A whitewater prodigy that has been visited by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Mark Twain, Niagara Falls has been attracting travelers from all over the world for at least two centuries. But until now, a huge tunnel, hidden in the depths of the waterfall, was inaccessible to visitors.
And now, the 670-meter tunnel, built over a century ago on the Canadian side, is open to the public to show the staggering scale of these engineering marvels.
As of July 2022, it is part of a visit to the decommissioned Niagara Parks power plant that began a year earlier. Studying it offers a fascinating glimpse into this groundbreaking work that helped bring this corner of North America into the modern era.
The power plant, which operated from 1905 to 2006, diverted water from the mighty Niagara River to power giant generators that electrified regional industries and helped Buffalo’s nearby Great Lakes port become known as the City of Light.
The area around the waterfall, according to the head of the plant, Elena Zorich, was once the center of activity for entrepreneurs interested in profiting from the exploitation of hydroelectric power.
The Adams hydroelectric plant was the first to open, operating on the American side from 1895 to 1961. On the Canadian side, the Ontario Power Company operated from 1905 to 1999 and the Toronto Power Station from 1906 to 1974.
At present, the Niagara Park Power Plant is the world’s only completely intact hydroelectric power plant of its time. Originally operated by Canada’s Niagara Power Company, it used Westinghouse generators to create alternating current patented by inventor Nikola Tesla, cutting-edge technology at the time.
The plant, as the tour guide Zoric explained to the visitors, was built at a time when aesthetics prevailed. Its rustic limestone façade and blue tiles were an attempt by New York architect Algernon S. Bell to integrate the structure with the waterfall, she says.
Before entering the tunnel, factory visitors are shown a scale model of the impressive engineering structures used to convert turbulent waters into electricity.
Zorich shows where the water entered, where it flowed along an axis to power turbines, and where it followed a tunnel to a drop point at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara’s three falls.
Marcelo Gruosso, senior director of design and operations at the Niagara Parks Commission, has been involved with the project since its inception in 2017.
“The plant started with two generators, and around 1924 all 11 that we see here today were installed,” he says, walking across the high-ceilinged room to point out a row of blue cylindrical generators taking up space.
“Next to each generator was a “regulator” that regulated the water supply to the turbine. An air brake on the regulator helped regulate the flow. It took exactly 250 rpm to get 25 hertz.”
A glass elevator takes visitors to a depth of 55 meters, passing through six levels of infrastructure needed to generate hydroelectric power. At the bottom of the tunnel, through which the water came out.
The tunnel, almost eight meters high and six meters wide, is also a unique historical landmark and is included in the price of the entrance ticket to the power plant.
“It took thousands of workers four years to dig the shale under the main generator room using flashlights, dynamite, picks and shovels,” says Gruosso.
“On the way down, the water caused the turbine blades to spin,” says Gruosso. “They were connected to a 41 meter long shaft that reached the main floor and caused the generator rotor to rotate, generating alternating current.”
Walking down the arched passage of the tunnel, he points to white chalk marks that almost reach the top of the vaulted brick walls.
“You can see the height that the water reaches,” he says. “The tunnel contained 270,000 liters of water, which moved at a speed of nine meters per second.”
But like a fortress, the gently curving tunnel consists of four layers of brick and 46 centimeters of concrete surrounded by slate.
“It’s amazing how they could do without electricity,” says Gruosso.
“We repaired the brick a bit and added bracing to the arch to keep the structure intact, but it is in excellent condition. It has only been serviced twice since it was built, once in the 50s and once in the 90s.”
Toward the end of the tunnel, the space begins to fill with roar. And natural light pours in, as the path leads to a 20-meter observation deck, at river level, almost at the foot of the Ferradura waterfall. Gruosso has to shout to be heard over the incessant roar.
“Here the water from the tunnel poured into the river. This is the best place to see the waterfalls.”
The platform also offers visitors a high vantage point from which to watch tour boats filled with raincoat-clad passengers bobbing like cork plugs at the base of the falls.
To round out the experience at the power plant, there’s an evening show called “Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed.” This light and sound experience traces the history of the plant, including 3D projections of bubbling water, turbines and electrical sparks.
It takes about two hours to visit the power plant and the tunnel, but staying overnight is recommended to watch the night show. Accommodation ranges from luxury hotels overlooking the falls like the Hilton to budget establishments like the Days Inn.
As for dining, Niagara Falls was once a place exclusively for hot dogs and french fries. O fast food remains, but fate has raised its level. There are menus available cook based on local produce at Niagara Park venues including Table Rock House and independent restaurants such as AG with home grown produce.
Also worth visiting is Niagara Boulevard, which runs along the Niagara River and can be explored on foot or on a rented bike. Stops along the route include the Whirlpool Lookout and the Sir Adam Beck Power Plant, a monolithic waterfront structure currently contributing to the Southern Ontario power grid.
A trip to Niagara Falls is energizing in many ways. It is a place of natural beauty, but it can make us think about the natural forces that continue to shape our lives in modern times.