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People used to walk to Canada across frozen-over Niagara Falls. An accident changed everything.

People on snow-covered ice at the base of the frozen American Falls, Niagara Falls, New York, c. 1883. (Source: Library of Congress)

As temperatures drop in the northeast corner of the United States, icy water that goes over the roaring Niagara Falls crashes into the rocks below and turns solid. Blocks of ice floes freeze together, forming a solid mass wide enough to connect the United States and Canada.

It’s called the ice bridge. Children in the late 1880s rode their sleds there, tourists strolled between the two countries, and entrepreneurs sold food and hot drinks from makeshift concession stands. A “sharp rogue,” as the Niagara Falls Gazette described a man on Feb. 14, 1883, built a shanty of boards in the middle of the massive bridge – right on the line between the two countries, where no laws apply – and sold liquor.

Mounds of ice piled up high enough to almost reach the top of the falls. One early-20th-century photo, published in “Niagara Falls: 1850-2000” by Paul Gromosiak and Christopher Stoianoff, showed children playing dangerously close to the rapidly falling waters as they stood at the top of an ice mountain.

Such was the geological wonder of the ice bridge and the three falls that form Niagara Falls in New York. American and Bridal Veil falls are next to each other on the U.S. side. Horseshoe Falls, the biggest of the three, straddles both countries. Collectively, more than 3,000 tons of water flows over the falls each second, making Niagara Falls a major source of hydroelectric power for the United States and Canada.

Gromosiak, a Niagara Falls historian, described to the Buffalo News in 2004 what it was like to be there:

“All the trees were bowing to the river, with the weight of ice on their branches. And I looked up at the sky and saw this vortex of ring-billed gulls, thousands of them. . . . The natural scene overwhelms the artificial scene around it. Especially on a day when the ice bridge is massive and you have huge mounds of ice below the American Falls, ice on all the trees, the sun shining and the rainbow in the sky. It diminishes even those skyscrapers on the Canadian side.”

But behind the white, pristine beauty was a tragedy that changed the history of Niagara Falls.

About three-dozen people were on the ice bridge that broke at noon on Feb. 4, 1912. A large block of ice fell on the bridge, causing it to crack and the floes to break apart. Many made it to either side of the bridge; three didn’t.

Eldridge and Clara Stanton were paralyzed with fear as they stood on a moving ice floe. Clara collapsed, while Eldridge screamed for help. They held each other, looking like a mere dot in a photo taken from a distance. Farther up to their left was Burrell Hecock, who would’ve made it to the Canadian side had he not stopped to help the Stantons after hearing the screams. Together, they were swept to their deaths.

Their bodies were never found.

Walking over the ice bridge is no longer allowed.

Visitors take photographs at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ont., Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. Almost every year frigid temperatures transform the falls into an icy winter wonderland when the mist is blown back, freezing on the landscape. (Aaron Lynett/The Canadian Press via AP)

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