In the winter of 1678, Father Louis Hennepin became the first white man to view Niagara Falls in person. He’d probably read descriptions written by others recounting Native American tales that were supported by the distant roar of a great deal of crashing water, but he was the first European to describe first-hand what he saw.
And it must have been a pretty awe-inspiring sight. He begins, “Betwixt the Lake Ontario and Erie, there is a vast and prodigious cadence of water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner, insomuch that the Universe does not afford its parallel.”
Father Hennepin goes on to describe how wild beasts, getting caught up in the current are cast over the edge to fall 600 feet, without so much as a barrel for protection.
A few months later, Henry de Tonty visited Niagara Falls and estimated its height at a about five hundred feet. And ten years after that Baron Louis Armand de Lom D’Arce Lahontan said of the falls, “‘tis seven or eight hundred foot high…”
Of course all of these early explorers were wrong. By a lot. Horseshoe Falls is actually an average of only 188 feet tall (still a long way for an unfortunate beast or a crazy person in barrel to tumble) which means it doesn’t even crack the top 500 of tallest waterfalls on Earth, let alone in the entire universe.
But I understand the exaggerated estimates of some of the early accounts. My husband and I recently left the kids with grandparents and traveled to the world’s first honeymoon capital to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary. I saw the Falls once when I was a teenager, but this was his first trip. We stayed on the (prettier) Canadian side, a couple miles downriver from the falls and followed a very nice paved walkway toward them. As the roar of rushing water grew, he squeezed my hand more tightly, and when he caught his first glimpse of American Falls (a mere 70 to 100 feet high), he simply said, “Wow!”
Then we rounded the bend toward Horseshoe Falls and he was momentarily out of any words at all (I guess he doesn’t have quite the way with words that Father Hennepin did and never thought to describe the plight of wild beasts plummeting to their deaths). But then maybe the right words to describe that kind of sheer natural power don’t exist outside of hyperbole.
Like later explorers to the area, my husband (who is also not as spatially challenged as Father Hennepin) probably could have made a fairly reasonable guess at the height, partially because his travel companion had already picked up a dozen or so brochures about the area. And like us, later arrivals either grabbed a brochure at the welcome center or didn’t manage to see any wild beasts tumble over the edge so their estimates wound up closer to the truth. In 1750, Swedish botanist Petre Kalm, in a letter to a friend in Philadelphia, belittles Father Hennepin, calling him “the Great Liar,” and going on to report the (closer) height of 137 feet.
But personally, I think Father Hennepin had it right, because regardless of what taller waterfalls may exist in the world, or may be yet to discover in the wider universe, as far as this spatially challenged writer is concerned, Niagara is vast and prodigious, surprising and astonishing, unparalleled in the Universe, and is at least 600 feet tall.