For many, the word “waterfall” conjures a distinct image of an idyllic, semi-secret place that can be accessed only by committing to an arduous hike through the woods. This, of course, isn’t always the case.
Across North America, there are a handful of significant waterfalls located smack dab in the downtown core of major cities. For what they lack in seclusion or unspoiled natural beauty, these urban waterfalls — most of them natural or once-natural features of rivers — make up for in history-changing impact. These are the waterfalls that America’s early manufacturing hubs sprayed forth from. After all, what’s a bustling 19th century mill town without a raging, hydropower-producing waterfall in the middle of it?
1. High Falls — Rochester, New York
Perched on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, New York’s third most populous city, Rochester, is famed as a tech-centric innovation and manufacturing hub, birthplace of Eastman Kodak, the Xerox Corporation, Bausch & Lamb and others. However, the presence of the High Falls, a roaring waterfall on the Genesee River that’s smack dab in the middle of the city, serves as a potent reminder of Rochester’s early days as a bustling flour mill boomtown.
In fact, during the first half of the 19th century, bustling Rochester reigned as America’s so-called Flour City with dozens of mills lining the mighty Genesee. However, Rochester’s flour-milling heyday didn’t last long, and by the 1850s, the city’s economy was dominated by plant nurseries. Yep, within just a couple of decades, the Flour City had become the Flower City.
Today, the 96-foot-tall cataract often referred to as a mini-Niagara is a popular stopover for Niagara Falls-bound tourists — a little taste (emphasis on little) of what’s to come 90 minutes down the road, if you will. The surrounding Brown’s Race Historic District, home to the High Falls Center and Interpretive Center and the pedestrians-only Pont De Rennes Bridge, is chock-full of gritty, post-industrial charm. And for an authentic Rochester experience, no visit to High Falls and the lower Genesee River Gorge is complete without a pilgrimage to the Genesee Brewing Company. Established in 1878, it’s New York’s oldest brewery and one of the oldest continually operating breweries in the U.S. (Try a Cream Ale and a Zweigle’s White Hot.)
2. Idaho Falls — Idaho Falls, Idaho
If you show up in the outdoor recreation-blessed burg of Idaho Falls expecting to be blown away by raging urban rapids or a cataract of significant height in the middle of the Gem State’s fourth-largest city, you might be disappointed as Idaho Falls’ signature waterfall system is only 20 feet tall and largely man-made.
Idaho Falls wasn’t even Idaho Falls until 1891 when the residents of Eagle Rock, Idaho, voted to change the town’s name to reflect a series of picturesque natural rapids on the Snake River. In the following years, the falls were converted into a man-made hydroelectric diversion dam with a 600-foot-wide concrete spillway filling in for natural cascades. Whatever the case, the falls, located along a lovely urban greenbelt system, remain one of downtown Idaho Falls’ top attractions.
While Idaho Falls’ namesake waterfall may not be all that huge of deal (both figuratively and literally), this isn’t to say the state of Idaho is lacking in show-stopping natural cascades. Follow the Snake River along a roughly two-hour drive to the southwest of Idaho Falls and you’ll come face to face with the mighty Shoshone Falls, a horseshoe-shaped behemoth that, at 212 feet tall, towers 45 feet higher than Niagara Falls. (Hey, they don’t call it the Niagara of the West for nothing.)
3. Niagara Falls — Niagara Falls, Ontario
Niagara Falls, hypnotizing honeymoon destination for the ages, can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. For those who find themselves wandering about mist-drenched and dazed, it helps to remember the numbers: three waterfalls (Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls), two countries (the U.S. and Canada), two cities with the same name (Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario), four wax museums, 22 Tim Hortons locations and a couple hundred heart-shaped Jacuzzi tubs.
That said, Niagara Falls is about as urban as urban waterfalls can get. So then, what Niagara Falls city is the best? A tough question, given that they’re so different. Home to Niagara Falls State Park, the city of Niagara Falls, New York, is smaller and less intense than its Canadian counterpart. It’s touristy, no doubt, but it’s also more subdued, approachable, even a bit old-school.
Niagara Falls, Ontario, is a significantly larger and, for better or worse, kitschier city. Case in point is Clifton Hill, a neon-lit promenade best described as the hyperactive Canadian lovechild of the Las Vegas Strip and the Coney Island Boardwalk. Home to a Ferris wheel, no less than five haunted houses and about 1,001 places to buy fudge, Clifton Hill is a three-Advil type of diversion. The city’s casinos, botanic garden, indoor aviary and space-age observation tower also lure in the falls-peeping masses. And it’s no big secret that Canada rules when it comes to knockout panoramic views of North America’s most spectacular trio of waterfalls.
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