A massive tunnel, approximately 670 meters (2,198 feet) long, has opened up beneath Niagara Falls to reveal the incredible scale of these engineering marvels.
The new attraction, which was built more than a century ago on the Canadian side, was off-limits to visitors up until this year.
Visitors are now allowed to explore the tunnel created by an electricity generating company to harness hydro power from the landmark’s fast-flowing waters.
Niagara Falls has been a magnet, drawing global travelers for at least two centuries, and people like Marilyn Monroe and Mark Twain have visited the whitewater wonder.
Giant generators electrified regional industry
Operated from 1905 until 2006, the power station diverted water from the mighty Niagara River to run giant generators. These generators electrified regional industry and contributed to the nearby Great Lakes port of Buffalo becoming known as the City of Light.
According to Elena Zoric, the station tour guide, the region around the waterfall was once a hub of activity for businessmen who wanted to cash in on harnessing hydro power.
The Adams hydroelectric power plant was the first to open in 1895, starting operations on the US side in 1961.
The Ontario Power Company operated from 1905 to 1999 on the Canadian side, and the Toronto Power Generating Station ran from 1906 to 1974.
Plant at Niagara Falls was built when aesthetics ruled
New York architect Algernon S. Bell attempted to make the structure blend in with the falls when he built it with rustic limestone exterior and blue roof tiles, as Zoric explains.
Visitors are shown a scale model of the massive engineering works that converted the pounding waters into electricity to the power station before reaching the tunnel.
The rocks that straddle the border between the US state of New York and Canada’s province of Ontario beneath the gigantic triple waterfall are honeycombed with chambers. These are carved out to harness the powerful forces of nature thundering overhead.
The plant has been part of tours of the decommissioned Niagara Parks Power Station tour which began a year earlier in July 2022.
Nikola Tesla’s cutting-edge technology was used to run plant
Visitors are now offered a fascinating glimpse into pioneering work that helped bring this corner of North America into the modern age.
Westinghouse generators were used to create alternating currents patented by inventor Nikola Tesla’s cutting-edge technology at that time. The plant was originally operated by the Canadian Niagara Power Company.
Cylindrical blue generators once converted the force of the water into electricity. More than a century ago, the 670-meter tunnel was carved out of the rock. Today, the Niagara Parks station is the world’s only fully intact hydroelectric plant of its era.
Zoric shows where the water came in, ran down a shaft to power the turbines, and then went through a tunnel to a discharge point at the base of Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara’s three cascades.
Project of opening up tunnel envisioned in 2017
Senior Director of Engineering and Operations with the Niagara Parks Commission, Marcelo Gruosso, has been involved with the project since it was first envisioned in 2017.
Walking through the high-ceilinged building to point out a line of blue, cylindrical generators that fill the space, he says, “The plant started out with two generators and, by 1924, all [eleven] were installed, which you see here today.”
“Beside every generator is a ‘governor’ which regulated the waterflow to a turbine,” he explained. “An air brake in the governor helped adjust the flow. They needed 250 rpm exactly to give them 25 hertz.”
At one time, the tunnel held seventy-one thousand gallons of water which moved at nine meters per second.
A glass elevator takes visitors down past the six levels of infrastructure required for the hydro power generation process at fifty-five meters, and the tunnel is at the bottom where the water would exit.
Historic tunnel is included in the power plant’s price of admission
Gruosso says, “It took thousands of workers four years to excavate the shale beneath the main generating room using lanterns, dynamite, pickaxes and shovels.”
“On its way down, the water would spin the turbine blades,” he explains. “They were connected to a 41-meter-long shaft that went all the way back up to the main floor and spun the rotor in the alternator, generating the AC power.”
He gestures to chalky white marks that reach almost to the top of the arched brick walls as he walks along the tunnel’s arched passageway.
The gently curving tunnel is comprised of four layers of brick and eighteen inches of concrete and is surrounded by shale, built like a fortress.
Repairs were done only twice since tunnel was built
Gruosso notes that it’s amazing what they did with no electricity. “We did some minor brick repairs and added rock anchors to the arch to ensure structural integrity, but it’s in really good shape,” he says.
“They only ever did maintenance twice since it was built, once in the 1950s and once in the 1990s,” he reveals.
Tourists can now walk out onto a platform to view Niagara Falls. A rumbling begins to fill the air near the end of the tunnel.
The path exits onto a twenty-meter, river-level viewing platform that is almost at the base of Horseshoe Falls, and natural light pours in.
An evening show among other activities to satisfy visitors
Gruosso has to shout to be heard over the ceaseless pounding. “This is where the water from the tunnel poured into the river,” he says. “It’s the best place to see the falls.”
Tourist boats filled with passengers in rain-ponchos, bobbing like corks at the foot of the falls, is also part of the scene from where visitors watch.
There’s an evening show titled “Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed” to round out the power plant experience.
If attending the evening show, an overnight stay is recommended even though a visit to the power station and tunnel takes around two hours.
The light and sound experience not only outlines the power plant’s history but also includes 3D projections of surging water, turbines, and sparks of electricity.
Accommodations and dining at Niagara Falls
Higher-end hotels with views of the Falls and budget-conscious establishments are available accommodations.
Niagara Falls was once strictly a hotdog and fries kind of town, and fast food is still around in terms of dining, but the destination has upped its game.
Menus are now chef-inspired, and some are locally sourced at Niagara Parks establishments which offers Canadian dishes.
Niagara Falls an energizing place to visit
Niagara Falls is a place of natural beauty, but it can also make you think twice about the natural forces that continue to shape our modern lives. A trip is therefore highly recommended.
Enthusiasts can also visit the Niagara Parkway, which winds along the Niagara River and can be explored on foot or by renting an e-bike. It is definitely worth checking out.
There are various stops along the way like Whirlpool lookout point and the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station, a monolithic structure along the river that currently contributes to southern Ontario’s electrical grid.
A video clip below exhibits the newly opened tunnel below Niagara Falls.