When the ice melted, the upper Great Lakes emptied into the Niagara River, which followed the rearranged topography across the Niagara Escarpment. In time, the river cut a gorge through the north-facing cliff, or cuesta. Because of the interactions of three major rock formations, the rocky bed did not erode evenly. The caprock formation is composed of hard, erosion-resistant limestone and dolomite of the Lockport Formation (Middle Silurian). That hard layer of stone eroded more slowly than the underlying materials. Immediately below the caprock lies the weaker, softer, sloping Rochester Formation (Lower Silurian). This formation is composed mainly of shale, though it has some thin limestone layers. It also contains ancient fossils. In time, the river eroded the soft layer that supported the hard layers, undercutting the hard caprock, which gave way in great chunks. This process repeated countless times, eventually carving out the falls. Submerged in the river in the lower valley, hidden from view, is the Queenston Formation (Upper Ordovician), which is composed of shales and fine sandstones. All three formations were laid down in an ancient sea, their differences of character deriving from changing conditions within that sea.

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