Niagara Issues - Art Park Area
P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica
Missouri Botanical Garden
March 8, 2003

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Niagara Issues - Art Park Area


The Artpark area is located at the northern terminus (the mouth) of the gorge of the Niagara River on the New York State side (eastern shore), below the Niagara Escarpment. This area has a deep lineage of cultural history which has been recognized on the state and federal level. The purpose of the following posting is to explore with digital images the surprising hydrological richness and complexity of this area, especially in winter when the water is frozen and the least obscured by tree foliage, and when features may be outlined by snow against the dark, moist and brown soil. Displayed are water features both within the gorge walls and down on the plain of Lake Ontario at the base of the north-facing Niagara Escarpment. The walls of the gorge on the American side face west. They are in shadow longer relative to the western, Ontario, gorge wall, throughout the morning, but receive the afternoon sun, when the Canadian wall is in shadow.


This regime seems to favor a richer development of vegetation on the west gorge bank, rather than the east bank, which also is subject to the desiccating power of the prevailing winds. The calcareous caprock and strata lie above and between layers of sandstone and shale, which appear to be relatively sterile and are less pervious or impervious to the migration of groundwater. The distinctive fracturing of calcareous strata, and their vulnerability to the action of acids that occur naturally in precipitation tend to enlarge these fractures, and to promote rapid runoff from the soil surface on the flat region dissected by the Niagara River gorge. This tends to promote desiccation as well and is a factor in the vegetative species components and plant communities distinctive to both gorge walls.


Seepage and surface runoff is part of the experience of the Niagara gorge.  One striking component of the collection of unique natural features of the Niagara area is this sopping landscape immediately down on the lake plain at the base of the Escarpment. A similar development occurs in Ontario with seeps and springs below Brock's Monument, and which continue in adjacent cultivated areas in the ditching and moist hedgerows of which Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) may be observed.


 One can see the extent to which such runoff has been modified at Artpark through time. The outflow of Fish Creek, that wends its way above the Escarpment but debouches below on the lake plain after diving below soil level at the golf course area above the village of Lewiston, under the Robert Moses Parkway and perhaps the spoil area down on the lake plain, may be seen in the following images.


Almost downstream several tens of yards of the Fish Creek outflow,  is the natural ravine of a seasonal stream (name unknown to this author), whose upper reaches are now underground, and only the outflow is visible.

At the northern boundary of Artpark, at the edge of the parking lot is another modified stream, the outflow pouring over the shaley substrates that compose most of the rather tall lower river banks on both sides of the Niagara.

North of this, on private property is a curious natural outflow, perhaps the aboriginal aspect of the banks along Artpark's western boundary, at the shoreline, is a display of what might be called sheet seepage so rich that a distinctive plant community based on dense mats of calcareous-seep loving moss Didymodon tophaceus has grown for such a long time that the lowest reaches of the mats covering the river bank are turned to stone. 


At the suture between a curious knoll of isolated bedrock, presently called Oak Hill due to its distinctive forest rich in Oak and Hickory species, at least on its western face, and the spoil area filling in the area between the Escarpment and its southern boundary, occurs a pool that was probably once more extensive.

Perhaps originally the areas at the bases of the Escarpments on the lake plain adjacent to the Niagara river were swamps, perhaps even white cedar swamps.  The striking elevation of Oak Hill, called here Scoville's Knoll from historic references to this feature from the 1860's, rising above such a swamp, together with its unusual forest of dry species, aroused the respect of native peoples, such that a distinctive burial construct was made there.


It is suggested here that some of this outflow may be artesian in nature: the point of origin for some of this water may derive from the plain dissected by the Niagara River gorge, south or upstream of Artpark, that migrated north and down through fissures in bedrock to emerge from underground on the lower plain.


The presence of the White Cedar, a species of swamps in the seemingly most unlikely habitat of the exposed calcareous caprock may be explained in part by the seepage present nearly year round in the seepage associated with those strata.


The interesting presence of Phragmites and Purple Loosestrife, two of the classic invasive species and nightmares to managers of natural wetlands, occurs in intimate association with seepage and runoff. It is curious that these species avoid the margins of the Niagara river, but not so any pooling of water in the ditches and quiet outflows of the lake plain.


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