The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions

The Cave of the Winds is a must-see attraction for Niagara Falls visitors. Find out what makes this ancient cavern so special.

Nestled behind the Bridal Veil Falls, on the American side of the Niagara Falls, lied the Cave of the Winds; what was once a natural cavern, which developed over time as the Lockport Dolostone rock eroded.

Nowadays the Cave of the Winds offers visitors the closest view of the falls, bringing them a mere 20 feet (6 meters) from the roaring water. Today the site is a thriving tourist attraction, but this incredible location has been wowing visitors since the early 19th Century. 

Early visits to the area were a far more dangerous affair than today's trips, and it has taken over a century to create the safe, enjoyable destination that you see today. 

The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions
Source: Char/Flickr

Discovering the Cave of the Winds: A Dangerous Peek Behind the Falls

The Cave of the Winds was officially discovered by Joseph W. Ingraham in 1834. Ingraham was the author of one of the first travel guides on the Niagara Falls, and it is said that he had spotted the cave from atop the gorge.

Though Ingraham was the first to discover the cave, he was not the first to venture inside. That honor fell to Barry Hill White and George Sims. White and Sims named the cave after the Greek god of wind, Aeolus. However, Ingraham rejected this name and later renamed it the Cave of the Winds.

At the time of its discovery the cave measured 130 feet high (40 meters), 100 feet wide (30 meters), and had a depth of 100 feet (30 meters). In the early days of visiting the site, access was only granted by taking a ladder or rope down into the gorge. From there, visitors would have to trek by foot under dangerous conditions to get as close to the cave as they could.

Despite the dangers involved in visiting the Cave of the Winds, tourists continued to arrive at the site in hordes. Noticing the earning potential of the cave, official efforts began in 1829 to turn the area into a safer, more profitable enterprise.

The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions
Source: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building/Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/Wikimedia Commons

This began with the construction, and subsequent opening, of the Biddle Staircase; a wooden structure containing a metal staircase that led from Goat Island down into the cave. The staircase featured small viewing points where visitors could enjoy scenic vistas of the falls.

In 1841 official guided tours were offered to visitors through the area.

The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions
Source: The New York Public Library

Creating A Tourist Attraction: The Perils of Early Tours to the Cave

Though a consistently popular destination throughout its history, the Cave of the Winds suffered its fair share of tragedies during its early days as an attraction.

The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions
Source: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building/Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/Wikimedia Commons

Tragedy struck when, in August 1857, a group of tourists at the base of the gorge were greatly injured by a rock fall. Among the injured were George Parsons, a tourist from Cleveland, who suffered a fractured skull. Thankfully the rock fall resulted in no fatalities, but it was a sobering reminder of the dangerous surroundings of the cave.

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By 1879 the Cave of the Winds was operated as an attraction by brothers Augustus and Peter Porter. The Porter Brothers started charging $1 per person visiting the site. 

The next tragedy to befall visitors at the Cave of the Winds would happen in September 1920, when another rock fall from within the cave occurred. Sadly, this rock fall would result in the deaths of three tourists. Many others were injured.

Despite these two events, work on transforming the site into a viable commercial attraction continued in earnest. In 1924 guests could trek along a series of walkways to the front of the cave.

1925 saw the introduction of elevators that would take tourists to the bottom of the cave. Thanks to the popularity and success of the elevators, the Biddle Staircase was demolished in 1927. At this time the Cave of the Winds became one of the most popular must-see attractions at Niagara Falls.

The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions
Source: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr

Closing the Cave: A New Era for the Cave of the Winds

Sadly, the Cave of the Winds was not built to last. By the 1950s rock falls had become far more common due to erosion, and the mouth of the cave had become extremely weak and dangerous.

The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions
Source: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building/Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/Wikimedia Commons

The depth of the cave had been reduced to just 30 feet (9 meters) in the intervening years, owed in large part to the frequent rock falls. In 1954 a major rock fall all but destroyed the cave, leaving a dangerous overhang of unstable rock. 

Upon the advice of a series of engineers, the decision was made in 1955 to demolish what remained of the cave with dynamite. It was the end of an era, but a necessary move towards keeping the area safe for all who visited. Though the cave was no more, the area remained an important and popular Niagara Falls attraction.

The Cave of the Winds: The History of One of Niagara Falls’ Biggest Attractions
Source: Lasart75/Wikimedia Commons

The Cave Today: A Fascinating Look At the History of the Falls

Today the Cave of the Winds boasts a number of attractions for tourists, including a walkway up to the Bridal Veil Falls, and a recently-opened educational center.

The Cave of the Winds center is located in the Niagara Reservation State Park in New York. The 221 acre (0.89 km squared) park is a tourist attraction unto itself, boasting stunning views of the Bridal Veil Falls, the American Falls, and a portion of the Horseshoe Falls.

Visitors can take an elevator 175 feet (53 meters) deep into the Niagara gorge. From there, a guide will lead you across the site's Hurricane Deck. These redwood decks allow visitors to get up close and personal with the raging waters of the falls. 

During the colder seasons, visitors can still enjoy spectacular views of the falls from the covered observation decks. 

Elsewhere on Goat Island is the new World Changed Here Pavilion, and the Drawn to the Edge Room. Here you can learn about the history of the falls, and the history of the influence of the falls in early experiments in hydroelectricity. This includes pieces on Nikola Tesla, and how the power of the falls inspired his work. A statue of Tesla also overlooks the Bridal Veil Falls.

After almost 200 years of triumphs and tragedies, the Cave of the Winds remains a must-see spot for all visitors to the Niagara Falls.