The true story of Leander Colt at the
Niagara River Whirlpool

By Robert J. Miller

It has often been said that Niagara Falls is the most famous address on earth, officially used by cities on both sides of the Canada/US border.

In addition to the magnetism of “the Falls”, the Canadian side also offers a host of tourism lures claiming “the most bizarre and unbelievable” attractions on earth.

Step right up folks and see the oldest water wheel ever invented!” That pitch was never made by Clifton Hill barkers but in 1869 it would have been perfectly true.

Niagara River Waterwheels – A Long History

In 1758 a Frenchman named Daniel-Marie Chabert de Joncaire de Clausonne built the first mill on the Niagara River, a sawmill, on the eastern bank just above the Falls in what is now New York State. Soon after the British routed the French at Fort Niagara, an entrepreneur named John Stedman gained permission to build a grist mill in the same location. Thus started a love affair with Niagara water power that blossomed during the nineteenth century and sparked an industrial revolution on both sides of the Falls. Soon the tailrace discharges of waterwheels and turbines atop the downstream gorge became a tourist attraction in their own right --  second only to the actual Falls.

Tourist Pressures to Access The Niagara Gorge

During the latter years of the nineteenth century, tourism led to a mind-boggling array of ladders, stair cases, elevators and even tunnels to gain access to the base of the Falls and gorge rapids below. Among the elevating devices were eight inclined railways, or funiculars – five on the Canadian side and three on the American. Many conveyed people in small open cable cars along near vertical rail frames which occasionally led to mechanical failures and fatalities.

Little is known about the machinery used to capture power in the gorge rapids but water power was conveyed by steel cables to mills, elevators, incline railways, and even to some of the first hydro-electric generators linked to turbines installed at the edge of the rapids.

Further downstream on the American side, tourists risked life and limb descending a rickety staircase to a sawmill powered again by steel cables and a turbine in the rapids just above the whirlpool. Sensing an opportunity, John M. Buttery of Suspension Bridge NY, purchased the mill in the 1850s and built a safer stairway down into the gorge.  By 1869 Buttery had acquired nearby lands from the DeVeaux College for Orphans & Destitute Children and developed a park with twin elevators efficiently conveying tourists to the Whirlpool Rapids below. The elevators were powered by a set of four steel cables draped on pulleys above the gorge down to a water wheel in a shed at the rapids.  A turbine and hydro generator were eventually added to light the park above, the elevator buildings and even the rapids themselves. The popularity of Buttery’s elevators convinced the Niagara Falls Street Railway to extend a line to the site. The Buttery family ran their elevators for twenty years until they were damaged by a rock slide and removed around 1890 to clear the way for the new Niagara Falls & Lewiston Electric Railway.

Historic image of the Niagara Gorge showing the tailraces on the American side of the border

Tailrace discharges  along the Gorge—American side - Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Falls, Ontario 

View of the Suspension Bridge, showing Buttrey’s sawmill wheel housesView of the Suspension Bridge, showing Buttrey’s sawmill wheel houses - Niagara Falls Public Library

Enter Leander Colt on the Canadian Side

Leander Colt was an American developer with real estate holdings in the Village of Bellevue – a neighbourhood of Niagara Falls New York, also known as Suspension Bridge. For his service in the Civil War, Colt was appointed Postmaster of Suspension Bridge under President Grant.  He built the Colt Block on Main Street and his c.1855 Greek revival stone home on Ontario Avenue was designated a Landmark Building in 2006 by the Niagara Falls Preservation Commission.  The 1860 Census lists him aged 35 with a shoe store, a hardware store, and a personal net worth of $15,000.

In December 1868, eyeing the financial success of the Buttery family elevator at the Whirlpool Rapids, Colt purchased from the new Dominion of Canada, via its agent Dr. Douglas of Fort Erie, Broken Front Lot 74 in Stamford Township, Welland County.

This seven-acre lot, for which Colt paid $250, comprised the brow lands and talus slope from the top of the gorge down to the Whirlpool Rapids along the entire irregular frontage of Lot 74 of Stamford. The property boundary took in almost the entire rim of the Whirlpool on the Canadian side.  Also at that location was a stream, known today as Colt’s Creek, which flows over the edge of the gorge and down into the Whirlpool some 275 feet (85m) below.  This is known today as Colt’s Falls which is not visible from the Niagara River Parkway, but consists of storm water from a stone channel deep beneath the intersection of Victoria Avenue and the Parkway.


The Power of Steel Cables

The Post Office at Suspension Bridge NY, where Colt was Postmaster, was located very close to the Rapids View Incline and Witmer’s Mill next to it – both powered by steel cables connected to turbines running in the Niagara River far below.  He was free to study the gearing in both power houses by simply riding down on the incline close to his office.

Colt may have also been familiar with the work on inclined railways published by the American engineer Robert Fulton. Fulton’s work produced compelling evidence that water-powered inclined railways were far less expensive to build and operate than locks in canal systems.

Fulton’s gearing depended on chains, while Colt had braided steel cables at his disposal.

Engraving of a waterwheel that is connected to a pulley system and railway - person and horse next to the railway

Robert Fulton’s 1796  water-powered incline railway - Image courtesy of Robert J. Miller

 Wheel with a belt hanging off of it. The belt has buckets attached and sits over the Niagara Gorge

Colt’s belted chain of metal scoops - Image Courtesy of the Niagara Falls Public Library, Niagara Falls, Ontario

Leander Colt’s Brainwave

A smile must have crossed Colt’s face when he first saw the waterfall dropping over BF Lot 74 into the valley incised deep into the talus slopes below. Here was a perpetual power supply, high above the Niagara River, which could be harnessed to power an inclined rail down to the very edge of the Whirlpool itself.

A series of rare photographs plus several detailed sketches by Thomas Moran and Mary Nimmo Moran confirm that Colt built a massive breast shot water wheel cantilevered precariously over the south side of the waterfall.  But there was something very unique about his waterwheel - it had no built-in buckets around its outer edge.

Instead, Colt’s design featured a continuous belted chain of metal scoops receiving water from a wooden flume fed by a small dam just above the falls. As the belt passed over the top of the wheel, the back scoops filled producing an enormous weight of water in the chain of scoops hanging on the back side of the wheel. A bevel gear in the photograph confirms that Colt controlled the speed of the gearing in his elevator, as normally would be done in timing mill stone revolutions in a flour mill.

Photographs and etchings also show that Colt’s belt of scoops was incredibly long, reaching down to the first plunge pool at a hard limestone layer in the talus.  At that point the belt began its return route upward as each bucket emptied and followed the belt back up to the wheel for refilling. GIS mapping confirms that Colt’s belted chain extended over 100 feet (30m) in height, making it a loop of more than 200 feet in total length. About 50 buckets are visible in an archive photo but the bottom of the image is cropped – so we will never know exactly how many buckets Colt could fill or empty to control the torque on the wheel, driveshaft and gears above.

Engraving from magazine showing a cantilevered waterwheel over the Niagara Gorge

Colt’s breast-shot waterwheel cantilevered over the south side of the waterfall. Image from Picturesque Canada

Colt Reversed the Elevator Invention of Oliver Evans (1755-1819)

In the 1780s, Oliver Evans and his brother Joseph worked secretly near Philadelphia to invent a series of labour-saving devices for milling grain into flour.  Prompted by inefficient practices of the day, Evans formulated plans for a completely automated mill. His efforts started with paper models of scooping elevators but he progressed to building devices which together became his new system of automated milling.

In a pre-Evans gristmill, millers carried sacks of freshly ground flour up ladders and stairways to the top floor of the mill where it was spread with a rake to cool and dry.

Evans’ elevator raised flour and grain vertically throughout the mill by means of a looped strap of leather with cups that revolved over two pulleys.

 “The grain elevator is a modification of one of the oldest of machines, the “chain of pots,” which has been used for raising water from time immemorial.  Oliver Evans introduced the ancient chain of pots in his mills in the 1780s, for the purpose of transmitting flour and grain to the different floors.”

Engraving of a horse or donkey next to a well that has a bucket system attachedSpanish Chain of Pots

Colt Knew of this Ancient Substitute for Water Wheels

"It is remarkable that this obvious application of it should not have occurred to European mechanicians (sic) previous to the 17th century."

“The chain of pots has been adopted as a substitute for water wheels.  When its motion is reversed by the admission of water into its buckets at the upper part of the chain, it is converted into an overshot wheel—so the chain of pots, has in a similar manner, been made to transmit power and communicate motion to other machines. In locations where there is a small supply of water, but which falls from a considerable height, it becomes a valuable substitute for the overshot wheel, as a first mover.”

(Quotes from Thomas Ewbank, 1842)

Chain of Pots Dates to Ancient Babylon

“The chain of pots commonly used in Spain was in the form and materials identical with those of Egypt and Asia. In Spain the chain of pots has remained in continual use since the conquest by the Romans, and was perhaps previously introduced by the Phenicians (sic). It was also employed there by the Moors in the middle ages.”

“Amytis, the wife of Nebuchadnezzar, was a Mede who felt the loss of the hills and woods of her native land. To supply this loss the famous hanging gardens of Babylon were constructed. They extended in terraces to the top of the city walls. In the upper terrace there was referenced an engine or kind of pump by which the water was drawn up.”

(Quotes from Thomas Ewbank, 1842)

Fortune Conspires Against Leander Colt

“In August 1887, Colt was served with a notice to surrender possession of the Chain Reserve which he occupied, and of the talus where his improvements chiefly lay, by the Parks Commissioners who disputed the title under which Colt claimed. Before title was passed, it was ascertained that the fee to Colt’s lands did not lie in the Dominion Government, and that therefore the sale was irregular.  The Canadian government claimed that the purchase money agreed upon was paid over by the Dominion to the Provincial authorities, and they are therefore entitled to the lands in question. A long litigation followed and the judgment rendered by the Hon. Justice Rose was entirely in favour of the Commissioners' claims to the property, a reference being required to determine the value of the imp rovements made by Colt. The railway company having in the meantime, under their agreement, secured the right to acquire and operate the works referred to, have now pending the question of payment for improvements made, and the extinguishing of all Colt's interest in the premises.”

In 1889 the Colt elevator was damaged beyond repair by a rock slide which took out a major section of it on the central talus slope. One can only wonder if Colt “spiked the guns” before surrendering his brilliant machine to the new Queen Victoria Parks Commission.

Whatever happened, the Colt Elevator was totally inoperable when it was taken over by the Parks Commissioners.


In 1891 the Queen Victoria Parks Commission granted the Niagara Falls Park and River Railroad a charter to operate an electric railroad on Parks Commission lands from Chippawa above the Falls northerly to Queenston.

The Whirlpool Rapids remained a spectacular draw for tourists. In 1916 the Parks Commission opened the Niagara Spanish Aero Car, a cable car suspended by six cables high above the mighty Whirlpool. The southern terminus of the ride is known today as Colt's Point.

Nineteenth century engraving showing couple in foreground looking towards the Niagara River and Gorge. In the distance is an image of the Colt incline railway

The Whirlpool, from the American Side - Image from Picturesque Canada 1881

Nineteenth century photograph of the Whirlpool with a male individual standing on a wooden platform

View of the whirlpool from the upper landing of Colt’s Elevator  Image courtesy of Niagara Falls NY Public Library, Orrin E. Dunlap Collection

Elevator going up the Niagara Gorge with a male sitting in the carColt’s elevator - Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Ontario Public Library


  1. Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Commission, Report 2012.
  2. Tenth Annual Report of the Commissioners for the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park, 1895, p. 42.
  3. A Treatise on the Improvement of Canal Navigation, Robert Fulton, London, 1796, Google ebook
  4. Image Collection, Niagara Falls Pubic Library, Niagara Falls, Ontario.
  5. Picturesque Canada c 1881, Vol. 1, University of Toronto online collection.
  6. Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines to it Raising Water, Including the Progressive Development of the Steam Engine: Ch. 15 The Babylonian Engine, p. 145, Thomas Ewbank, Tilt and Bogue, Fleet Street, London, 1842.
  7. Op. cit., Tenth Annual Report, 1895, p. 42.
  8. Great Gorge Route, Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum, 1997.


Technical Origins of Colt’s Wheel

By Robert J. Miller

A water wheel is a tool designed to capture the energy of flowing or falling water and convert it into useful forms of power, typically used to turn millstones, saws, and other industrial machinery.  The turbines used today to create hydro electricity have their origins in the water wheels of ancient times.

It is believed the first vertical water wheel was invented by a Roman engineer named Vitruvius, who detailed it in his journals dating from 31 B.C. to 14 A.D. This innovation spread among ancient cultures and there is evidence of its use throughout the Roman Empire, Greece, Egypt, India and China.

The design of vertical water wheels was modified over time to elevate water from flowing rivers for drinking and irrigating farmland.  Known as a "noria", this vertical wheel consisted of a very tall narrow undershot design whose rim included a series of containers which were immersed in a flowing river.  The noria was thereby powered by the flowing water itself. The attached containers filled and carried water to the top of the wheel where they tipped their contents into a small aqueduct.

A "sakia" differed from a noria in the way it was powered, and by the fact that it raised water from a source of standing water such as a well. Sakias also used water-scooping pots or buckets attached directly to the wheel, but most used a "pot-garland" or "chain of pots" slung over the wheel which hung down great distances into the water to be raised. The most primitive sakias were driven by a mule or ox which pushed a horizontal wheel with cogs engaged to turn the vertical wheel and thereby lift the chain of pots emptying at the top.

Oliver Evans was the Philadelphia miller who invented the automated grist milling process.  His devices included a "chain of pots" style elevator which automatically moved grain and flour from one machine to another vertically between the mill floors.  In 1790 Evans secured his inventions with the third US Patent ever issued. That document was signed by President George Washington and counter-signed by Thomas Jefferson, who each bought a license from Evans to install his automated elevators in their own grist mills.

"The chain pump, as well as the screw, noria, chain of pots, etc. has been adopted as a first mover. Placed perpendicularly on the side of a precipice, or wherever a small stream of water can be conveyed into its upper orifice, and can escape from its lower one, the motion of the chain is reversed by the weight of the liquid column acting on the pistons. A wheel similar to the upper one is fixed below, over which the chain also passes; and from the axle of either wheel the power may be taken. A patent for this application of the chain pump was granted in England, in 1784."

Colt only had a small stream to work with.  There is no way he could squeeze the power required for his funicular concept out of a regular wheel because he just did not have the supply of water to fill the number of buckets around a regular wheel and keep them full.  Even if he built a weir atop the falls he would drain it down far too fast for enough sustainable water power.  He must have been aware of the 1784 patented English chain pump and Evans' belted chain US patent of 1790.

Together, the Evans belted scoops and the English reversed chain pump were obviously in Colt's mind as he came up with his unique water wheel in Stamford Township.

Illustration showing how water fills pots and moves a water wheel

A modern chain of pots ( Robert J. Miller)


  1. Robert J. Miller, Millstone News, Canadian Chapter of the Society for the Preservation Of Old Mills, Vol. 26, October 2011.
  2. Descriptive And Historical Account Of Hydraulic And Other Machines Book 1, p. 158, Thomas Ewbank, Tilt and Bogue, Fleet Street, London 1842
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