niagaraPanWhen I was a kid, I heard the story of my grandfather’s aunt Isabella Norvell Miller Keith, who in a bout of postpartum depression, of course they didn’t call it that then, supposedly had committed suicide at Niagara Falls. That was all my dad knew.   Later I would discover the full story of Isabella and her suicide.

(For her story see

Current figures place the number of suicides there at more than 2,700 since the 1850s.  I assume that doesn’t include those who went over the falls in a barrel, or similar contraption.

One year, about 1989, we actually saw a pickup truck on the way to the falls with a large ball container in the back, we later heard that the State Police had intercepted a potential attempt to go over the falls in the ball and taken it away.   It is now illegal to go over the falls in any manner for a stunt.

The torrents of the Niagara River above the falls.

The torrents of the Niagara River above the falls.

My grandparents and aunts and uncles lived in East Aurora, New York, near Buffalo,  and  about a one-hour drive from the falls.  Consequently, every time we went there, we also went to Niagara.

The sheer raw power of the falls always amazed me.  The Niagara River (actually not really a river, but a straight between the two Great Lakes) lazily flows by Buffalo, then  as it approaches Niagara at Goat Island it begins to pick up speed.

If the winter had been snowy the amount of water racing toward the falls is truly awesome,  in a manner that boggles the mind.   The water races and churns below the Niagara2Goat Island bridge, a great place to view it as it approaches the falls.   Then plunges over the brink.

Current figures place the flow at 3,160 tons of water going over Niagara Falls every second.   (And that is a reduced flow as some of the water is siphoned off to feed the power plants nearby.)   Down it goes as the mist flys into the sky and obscures the sun.

In the course of my life, I have probably visited the falls 50 or more times.  Since we live in the Finger Lakes area of New York, it is a nice day trip and we go nearly every summer.

We have also gone in the winter, but the American side is hard to reach in deep snow.   We have not gone into Canada  that time of year, although I would suspect there wouldn’t be many tourists to compete with then.  Niagara 038 There is something exhilarating about the Falls.   Some say it’s because there are a great many positive Ions in the air generated when the water plunges over the brink.  These cause a type of euphoria.  I don’t know if this is true, but I will say that watching the water fall and breathing the most, misty air does make one feel good.

Several years ago, I read a great novel about the Falls, East Aurora, and Buffalo: “City of Light.”  It was a murder mystery set at the turn of the 20th century about the battle over the falls and attempts to divert all the water for the production of electricity.  As far-fetched as this seems to us now, there were many industrialists who would have been happy to have seen  this happen.

Aug2014 014

A movement rose up to block this and restore the falls, stripping away the ever-increasing industries that had sprung up along the river.  The result was the creation of the Niagara State Park on the American side of the falls, which restored the area to a more pristine setting.   Even today, a visit to the American side is more park like, whereas the Canadian side has many more tourist attractions along the river.


So we will soon be off to Niagara again, a place that continues to amaze and be part of our ongoing family story.


About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
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