A Challenging Jewel Transformed at Niagara Falls State Park

Thundering waterfalls! Dangerous rapids! Towering ice! Quicksand!

If it sounds like the plot of a Hollywood adventure movie, these engineering obstacles surmounted during the rebuilding of the nation’s oldest state park at Niagara Falls fit the bill.

Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized this massive, seven year, nearly $65 million revitalization project at Niagara Falls State Park as one of nine nationwide nominees for its Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.

Established in 1960, this prestigious award honors the project that best illustrates superior civil engineering skills and represents a significant contribution to civil engineering progress and society. Honoring an overall project rather than an individual, the award recognizes the contributions of many engineers.  

Other past winners and nominees have included the new World Trade Center, Cowboys Stadium and seismic protection upgrades to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

This nomination for Niagara Falls recognized the complex and dangerous challenges in working in a place where 45 million of gallons of water a minute cascade over the 167-foot waterfalls and where freezing temperatures turn water into thick coats of ice. And that this work had to be done while the park remained open year-round to millions of visitors who come from all over the world.

A portion of the viewing area of the American Falls. In the distance (upper center), are the viewing areas at Luna Island and Goat Island. Horseshoe Falls is in the upper distance. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Overseen by the global engineering firm of T.Y. Lin International, work at the park involved 21 separate projects, including bridges, roads, parking, pathways, observation areas, railings, landscaping, electrical, mechanical and drainage systems all spread across the 400-acre facility, its three waterfalls – American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe – and its five islands – Luna, Goat and Three Sisters. The entire park is now ADA-compliant, and accessible to all.

To start, engineers initially had to inspect the condition of the existing infrastructure at America’s oldest state park, established in 1885 and inspired by the landscape design principles of Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who had overseen the design of Central Park in New York City. These inspections included assessing Luna Island’s pedestrian bridge, which spans the Niagara River a mere 80 feet from the roaring precipice of Bridal Veil Falls.

This white-knuckle account in the March 2020 of Civil Engineering magazine describes what had to be done: “… the team inspected the underside of the bridge at night – using specialized rigging – to avoid conflict with ongoing construction at Luna Island and the patrons occupying the Hurricane Deck 167 feet below… Supported by a system of cables and aluminum platforms suspended just two feet above the flowing river, the engineers performed their hands-on inspection of the existing stone-clad, cast-in-place concrete arch bridge.”

And how much fast-flowing, thundering water that is. On average, 3,160 tons of water flows over Niagara Falls every second. This accounts for 75,750 gallons of water per second over the American and Bridal Veil Falls, and 681,750 gallons per second over the Horseshoe Falls.


Above, engineers suspended above the brink of Bridal Veil Falls as they inspect the pedestrian bridge between Goat and Luna islands. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)

A few feet away from the workers was the brink of Bridal Veil Falls. And this is what it looks like over the edge to the base of the falls and the Cave of the Winds viewing decks…


Similar engineering and contracting work was required to bring new utilities – such as water and sewer, electrical service, fiber optics and telecommunications – from the mainland to Goat Island suspended underneath a 700-foot vehicle bridge over the river. Goat island separates Bridal Veil Falls from the American Falls.

This work “required safety harness tie-offs and specialized scaffolding – all of which required prior approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York State Department of Transportation.”

At other times, engineers, landscape architects and work crews had to deal with ice caused by the freezing of the constant mist over the falls, and the damage that freezing and thawing would do to rocky surfaces where walls and railings would have to be anchored.

There were some unanticipated man-man obstacles found in what was a heavily developed industrial area prior to becoming a park and generations of infrastructure had to be vetted. Ground-penetrating radar and seismic monitoring equipment were used to map the underground structures to determine whether to excavate or build around them.

And even the ground itself could be unpredictable. As described in the Civil Engineering magazine: “The park presented varying subsurface and poor soil conditions, for example, hidden pockets of soil with a consistency akin to quicksand that created design challenges and potentially hazardous conditions for the contractors.”

In an aerial shot of American Falls, the new Luna Island viewing area can be see at the right edge, with Bridal Veil Falls immediately to its right, , while the decks at the Cave of the Winds is at the bottom right. (Photo credits – NYS Parks)
The new Luna Island viewing area at Bridal Veil Falls, which is ADA accessible. (Photo credit – NYS Parks)

Niagara Falls was rebuilt as one of State Parks flagships under the NY Parks 2020 initiative. In addition to the $65 million spent on these projects, over $55 million more as been spent expanding green space north and south of the park as well as creating a new welcome plaza. So, for those who have not been to Niagara Falls for a while, now is the time to see the new and improved State Park, where engineers and other workers prevailed in a harsh and challenging environment to help bring the park into the 21st century.

The project was funded through Governor Cuomo’s Parks 2020 initiative and the New York Power Authority, via the Niagara River Greenway Fund.

The team that helped make this work and national engineering honor happen included:

T.Y. Lin International managed a team of consultants that included the LA Group,Saratoga Springs, which provided landscape architecture services; McMahon & Mann Consulting Structural Engineers, Buffalo; Foit-Albert Associates, Buffalo/Albany/New York, which provided architecture, engineering and surveying support; PGAV Destinations and Design Island, St. Louis/Pittsburgh, which created the new Cave of the Winds Experience.

The award winner and two runners-up be be chosen Oct. 8, 2021 during the ASCE Convention in Chicago, IL.  

Use this slideshow below to tour the revitalized Niagara Falls State Park…

And the map below shows the layout of the falls, the islands and the various infrastructure projects in the park’s revitalization..

Use the slider bar on this map to locate Goat and Luna islands, and some of the projects involved in the revitalization of Niagara Falls State Park.

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


Learn more about how Frederick Law Olmstead advocated for the creation of Niagara Falls as the nation’s first state park in this 2011 book published by The Urban Design Project, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo.

2 thoughts on “A Challenging Jewel Transformed at Niagara Falls State Park”

  1. Like many other Niagara Falls residents I never thought I would see the parkway, Island, and approaches to the Falls a thing of beauty. Congratulations to everyone who was involved, Engineers, Botanists, Historians, Committee’s, and Parks personnel. It all looks magnificent. A destination to be proud of.

    1. I agree. I work right down there and walking throughout the park last year (sometimes locals take it for granted) I was amazed at the transformation!. The addition of the pond and beautiful botanicals along the beginning of the rapids and all throughout! The addition of the new boats! Cannot wait to try those out! So quiet you can hear the birds!

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