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Erosion at Niagara Falls*.

Slowness has really nothlng to do with the question. An event is not an more intrinsically intelligible
or inintelligible because of the pace at which it moves. For man who does not believe in
a miracle, a slow miracle wouId be just as incredible as a swift one.

(1925, 21)

Charles Lyell, author of the theory of uniformity, visited Niagara Falls in October 1841 (K. Lyell 1881, 2:58). Quite possibly as he travelled in the horse-drawn coach over the Canadian roads of the day, he recalled one of his earliest childhood memories that had been vividly fixed in his mind at the age of four. The event took place while his family was travelling in two coaches from Scotland to their new home in England. A short distance from Edinburgh, on the narrow road with a steep hill on one side and a sharp drop on the other, the horses pulling the first coach were frightened and took off at a gallop. The coach overturned; there was a broken window though nothing more serious, and the party was on its way again (K. Lyell 1881, 1:2).

The event made a lasting impression on Lyell's mind, which some have suggested was the cause of his particular aversion to catastrophes. This may neatly fit into classical psychoanalytic theory, but the only fact we can be sure about is that Lyell attempted to explain every natural rock formation in terms of the very low rates at which we see changes taking place today-rivers changing their course, cliffs being eroded by the waves of the sea, and then, during his visit to Niagara, the rate of recession of the falls (K. Lyell 1881, 2:60).

Niagara Falls - 19th c.

Niagara Falls at about the time of Lyell's visit. Table rock in the foreground and the lighthouse on the opposite side of the Falls have long since disappeared. (Lithograph by F. Salathé after a painting by H.V. Sebron, 1852; Public Archives of Canada, C-2266

The Niagara River originally poured over the rim of the Niagara Escarpment just above the present village of Queenston, Ontario, carrying the waters of Lake Erie from south to north and emptylng into Lake Ontario. Gradually the waters tumbling over the escarpment eroded a channel into the bedrock to form a gorge that moved the falls in a southern direction closer to Lake Erie. The present-day Niagara Falls and the seven-mile gorge are thus part of a long-continuing process. Lyell's purpose in visiting this famous landmark was to determine, if possible, how long ago the Niagara River waters began falling over the escarpment.

Lyell talked to a local inhabitant and was told that the falls retreat about three feet a year. He assumed that this was an exaggerated claim and concluded that one foot a year would be a more likely figure (Lyell 1867, 1:361). On the basis of this guess, if was then a simple matter to equate 35,000 feet, or seven miles, as 35,000 years that the falls had taken to cut the gorge from the escarpment to the place if occupied in the year of his visit, which is how he arrived at the figure that he announced to the scientific world. The principle was sound enough, but his method can hardly be called scientific or even honest (Bailey 1962, 149).

In recent years the estimate has been revised downward, but in the mid-nineteenth century it had a most significant impact on the common man's beliefs. Lyell's Principles of Geology, as already mentioned, was published in 1830-33, and although it was met with opposition at first, if eventually became the standard work on the subject for the next fifty years, running to twelve editions. Charles Lyell became Sir Charles in 1848, principally because of his Scottish landholdings. To the Victorian mind, this title gave his name and books tremendous credibility and authority; in a similar way today, the news media seek out a scientist with a legitimate Ph.D. when they want an authoritative scientific opinion. Lyell's figure of 35,000 years for the cutting of the Niagara gorge was thus accepted as an actual measurement made by a gentleman of integrity and quite beyond dispute. For the next few generations this estimate served wonderfully to demolish any credence in Archbishop Ussher's date of creation and made the attempt to finish once and for all the orthodox belief in the Mosaic Flood, which was alleged to have occurred a mere four-and-half thousand years ago.

Measurement of the rate of recession of Niagara Falls bas been made periodically since 1841, the date of Lyell's visit, and these published figures show that, far from exaggerating, the local inhabitant was too conservative. A rate of four or five feet a year is closer to the facts (Tovell 1979, 16). Assuming as Lyell did that the rate of recession had always been the same, this measured value reduces the age of the falls to between seven and nine thousand years. Had it been honestly reported in the first place, this would not have been regarded as a refutation, but rather a near confirmation of the Mosaic Flood!

Today's geologist prefers to adopt a cautious figure of twelve thousand years, made on the basis of radiometric tests carried out on some pieces of buried wood discovered in the blocked St. David's gorge, which was part of the original Niagara spillway (Tovel 1979, 17). However, the blocked gorge of Niagara is a story beyond the present purposes, which are to illustrate how a preconception in the mind of one man, Charles Lyell, contributed significantly to the subsequent change of mankind's worldview.
Niagara Falls today

Niagara Falls today showing part of the seven mile gorge that has, until recently, been cut at a rate of four or five feet a year. Dotted lines show the position of Falls at time of Lyell's visit in 1841. (Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation)

* Used with permission.
Excerpt from pages 81-84 In the Minds of Men (1987) by Ian Taylor