9 Unforgettable Urban Waterfalls

Spokane Falls in Washington, water crashing down multiple levels

Linda, Fortuna future / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Across North America, there are a handful of significant waterfalls that serve as centerpieces of major cities. These urban waterfalls — most of which are natural or once-natural features of rivers — are responsible for changing history; they are the power sources that America’s early manufacturing hubs were built on.

Over the decades, many urban waterfalls have been used, abused, and altered as the cities around them eventually changed. Yet, some have survived as tourist attractions or even continue to generate energy.

The following list rounds up nine of the greatest urban waterfalls found in the United States (and a hint of Canada).

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High Falls (New York)

wide view of tall waterfall surrounded by city bridge and buildings on overcast day

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Perched on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, Rochester, New York is famed as a tech-centric innovation and manufacturing hub. However, the presence of High Falls, a roaring waterfall on the Genesee River that’s at the heart of the city, serves as a potent reminder of Rochester’s early days — a bustling flour mill boomtown, powered by hydropower generated by the Falls.

Now more of a tourist attraction than an energy source, the 96-foot-tall cataract is often referred to as a mini-Niagara, and it is a popular stopover for Niagara Falls-bound tourists.

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Idaho Falls (Idaho)

long waterfall at night, with water falling from blue pool onto bed of rocks

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The name Idaho Falls refers to both an aquatic structure and the Idaho city in which it exists. The moniker was inspired by rapids that were part of Snake River, which flows through the city. When a diversion dam was built to use the river's water to generate hydroelectric power, the waterfall was formed.

Idaho Falls are not particularly tall, but they span an impressive length of Snake River.

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Niagara Falls (Ontario, Canada and New York)

aerial view of niagara falls after rainfall with mist thick and high

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One of the most famous waterfalls — urban or otherwise — is the iconic Niagara Falls. It is comprised of three separate waterfalls: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. When these are combined, the total falls span the border between Ontario, Canada and New York. With 3,160 tons of water flowing over the waterfall each second, and at a rate of 32 feet per second, Niagara Falls is capable of producing over 4.9 kilowatts of electricity. This power is shared between the U.S. and Canada.

Niagara Falls and its majesty have always been a point of interest. Historically, it was common for tightrope walkers to walk across the Niagara River Gorge, and almost all of them were successful. However, a number of bold daredevil performers made attempts to go over the falls, many of which were fatal. With stunting outlawed, it now remains a tourism hotspot.

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Falls of the Big Sioux River (South Dakota)

small waterfall surrounded by walls of rocks on sunny day

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The Falls of the Big Sioux River is a three-tier waterfall that cascades over walls of billion-year-old pink quartzite. Every second, an estimated 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet.

In the 19th century, the rise in commercialism caused many to change their view of the Big Sioux River and its falls from a natural wonder to a potential source of power. In 1881, the hydro-powered Queen Bee Flour Mill was erected. However, the river and falls did not provide the necessary power, and it closed within two years. The Falls of the Big Sioux River have since returned to being appreciated primarily for their aesthetic beauty.

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Great Falls (New Jersey)

waterfall behind bridge, surrounded by tall rocks and colorful trees during autumn

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Towering 77 feet over the Passaic River, the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey is the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi by volume (with Niagara Falls taking the title).

In addition to its beauty, the Great Falls harbors important historical significance. This is largely thanks to Alexander Hamilton, who saw the falls' great potential for power and selected Paterson to be the country's very first industrial city. Eventually, Paterson was manufacturing locomotives, silk and cotton fabrics, paper rolls, and more, all thanks to the Great Falls.

Because of this, the falls were designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1967. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historial Park — of which the Great Falls are the centerpiece — officially became a national historical park and is now managed by the National Parks Service.

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Reedy River Falls (South Carolina)

water falling through tan rocks in different pathways on sunny day

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In Greenville, South Carolina, you will find a 32-acre urban park along the Reedy River called Falls Park. It is centered around Reedy River Falls, a large cascade that once powered the city's many mills, from flour mills to ironworks.

Unfortunately, an increase in textile manufacturing and cotton production in the early 1900s led to devasting pollution of the Reedy River and its powerful falls, including damaging chemicals and dyes that discolored the water.

The revitalization of this Greenville landmark began in 1967 when the Carolina Foothills Garden Club reclaimed 23 acres of land with plans to clean it, restore it, and eventually transform it into a public green space. They were successful, and Falls Park is now a popular Greenville attraction, with the Reedy River Falls as the highlight.

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St. Anthony Falls (Minnesota)

wide, low waterfall in front of arched bridged on sunny day

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Found in Minnestoa, St. Anthony Falls began as the only natural waterfall on the Mississippi River. It was sacred to a facet of the Dakota tribe that is indigenous to the area, but when a Belgian Catholic friar named Father Hennepin found it, he renamed it after St. Anthony of Padua.

That said, the natural falls are not the ones we see today. Increased industry in logging, textile manufacturing, and flour production caused irreversible erosion to the shafts and tunnels built to harness the power of the natural falls. When one of those tunnels collapsed in the mid-1800s, locks and dams were built to control the water, and the falls became a concrete overflow spillway.

Though less natural, the new St. Anthony's Falls is still notable. Its 49-foot drop means that it constitutes over 10% of the Mississippi River's height change between Minneapolis and St. Louis, MO.

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Spokane Falls (Washington)

Spokane river cascading down bedrock with red buildings in background

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The Spokane River, its falls, and its city are all named after the Spokane tribe that is indigenous to the area. The waterfall was cherished by the tribe, and it also served as a gathering place for other Native American tribes for everything from fishing to religious ceremonies.

Spokane Falls boasts two distinct sections, the Upper Falls and Lower Falls. In 1889, Washington Water Power was founded to harness their potential for hydroelectricity by building a generator facility. The power created by the cascading river brought the city to life, and it is still used today. It has even continued to be managed by Washington Water Power, though the company has changed its name to Avista.

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Willamette Falls (Oregon)

wide view of large body of water falling toward power plant

Linda, Fortuna future / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Willamette Falls is not flashy, but it is big. The natural, horseshoe-shaped waterfall is the largest in the Pacific Northwest by volume and — with a span of 1,500 feet — the 16th widest in the world.

When the falls and its surrounding land were stolen from numerous indigenous Native American tribes, settlers took advantage of their potential for hydropower. Key industries supported by the Willamette Falls include lumber, flour, wool, paper, and brick. After the last mill at the falls closed in 2011, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project was formed with the goal of improving public access to the waterfall and revitalizing the surrounding city.