptly and without much warning, which didn’t seem to bother the folks down there.
It was 30 hours or so and the water and its roar returned, greatly relieving the folks, all of whom safely removed themselves from the riverbed.
Alas, for Niagara Falls, the joyous return of the water (and there was plenty of whooping and hat-slapping when the tap got turned on again,) the return of the water in 1848 was nothing more than a temporary reprieve. Niagara Falls is doomed. The plunging water erodes the shale at the bottom and as the shale erodes, the limestone overhead collapses. The falls has already walked 7 miles in the 10,000 or so years of its life. Niagara Falls is creeping upstream along the Niagara River and will 1 day plunge into Lake Erie, which seems kind of backward. I mean, the water is flowing downstream to Lake Ontario and the falls is going upstream, to Lake Erie. Weird.
Someday, the falls, like the Old Man, will collapse into a pile of rubble, so if you’ve been thinking about visiting the falls and haven’t got around to it, stop procrastinating. You’ve only got 22,000 years.