The Power and the Glory

Nature makes history at Niagara Falls.

Photos and text: Maureen Littlejohn

Mesmerized by the thundering of white water, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Niagara River as it made its descent at Horseshoe Falls. There was a magnetic pull coming from the largest of the three waterfalls that make up the landmark known as Niagara Falls. It’s a power that humans harnessed more than a century ago at the Canadian Niagara Power Company generating station.

I was there on a little getaway from Toronto to reset and recharge. Historic sites, a winery, a boat ride were all on my list, but top of my must-dos was a tour of the city’s latest attraction.

Completed in 1905, the province’s first green power station produced alternate current hydroelectricity for Fort Erie, Ont., and Buffalo until it was decommissioned in 2006. Now owned by the Niagara Parks Commission, it has been renamed the Niagara Parks Power Station. The industrial heritage site offers tours that give visitors a glimpse of how early hydro power worked.

Walking through the heavy copper doors, I paid my admission and joined a group led by tour guide Elena Zoric. “You must have noticed the rusticated limestone exterior and blue roof tiles of the building. That was the New York architect Algernon S. Bell’s attempt to make the structure blend in with the falls,” she explained.

The interior was just as striking. Huge windows allowed the sunlight to stream in upon rows of massive blue generators. Standing in front of a scale model of the plant, Zoric pointed to where the water came in, ran down a 170-foot tunnel to power the turbines, and then exited at a discharge point at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. Next year that tunnel will be open to the public, as well.

She explained that it was thanks to the genius of Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla and the foresight of industrialist George Westinghouse that alternating current (AC) won out over Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC). AC is what powers our cities today. The Niagara Power Plant has nine Tesla patents, including the Electro Magnetic Motor and the Dynamo Electric Machine.

The first station to open in the area was the Adams hydroelectric power plant on the United States side in 1895. It closed in 1961. On the Canadian side, other plants included the Ontario Power Company, opening in 1905 and decommissioned in 1999, and the Toronto Power Company which operated between 1906 and 1973.

The Niagara Power Plant is the only one open to the public as a museum. The building houses repurposed artifacts, interactive exhibits and interpretative installations. “In 1905, the plant had 127 workers, they started out as janitors and window washers and learned as they went along. There were not a lot of engineers here at the time,” Zoric explained.

Later that evening I dined at Table Rock House Restaurant, complete with stunning falls view, and then walked back to the power station for an evening presentation called Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed. The lights were dimmed and then suddenly the walls came alive with 3D projections of surging water, turbines and sparks of electricity. The floor was also lit up with interactive designs. Music and narrative paired with the visuals, sweeping me up into the power plant storyline.

After the show, I headed to the Old Stone Inn. An independent boutique accommodation, it was once host to Princess Diana, Olympian Dorothy Hamill and Pierre Trudeau (the owners still have the lectern he used during a speaking engagement). Quiet and chic, it offered a welcome respite after a busy day…and a lovely, flower-infused nightcap in the bar.

The next morning, I bought a ticket for the Niagara City Cruises’ Voyage to the Falls boat tour which runs to the end of October and starts up again in the spring. I was a child when I first ventured to the falls in a vessel, and I remembered squealing in terror and delight as we neared the pounding water. Donning the red poncho handed to me at the gangway, I stepped aboard and headed to the bow. As we inched closer to the falls, the sound of crashing water grew louder and louder. Staring straight ahead all I could see was a thick wall of mist. Then it covered me, soaking anything that wasn’t covered by the poncho.

The whole trip took 20 minutes, but my adrenaline rush lasted well into my next adventure, a brush with history. Ferries have transported tourists along the Niagara River to see the falls since the 1854. But, 42 years earlier, visitors to the region were soldiers not sightseers. The Napoleonic Wars caused Britain to adopt various measures that angered the Americans and they declared war on Britain, attacking the British colonies and forts throughout Upper and Lower Canada. The War of 1812 saw many skirmishes throughout the Niagara region.

In the Niagara Falls History Museum, I viewed exhibits that outlined the various strategies of the two sides.  Shawnee chief Tecumseh allied his forces with the British hoping to stem the tide of American settlers infringing on his people’s lands. Tecumseh and British General Isaac Brock were killed in battle and Tecumseh’s wish to protect his people came to nought. The bloodiest clash, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, occurred just up the hill from the museum in what is now the Drummond Hill Cemetery. Each side saw almost 900 men killed or wounded. The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.

Steeped in Niagara Falls history, I was almost ready to head back to Toronto. But first I stopped in at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery just outside Niagara Falls in St. David’s. Located on a 100-year-old farm, the property has been owned and operated for five generations by the Lowrey family. They specialize in small-batch organic VQA wines, grow their own vegetables, and raise chickens, goats and pigs. Wood oven pizza is a specialty and I opted for the Cup’n’Char pepperoni version. The pepperoni rounds were crunchy with just the right about of spice, sitting atop a robust tomato sauce and chewy, charred crust. Delicious.

Mind and belly full, it was time to hit the highway and ponder on all I had seen.

No matter how often you visit, the power of Niagara Falls never grows old.

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