Niagara Falls Power Station Is Restored and Repurposed

These turbines are part of a remarkable story of an electric dream.

Turbine Hall

David Lasker Photography

Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde described Niagara Falls as "the first disappointment in the married life of many Americans who spend their honeymoon there." And that was long before between 50% and 75% of the water was diverted to hydroelectric power stations. However, even if the falls are less spectacular than they once were, the infrastructure for generating electricity remains impressive.

This is especially the case in early buildings like the Canadian Niagara Power Company Powerhouse, which sits nearly 1,500 feet (457 meters) above Horseshoe Falls. Construction for the plant started in 1901 and it continued producing power through 2006. As an active power station, it was almost miraculously preserved and is now restored and repurposed into an "iconic, safe and accessible educational and entertainment attraction."

Niagara Falls and power station

Niagara Parks Commission

+VG Architects describe some of the interesting aspects of the history of what is now called the National Parks Power Station (NPPS) and its role in the famous current wars between Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison:

"In 1897, the Canadian Niagara Power Company (CNPC) selected the Westinghouse Company to supply two 10,000-horsepower, 8,500-kilowatt, alternating current (AC) generators for its new generating station in Niagara Falls, Ontario. CNPC’s choice of AC and Westinghouse as the project’s supplier capped a tumultuous struggle between Thomas Edison and William Kelvin, who proposed using direct current (DC) as a safer method, and George Westinghouse and his partner Nikola Tesla, who developed an AC generator that made it possible to supply electricity over long distances to a vast geographic area. This was the technological breakthrough that facilitated the electrical industrial revolution and remains the worldwide standard into the 21st century."

David Lasker Photography

Notwithstanding the fact that I believe Edison was right and the home of the future will run on direct current, it made sense in 1897 when you could use transformers to change the voltage of alternating current and transport it much longer distances than you could with direct current. And it is all still there:

"NPPS is the only power station in the world of its size and vintage with its original equipment intact. The complex comprises a gathering weir, and ice-screen barrier and outer forebay, inner forebay, generator hall, office administration block and control room, wheel pit, tailrace tunnel and the adjacent Niagara Parkway Bridge."
look at those doors
Now those are high-security doors.

David Lasker Photography

We do go on here at Treehugger about how restoration, reuse, and revitalization are so important, and being turned into a tourist attraction isn't top of our list of preferred uses. On the other hand, it's better than Louis Tussaud's Waxworks and the usual Niagara Falls attraction in terms of educational value—and one certainly doesn't want to lose all this glorious machinery.

It's no historic reconstruction, either: "Because of the powerhouse’s excellent condition, +VG focused its approach on stabilized conservation, instead of restoration or renovation, treating the building’s cumulative history and all its layers as a living document."

Rheostats at NPPS
Giant rheostats at the NPPS.

David Lasker Photography

The rheostats are incredibly cool, and "beginning in July 2022, a new glass-walled elevator will descend 180 feet (55 metres) down through the power station’s eight underground levels to the wheel-pit floor, where visitors will walk along the tailrace tunnel, past interpretive media installations, to the portal where anew viewing platform will extend into the lower Niagara River at the base of Horseshoe Falls."

Adam beck statue
Adam Beck's statue in Toronto, Canada.

Toronto Public Library

The history of electricity in Ontario is fascinating and decisions made a century ago still resonate here. The Canadian Niagara Power Company was privately owned but a few years later, Adam Beck imagined building more power plants and creating a massive publicly owned electrical water-powered infrastructure to electrify the province.

I wrote earlier: "He built huge, efficient water-powered generating facilities around the province. His slogan was 'dona naturae pro populo sunt,' which translates to 'the gifts of nature are for the public.' There wasn't much demand for electricity yet, so he was going to use much of that power to run an electric railway system from Buffalo up to Lake Simcoe. He had a true vision of the future, and it was all-electric."

Hydro radial Proposals
Sir Adam Beck's hydro radial proposal.

John F. Due / Upper Canada Railway Society

But the car was taking over and Beck was accused of "irrational optimism," pushing streetcars at the start of the automobile age. His projects were canceled after a change of government in the 1920s, and with it, the dream of an all-electric Ontario. The public utility he built, Ontario Hydro, continued to operate until 1999 when it was broken up and sold for parts by a radically conservative government in what has been called by Michael Barnard as "a typical case of ideology and greed." Those turbines have many stories to tell.

View Article Sources
  1. "Water Diversion Over the Falls." Niagara Falls Canada.