Waterfalls are dear to most people, like rainbows. The sights and sounds of them have a universal appeal, restful and calming. There are some exceptions, like that tiny horror in the sheer north face of the Eiger that some climbers had to negotiate to reach the summit, or the dangerous falls an out-of-control boat is approaching. Pretty to look at, waterfalls can have a darker side.

They also have a history. Waterfalls actually have two kinds of history – a beginning and an end for themselves, and an impact on other kinds of history, such as human history.

The life history of a waterfall is described succinctly by the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In essence, a waterfall is an area where flowing river water drops abruptly and nearly vertically. Rivers tend to smooth out the bumps and depressions in their flow by processes of erosion and deposition. Elevated areas within the river get worn away, and the holes filled up with sediment. The river forms a smooth curve, steepest toward the source, most level towards the mouth. Waterfalls interrupt this curve, and their presence is a measure of the progress of erosion.


“Within a river’s time scale, a waterfall is a temporary feature that is eventually worn away….With the passage of time… the inescapable tendency of rivers is to eliminate any waterfall that may have formed.”

Nothing lasts forever.

The world’s tallest waterfall is Angel Falls, rising 3,212 feet above the floor of the a Venezuelan jungle. If you would like to jump from the top of it, there are expeditions planned so that people can do just that. Of course, there is a fee. An internet site explains. “COST: $5500 U.S. PER PERSON. This will cover virtually everything from the moment we arrive in Caracas until our departure. Flights to and from Caracas are additional. Alcohol, trinkets and beads are also additional.”

Angel Falls is in southeastern Venezuela and in a terrain so remote and difficult to get to that it was unknown to Venezuelans until the early 1930s. Overland access is blocked by a huge steep slope. Venezuelans were able to survey the region with aircraft, and they discovered the falls in 1935. Because of the dense jungle surrounding it, the waterfall is still best observed from the air. Angel Falls was named for James Angel, an American adventurer who crash-landed his plane on a nearby mesa two years after the falls had been discovered.

In 1971 three Americans and an Englishman climbed the sheer rock face of the falls in an adventure that took ten days. Climbing waterfalls is popular among some. When they reach the top, they say they have “conquered” the falls, which is the same claim they make about mountains.

A very famous waterfall is a small one, tucked into the Allegheny Mountains not far from Pittsburgh. Its distinction stems from the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who built a house called “Fallingwater,” cantilevered over the falls. Begun in 1936 and completed the following year, Wright designed the house for Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann as a weekend retreat. Probably Wright’s most-admired work, it was later given to the state and was opened to visitors. Wright had a sense of humor, which is apparent in some of his work, and in several quotes. My favorite is “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.” Fallingwater was never a house that needed vines.

Henry Stanley, a New York Herald reporter, is supposed to have said “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” That quotation is probably much more famous than the man who inspired it. That was David Livingstone, a Scot who arrived in Africa in 1840 at the age of 27 as a missionary and physician. He remained in Africa exploring the continent’s interior for the rest of his life. He lost an argument with a lion, losing his arm in the encounter, but continued undeterred.


In 1855, he became the first European to witness the magnificence of Victoria Falls. He wrote of the experience, “It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”


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