As our group approaches a steel overhead door, it begins to open. The roaring Niagara River is heard plunging to the water surface below. As the steel door continues to rise up, water is seen beneath the door. We walk through the opened door and water is flowing at our feet as we are welcomed to a fantastic light and sound show. Currents, Niagara’s Power Transformed, is a 30-minute interactive display projected onto all surfaces inside this decommissioned Canadian Niagara Power Company generating station.
Some people stand in place, others move around exploring the once operational machinery. Sensors recognize each person’s movements causing the projected water on the floor to flow around each of them. We are at the base of the Niagara Falls and the thunderous sound of water crashing at our feet is grand. The only thing missing is the mist laden breeze at our faces. Those who have been on the Hornblower Niagara Cruise, a tourist attraction taking visitors to the base of Niagara Falls will know the feeling. Computer generated children outfitted in rainwear are seen walking and waving at us from behind the waterfalls giving us a perspective of another tourist attraction, Journey Behind the Falls.
The show takes us to the beginnings of the power generating station, the first major power plant on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Construction of the hydro electric plant started in 1901 and, when completed in 1905, was the largest of its kind. It must have been sensational during these early days of electrification, to have light in your home at the flick of a switch. What could it compare to today, the internet, cell phones, the progression to nuclear energy? None would be possible without electricity, the same electricity powering the projected light and sound effects beneath, above and all around us. The show moves through the phases of construction including; digging down 55 meters, the installation of shafts connecting water turbines to generators, erecting the Romanesque architectural style building we see above ground, part of the Niagara River being diverted into the building, the water dropping into the turbines, the turbines spinning and finally electricity being produced. Projecting from inside blue generators and transmitted out are images of electricity streaming its way to homes and industry.
Today’s power plants generate 50 or 60 hertz of energy. This power plant was decommissioned in 2006 after it no longer had clients for its antiquated 25 hertz power supply, one of the last few in the world. Among its last customers was Stelco Steel in Hamilton, Ontario for use in powering their arc furnaces.
After its decommissioning the owners walked away from the site leaving everything behind. For the Niagara Parks Commission which acquired ownership in 2009 this was a blessing. Usually when a company leaves a site all valuable equipment is moved to another location or auctioned off, leaving behind an empty shell. Not in this case, the building and its contents remained unchanged. At the entrance a set of large doors with equally large hinges made of copper greets visitors. Eleven generators painted blue, just as they where prior to closing, make an immediate visual impact. Polished brass control wheels, mosaic tiled floors, control panels with switches dating to the 1920s and much of the plant’s interior remain in excellent condition.
I asked our tour guide if access below the power station was possible. She said “everything below the main floor is untouched, it would be unsafe for a public walk through. There are many hazards; water pipes, wires and steep staircases.” She then explained future plans include constructing a glass sided elevator taking visitors below the power station alongside one of the generators. The 55-meter vertical decent will allow viewing of the mechanical workings down to the bedrock level to observe one of the water turbines. Visitors will then exit the elevator and walk along the 600-meter tailrace tunnel that carried water exiting the turbine back to the Niagara River at the base of the falls.
When the new glass elevator to the bottom becomes available, I’ll be among the first to visit.