Niagara River

Niagara River

Satellite image of the Niagara River. Flowing from Lake Erie in the south (bottom of image) to Lake Ontario in the north, the river passes around Grand Island before going over Niagara Falls, after which it narrows in the Niagara Gorge. Two hydropower reservoirs are visible just before the river widens after exiting the gorge. The Welland Canal is visible on the far left side of this image. (Source: NASA Visible Earth)
Country United States & Canada
Main source Lake Erie
River mouth Lake Ontario
Basin size 684,000 km2 (264,000 sq mi)[1]
Physical characteristics
Length 58 km (36 mi)[1]
  • Average rate:
    5,796 m3/s (204,700 cu ft/s)[2]

The Niagara River (/nˈæɡrə/ ny-AG-ra) is a river that flows north from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. It forms part of the border between the province of Ontario in Canada (on the west) and the state of New York in the United States (on the east). There are differing theories as to the origin of the river's name. According to Iroquoian scholar Bruce Trigger, "Niagara" is derived from the name given to a branch of the locally residing native Neutral Confederacy, who are described as being called the "Niagagarega" people on several late-17th-century French maps of the area.[3] According to George R. Stewart, it comes from the name of an Iroquois town called "Ongniaahra", meaning "point of land cut in two".[4]

The river, which is occasionally described as a strait,[5] is about 58 kilometres (36 mi) long and includes Niagara Falls in its course. The falls have moved approximately 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) upstream from the Niagara Escarpment in the last 12,000 years, resulting in a gorge below the falls. Today, the diversion of the river for electrical generation has significantly reduced the rate of erosion.

Power plants on the river include the Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations on the Canadian side, and the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant (built in 1961) on the American side. Together, they generate 4.4 gigawatts of electricity. The International Control Works, built in 1954, regulates the river flow. Ships on the Great Lakes use the Welland Canal, part of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, on the Canadian side of the river, to bypass Niagara Falls.

The total drop in elevation along the river is 99 metres (325 ft). The Niagara Gorge extends downstream from the Falls and includes the Niagara Whirlpool and another section of rapids.

The Niagara River also features two large islands and numerous smaller islands. Grand Island and Navy Island, the two largest islands, are on the American and Canadian sides of the river, respectively. Goat Island and the tiny Luna Island split Niagara Falls into its three sections, the Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and American Falls. Unity Island lies further upstream, alongside the city of Buffalo.

The Niagara River and its tributaries, Tonawanda Creek and the Welland River, formed part of the last section of the Erie Canal and Welland Canal. After leaving Lockport, New York, the Erie Canal proceeds southwest until it enters Tonawanda Creek. After entering the Niagara River, watercraft then proceed southward to the final lock, where a short section of the canal allows boats to avoid the turbulent shoal water at the river intake and enter Lake Erie.

The Welland Canals used the Welland River as a connection to the Niagara River south of the falls, allowing water traffic to safely re-enter the Niagara River and proceed to Lake Erie.

The American Falls with Goat Island to its right.


Queenston, Ontario, then known as Queenstown, Upper Canada, in a c. 1805 watercolour by army surgeon Edward Walsh. The Niagara River is clearly visible.

The Niagara River and Falls have been known outside of North America since the late 17th century, when Father Louis Hennepin, a French explorer, first witnessed them. He wrote about his travels in A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America (1698).[6]

The Niagara River was the site of the earliest recorded railway in America. It was an inclined wooden tramway built by John Montresor (1736–1799), a British military engineer, in 1764. Called "The Cradles" and "The Old Lewiston Incline," it featured loaded carts pulled up wooden rails by rope. It facilitated the movement of goods over the Niagara Escarpment in present-day Lewiston, New York.[7]

Several battles occurred along the Niagara River, which was historically defended by Fort George (Canadian side) and Fort Niagara (American side) at the mouth of the river and Fort Erie (Canadian side) at the head of the river. These forts were important during the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. The Battle of Queenston Heights took place near the river in the War of 1812.

The river was an important route to liberation before the American Civil War, when many African-Americans escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad crossed it to find freedom in Canada. The Freedom Crossing Monument stands on the bank of the river in Lewiston to commemorate the courage of the escaping slaves and the local volunteers who helped them secretly cross the river.

In the 1880s, the Niagara River became the first waterway in North America harnessed for large-scale generation of hydroelectricity.[8]

On the Canadian side of the river the provincial agency Niagara Parks Commission maintains all of the shoreline property, except the sites of Fort George and Fort Erie (both National Historic Sites are maintained federally by Parks Canada), as a public greenspace and environmental heritage.

On the American side, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation maintains several state parks that are adjacent to Niagara Falls and the Niagara River.

Today, the river is the namesake of Niagara Herald Extraordinary at the Canadian Heraldic Authority.

Cities and settlements

The Spanish Aero Car crossing the Niagara Whirlpool
Sign in Niagara Falls, Ontario, warning people not to climb over guard rail overlooking the Niagara River

Cities and towns along the Niagara River include:

Name Country
Buffalo  United States
Chippawa  Canada
Fort Erie  Canada
Lewiston  United States
Grand Island  United States
Niagara Falls  United States
Niagara Falls  Canada
Niagara-on-the-Lake  Canada
North Tonawanda  United States
Porter  United States
Queenston  Canada
Tonawanda (City)  United States
Tonawanda (Town)  United States
Wheatfield  United States
Youngstown  United States


The Niagara River is listed as a Great Lakes Areas of Concern in The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada.


The Niagara River has a long history of both road and rail bridges spanning the river, both upstream and downstream of the Falls. This history includes numerous bridges that have fallen victim to the harsh conditions of the Niagara Gorge, such as landslides and icepacks.


Niagara Glen features many rapids downstream of Niagara Falls

The following parks are located along the Niagara River:

Name Country
Beaver Island State Park  United States
Bowen Road Park  Canada
Broderick Park  United States
Browns Point Park  Canada
Buckhorn Island State Park  United States
De Veaux Woods State Park  United States
Dufferin Islands Natural Area  Canada
Earl W. Brydges Artpark State Park  United States
Falkner Park  United States
Fisherman's Park  United States
Floral Clock Park  Canada
Fort George National Historic Site  Canada
Fort Niagara State Park  United States
Gratwick Riverside Park  United States
Griffon Park  United States
Jayne Park  United States
Joseph Davis State Park  United States
King's Bridge Park  Canada
MacFarland Park  Canada
Niagara Falls State Park  United States
Niagara Glen Nature Reserve  Canada
Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens  Canada
Nike Base Park  United States
Queen's Parada Park & Memorial Park  Canada
Queenston Heights  Canada
Riverside Park  United States
Strawberry Island State Park  United States
Sugar Bowl Park  Canada
Veterans Memorial Park  United States
Queen Victoria Park  Canada
Whirlpool State Park  United States

A Niagara River Greenway Plan is in progress in the United States.

Hydrologic Features

Feature Location Country Notes Photo
Source of Niagara River 42°54′16″N 78°54′21″W / 42.904325°N 78.905869°W / 42.904325; -78.905869  Canada
 United States
The Niagara River originates at the north-east end of Lake Erie, and flows north to its mouth at Lake Ontario.
Black Rock Canal 42°54′25″N 78°54′07″W / 42.90706°N 78.902053°W / 42.90706; -78.902053  United States Black Rock Canal flows within and parallel to the east shore of the Niagara river near Buffalo, New York, and was built to extend the navigation period in the Niagara River through a greater part of the winter.[9] The canal begins at Buffalo Harbor, on the north-east shore of Lake Erie, then flows north, ending at the Black Rock Lock near the north tip of Unity Island. The canal is buffered from the Niagara River by Bird Island Pier at its south end, and Unity Island at its north end.
Gould Ditch 42°55′14″N 78°54′42″W / 42.920689°N 78.911785°W / 42.920689; -78.911785  Canada Historic tributary. Once served as a drainage ditch for Gould National Battery plant.[10]
Scajaquada Creek 42°55′45″N 78°53′57″W / 42.929091°N 78.899056°W / 42.929091; -78.899056  United States Tributary.
Frenchman's Creek 42°56′34″N 78°55′39″W / 42.942648°N 78.927391°W / 42.942648; -78.927391  Canada Tributary.
Chippawa Channel 42°57′12″N 78°56′15″W / 42.953344°N 78.937626°W / 42.953344; -78.937626  Canada
 United States
The north-flowing Niagara River bifurcates at the south tip of Grand Island (both sections rejoin at the north tip). "Chippawa Channel" is the river passage on the west side of Grand Island.
Miller Creek 42°57′19″N 78°58′31″W / 42.955315°N 78.97537°W / 42.955315; -78.97537  Canada Tributary.
Tonawanda Channel 42°57′39″N 78°55′46″W / 42.960757°N 78.929386°W / 42.960757; -78.929386  United States When the Niagara River bifurcates at Grand Island, the east passage—from the south tip of Grand Island, to a point just north of Tonawanda, New York—is the "Tonawanda Channel".
Baker Creek 42°58′22″N 79°00′29″W / 42.972761°N 79.008039°W / 42.972761; -79.008039  Canada Tributary.
Black Creek 42°58′52″N 79°01′25″W / 42.980999°N 79.023499°W / 42.980999; -79.023499  Canada Tributary.
Boyer's Creek 43°00′07″N 79°01′46″W / 43.00194°N 79.029508°W / 43.00194; -79.029508  Canada Tributary.
Two Mile Creek 43°00′39″N 78°54′24″W / 43.010845°N 78.906555°W / 43.010845; -78.906555  United States Tributary.
Little River (at Tonawanda Island) 43°01′23″N 78°53′06″W / 43.022926°N 78.884969°W / 43.022926; -78.884969  United States Flows between Tonawanda Island and the New York mainland, within the Tonawanda Channel.
Tonawanda Creek 43°01′24″N 78°52′54″W / 43.02338°N 78.881707°W / 43.02338; -78.881707  United States Tributary.
Spicer Creek 43°01′31″N 78°53′39″W / 43.025279°N 78.894153°W / 43.025279; -78.894153  United States Tributary on Grand Island, New York.
Big Sixmile Creek 43°01′35″N 79°00′42″W / 43.026494°N 79.011773°W / 43.026494; -79.011773  United States Tributary on Grand Island, New York.
Little Sixmile Creek 43°01′43″N 79°00′37″W / 43.028502°N 79.010217°W / 43.028502; -79.010217  United States Tributary on Grand Island, New York.
Niagara River Channel 43°02′09″N 78°53′38″W / 43.035772°N 78.893809°W / 43.035772; -78.893809  United States When the Niagara River bifurcates at Grand Island, the east passage—from a point just north of Tonawanda, New York, to the north tip of Grand Island—is the "Niagara River Channel".
Gun Creek 43°02′58″N 78°54′57″W / 43.049455°N 78.915728°W / 43.049455; -78.915728  United States Tributary on Grand Island, New York.
Usshers Creek 43°03′05″N 79°01′21″W / 43.051282°N 79.022577°W / 43.051282; -79.022577  Canada Tributary.
Burnt Ship Creek 43°03′40″N 78°59′51″W / 43.060987°N 78.997493°W / 43.060987; -78.997493  United States Tributary on Grand Island, New York.
Woods Creek 43°03′44″N 78°58′37″W / 43.062335°N 78.976958°W / 43.062335; -78.976958  United States Tributary on Grand Island, New York.
Welland River 43°03′46″N 79°02′53″W / 43.062711°N 79.047961°W / 43.062711; -79.047961  Canada Historic tributary. Became a man-made distributary—from the Niagara River to a point 5 km west—in order to supply water to an intake channel for Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations.
Underwater intake tunnel to Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations 43°04′02″N 79°03′14″W / 43.067124°N 79.053959°W / 43.067124; -79.053959  Canada
Little River (at Cayuga Island) 43°04′23″N 78°57′06″W / 43.073167°N 78.951724°W / 43.073167; -78.951724  United States Flows between Cayuga Island and the New York mainland, within the Niagara River Channel.
Cayuga Creek 43°04′33″N 78°57′46″W / 43.075894°N 78.962753°W / 43.075894; -78.962753  United States Tributary.
Underwater intake for tunnel to Niagara Power Project 43°04′38″N 79°00′57″W / 43.07725°N 79.015796°W / 43.07725; -79.015796  United States
Horseshoe Falls 43°04′38″N 79°04′30″W / 43.077289°N 79.075127°W / 43.077289; -79.075127  Canada Located between the Canadian mainland and Goat Island, New York, the Horseshoe Falls is the largest, and most south-western of three parallel waterfalls over-which the Niagara River flows. There is dispute as to whether the Horseshoe Falls lies entirely within Canada (see Niagara Falls#History).
Gill Creek 43°04′42″N 79°01′33″W / 43.078292°N 79.025838°W / 43.078292; -79.025838  United States Tributary.
Goat Island Channel 43°04′50″N 79°03′38″W / 43.080612°N 79.060535°W / 43.080612; -79.060535  United States The Niagara River bifurcates at the south-east tip of Goat Island. "Goat Island Channel" is the north-east passage around the island.
Bridal Veil Falls 43°05′02″N 79°04′15″W / 43.083781°N 79.070776°W / 43.083781; -79.070776  United States Located between Goat Island and Luna Island, Bridal Veil Falls is the smallest (and middle) of the three parallel waterfalls over-which the Niagara River flows. It is entirely within the US.
American Falls 43°05′06″N 79°04′10″W / 43.084866°N 79.069462°W / 43.084866; -79.069462  United States Located between Luna Island and the New York mainland, the American Falls is the most northern and second largest of three parallel waterfalls over-which the Niagara River flows. It is located entirely within the US.
Muddy Run Falls 43°06′54″N 79°03′45″W / 43.114972°N 79.06252°W / 43.114972; -79.06252  Canada Historic tributary which entered the Niagara River as a waterfall from the top of the Niagara Gorge. Development above Muddy Run Falls destroyed its water supply.
Whirlpool Rapids 43°06′58″N 79°03′45″W / 43.116006°N 79.062488°W / 43.116006; -79.062488  Canada
 United States
Colt's Creek Falls 43°07′11″N 79°04′19″W / 43.119757°N 79.071929°W / 43.119757; -79.071929  Canada Tributary which enters the Niagara River as a waterfall from the top of the Niagara Gorge. The volume was greatly diminished following construction of the canal to Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations.
Niagara Whirlpool 43°07′13″N 79°04′10″W / 43.120219°N 79.069526°W / 43.120219; -79.069526  Canada
 United States
The Niagara Whirlpool is a natural whirlpool along the Niagara River located along the Canada–US border between New York and Ontario. The whirlpool is located in the Niagara Gorge, downstream from Niagara Falls. The whirlpool's greatest depth is 125 feet (38 m).[11]
Harvie Falls 43°07′19″N 79°04′28″W / 43.12206°N 79.074311°W / 43.12206; -79.074311  Canada Tributary which enters the Niagara River as a waterfall from the top of the Niagara Gorge. The volume was greatly diminished following construction of the canal to Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations.
Devil's Hole Rapids 43°08′01″N 79°03′03″W / 43.133547°N 79.050901°W / 43.133547; -79.050901  Canada
 United States
Bloody Run Falls 43°08′06″N 79°02′50″W / 43.134987°N 79.047275°W / 43.134987; -79.047275  United States Tributary which enters the Niagara River as a waterfall from the top of the Niagara Gorge. The volume was greatly diminished following construction of Robert Moses State Parkway and other streets above the falls.
Niagara Power Project 43°08′35″N 79°02′23″W / 43.142957°N 79.039807°W / 43.142957; -79.039807  United States
Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations 43°08′51″N 79°02′39″W / 43.147419°N 79.04406°W / 43.147419; -79.04406  Canada
Smeaton Falls 43°09′23″N 79°02′46″W / 43.156275°N 79.045998°W / 43.156275; -79.045998  Canada Tributary which enters the Niagara River as a waterfall from the top of the Niagara Gorge. The volume was greatly diminished following the construction of Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations.
Spring Cave Cascade 43°09′26″N 79°02′40″W / 43.157348°N 79.044372°W / 43.157348; -79.044372  United States Historic tributary which entered the Niagara River as a cascade from caves in the wall of the Niagara Gorge. Its source was destroyed following construction of the Niagara Power Project.
Fish Creek Falls 43°09′32″N 79°02′41″W / 43.159018°N 79.04459°W / 43.159018; -79.04459  United States Tributary which enters the Niagara River as a waterfall from the top of the Niagara Gorge. The volume was greatly diminished following the construction of the Niagara Power Project.
Locust Grove Falls 43°09′33″N 79°02′51″W / 43.159183°N 79.047532°W / 43.159183; -79.047532  Canada Tributary which enters the Niagara River as a waterfall from the top of the Niagara Gorge. The volume was greatly diminished following the construction of Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Power Stations.
Mouth of Niagara River 43°15′46″N 79°04′14″W / 43.262722°N 79.070646°W / 43.262722; -79.070646  Canada
 United States


Several islands are located on the upper river upriver from the falls:

Name Location Country Status Notes
Bird Island Buffalo  United States Filled in Connected to Unity Island in 1822 as part of improvements to Black Rock harbor.[12]
Brother Island Niagara Falls  United States Located near Niagara Falls and the Three Sisters Islands.
Buckhorn Island Grand Island  United States Park Located on the north end of Grand Island. A state park.
Cayuga Island Niagara Falls  United States Residential Located at the mouth of Cayuga Creek; a residential neighborhood of the city.
Cedar Island  Canada Filled in Filled in by the creation of the William Birch Rankine Power Station by Canadian Niagara Power Company in 1905.
Deer Island Niagara Falls  United States
Dufferin Islands Niagara Falls  Canada Park Man-made islands. Parkland.
Frog Island  United States Submerged/reconstructed Was located in the Upper Niagara River between Motor Island and Strawberry Island. Disappeared due to erosion sometime between 1951 and 1985.[13] Re-created beginning in 2007 as a habitat for fish, waterfowl, and aquatic plants.[14][15]
Goat Island Niagara Falls  United States Park located at the brink of the American Falls, named by John Stedman in the 1770s; briefly renamed to Iris Island by General Augustus Porter, a United States Commissioner (after the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow).
Goose Island City of Tonawanda  United States Man-made/filled in Was located at the confluence of Tonawanda Creek and the Tonawanda Channel of the Niagara River. Existed from 1825, when the Erie Canal was constructed (thereby cutting Goose Island off from the mainland) until the 1940s, when this portion of the canal was filled in.
Grand Island  United States Developed The largest island on the river; includes several parks, but is mostly residential and industrial; originally called Ga-We-Not (Great Island) by the Seneca.
Grass Island  United States Filled in Filled in during the 1960s to create the Robert Moses Parkway at Point Day.
Green Island Niagara Falls  United States Originally called Bath Island, it was renamed in the early 1900s for Niagara Reservation Commissioner Andrew H. Green.
Gull Island Niagara Falls  Canada
Hogg Island  Canada Filled in Filled in by the creation of the Chippawa Queenston Power Canal in 1917 and finally by the Sir Adam Beck Dam #2 in 1950 by the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario.
Little Beaver Island Grand Island  United States Park Located off the south end of Grand Island; part of Beaver Island State Park.
Luna Island Niagara Falls  United States Park Park located next to Goat Island; originally called Prospect Island
Motor Island Grand Island  United States Park Also known as Pirates' Island (the name of a private club once located there) and Frog Island (not to be confused with the Frog Island listed above).[16] A New York State Wildlife Management Area.
Navy Island Niagara Falls  Canada Park Designated as a National Historic Park.
Rattlesnake Island Town of Tonawanda  United States Filled in Was located just south of what is today the South Grand Island Bridge. Was filled in sometime between 1915 [17] and 1927,[18] concurrent with the heavy industrial development of the area.
Robinson Island Niagara Falls  United States Named for daredevil Joel Robinson in 1860.
Ship Island & Brig Island  United States
Strawberry Island Town of Tonawanda  United States Park A small island, formerly much larger but diminished by gravel mining and erosion.[19] An undeveloped state park and wildlife preserve.[20]
Three Sisters Islands Niagara Falls  United States Park Park located next to Goat Island; was originally called Moss Islands and later renamed for the three daughters of War of 1812 United States Army General Parkhurst Whitney (Asenath, Angeline and Celinda Eliza) in 1843.
Tonawanda Island North Tonawanda  United States Developed Occupied by a marina and several industries.
Tower Island  United States Man-made Man-made island created in 1942 by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Unity Island Buffalo  United States Developed Home to Broderick Park, Unity Island Park, and a waste-water treatment facility.
Willow Island  United States Man-made/filled in Man-made island created in 1759 by Daniel Joncairs and filled in during the 1960s to create the Robert Moses Parkway.

Military posts

United States Coast Guard Fort Niagara Station was once a United States Army post. There are no Canadian Coast Guard posts along the river. Fort Mississauga, Fort George and Fort Erie are former British and Canadian military forts (last used 1953, 1965 and 1923 respectively) and are now parks.


On the Canadian side the Niagara Parkway travels along the River from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie.

NY 18F lines the river on the state side from Fort Niagara to Lewiston. Niagara Scenic Parkway on the state side only travels along the River from the Falls to Lewiston. The remaining river sections (with some interruptions) are covered by the LaSalle Expressway, NY 384, NY 266 and I-190 (Niagara Thruway) / New York Thruway.

See also


  1. 1 2 "Facts & Figures - Niagara Parks, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada" (online). Retrieved May 30, 2007.
  2. Water Resources Data New York Water Year 2003, Volume 3: Western New York, USGS
  3. Bruce Trigger, The Children of Aataentsic (McGill-Queen's University Press, Kingston and Montreal,1987, ISBN 0-7735-0626-8), p. 95.
  4. Stewart, George R. (1967) Names on the Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company; p. 83.
  6. Hennepin, Louis. A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903. Accessed December 8, 2008.
  7. Porter, Peter (1914). Landmarks of the Niagara Frontier. The Author.
  8. Electricity and its Development at Niagara Falls. University at Buffalo, June 2004. Accessed December 8, 2008.
  9. "Black Rock Canal". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved Jan. 3, 2013.
  10. "Chemicals of Concern in the Niagara River Tributaries - 1988-89". Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy, Queen's Printer for Ontario, 1993.
  11. "Whirlpool State Park - Niagara Falls, New York". 1935-09-13. Retrieved 2011-08-20.
  14. Pignataro, T.J. (August 22, 2015). "Restoration of Frog Island hailed as Buffalo comeback story". The Buffalo News. Retrieved April 10, 2016.
  16. Island Dispatch, 16th June 1989
  19. "Strawberry Island - Motor Island Shallows Coastal Fish & Wildlife Habitat Assessment Form" (PDF). NYS Department of State. October 15, 1987. Retrieved April 10, 2016.
  20. "Grand Island: NYPA approves contract for Strawberry Island wetland restoration, habitat improvement". Niagara Frontier Publications. March 30, 2015. Retrieved April 11, 2016.

Further reading

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Niagara River.
Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Niagara.

Coordinates: 43°04′41″N 79°04′37″W / 43.078°N 79.077°W / 43.078; -79.077

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