A huge tunnel has been opened under Niagara Falls

A huge tunnel has been opened under Niagara Falls

Tourists can go out to the platform to view Niagara Falls. Until this year, the huge tunnel buried deep in the cascade was off-limits to visitors. (Niagara Parks)

Approximate reading time: 5-6 minutes

NEW YORK. Visited by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Mark Twain, Niagara Falls has been a magnet for world travelers for at least two centuries. But until this year, the huge tunnel buried deep in the cascade was off-limits to visitors.

The rocks below the massive triple falls, which straddles the border between New York state and Ontario, Canada, have been carved with honeycombs to harness the mighty forces of nature that thunder overhead.

And now, on the Canadian side, a 2,198-foot tunnel built more than a century ago has opened to reveal the sheer size of these engineering marvels.

As of July 2022, it is part of the decommissioned Niagara Parks Power Station tour that began a year ago. Exploring it provides a fascinating look at the pioneering 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 industry and helped make the nearby Great Lakes port of Buffalo known as the City of Light.

The area around the waterfall, according to the station’s tour guide Elena Zoric, was once a hub of activity for businessmen looking to cash in on the use of hydropower.

The Adams Hydroelectric Plant was the first to be opened and operated by the United States 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.

Mixed architecture

Today, the Niagara Parks station is the world’s only completely intact hydroelectric station of its era. Originally operated by Canada’s Niagara Power Company, it used Westinghouse generators to generate alternating currents patented by inventor Nikola Tesla, cutting-edge technology at the time.

The factory, as tour guide Zorich explains to visitors, was built at a time when aesthetics ruled. Its rustic limestone exterior and blue roof tiles, according to New York architect Algernon S. It was Bell’s attempt to merge the structure with the falls.

Before reaching the tunnel, visitors to the power plant are shown a scale model of the massive engineering works that have been carried out to convert waste water into electricity.

Zorick shows where the water entered, where it flowed down a shaft to power the turbines, then through a tunnel to an outlet at the base of Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara’s three cascades.

Marcelo Gruoso, senior director of engineering and operations for the Niagara Parks Commission, has been involved with the project since it was first introduced in 2017.

“The plant started with two generators, and by 1924 all 11 were installed that you see here today,” he says, walking through the high-ceilinged building, pointing to a row of blue, cylindrical generators that fill the space. :

“Next to each generator is a ‘governor’ that regulated the flow of water to the turbine. An air brake in the governor helped regulate the flow. They needed exactly 250 rpm to give 25 Hertz.”

Some kind of

A glass elevator takes visitors down the 55-meter-high six levels of infrastructure needed for the hydropower generation process. Below is the tunnel where the water will come out.

The tunnel, which is almost 8 meters high and 6 meters wide, is also a historical, unique attraction and is included in the price of admission to the power plant.

“It took thousands of workers four years to excavate the shale beneath the main generator using flashlights, dynamite, pickaxes and shovels,” says Gruoso.

“The water was being spun by the turbine blades as it came down,” says Gruoso. “They were connected to a 41 meter long shaft that went up to the main floor and turned a rotor in an alternator, generating alternating current.”

Walking along the tunnel’s archway, he gestures to chalky white tracks that reach almost to the top of the arched brick walls.

“You can see how high the water went,” he says. “The tunnel contained 71,000 gallons of water moving at nine meters per second.”

Built like a castle, the gently curving tunnel consists of four layers of brick and 18 inches of concrete and is surrounded by slate.

“It’s amazing what they did without electricity,” Gruoso notes.

“We did some minor brickwork repairs and added rock anchors to the arch to ensure structural integrity, but it’s in really good shape. They’ve only ever serviced it twice since it was built, once in the 1950s and once in the 1990s.”

A unique sight

A rumble fills the air at the end of the tunnel. Natural light streams in as the trail leads out to a 20-meter river-level observation deck located almost at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Gruoso must shout to be heard over the incessant bushes.

“This is where the water from the tunnel overflowed into the river. It’s the best place to see the waterfall.”

The platform also allows visitors to sit down to watch tour boats filled with passengers in rain ponchos bobbing like corks at the base of the falls.

To complete the power plant experience, there is an evening show called “Currents. Niagara Power Transformed’. The light and sound experience traces the history of the power station and includes 3D projections of water, turbines and electricity sparks.

A visit to the power plant and tunnel takes about two hours, but an overnight stay is recommended to attend the evening show. Accommodations range from upscale Falls hotels like the Hilton to budget establishments like the Days Inn.

It is here that the water from the tunnel overflowed into the river. It is the best place to see the waterfall.

-Marcelo Gruoso, Niagara Parks Commission

When it comes to dining, Niagara Falls was once strictly a hotdog and fries town. Fast food is still around, but the destination has upped its game. Chef-inspired, locally sourced menus are available at Niagara Parks establishments, including the Table Rock House restaurant, as well as independent dining spots like AG, which features produce from its own farm.

Also worth checking out is the Niagara Parkway, which winds along the Niagara River and can be explored on foot or by rental e-bike. Stops along the way include the Whirlpool Lookout and the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station, a monolithic structure along the river that currently contributes to southern Ontario’s electrical grid.

A trip to Niagara Falls is energizing in many ways. It’s a place of natural beauty, but it can also make you think twice about the natural forces that continue to shape our modern lives.


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