(CNN) – A whitewater wonder visited by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Mark Twain, Niagara Falls has been a magnet for global travelers for at least two centuries. But until this year, a huge tunnel buried under the waterfall has been off limits to visitors.
The rocks beneath the gigantic triple cascade that straddles the border between the US state of New York and the Canadian province of Ontario are honeycombs with chambers cut to harness the mighty forces of nature that thunder above.
And now, a 670-meter (2,198-foot) tunnel built more than a century ago on the Canadian side has been opened to reveal the impressive scale of these engineering marvels.
As of July 2022, it is part of the Niagara Parks Power Plant tour tours that began a year earlier. Exploring it offers a fascinating insight into the pioneering work that helped bring this corner of North America into the modern age.
The power plant, which operated from 1905 to 2006, diverted water from the mighty Niagara River to run giant generators that electrified regional industry and helped make Buffalo’s nearby Great Lakes port known as the City of Light.
The region around the waterfall, according to station tour guide Elena Zoric, was once a hub of activity for businessmen looking to profit from harnessing hydropower.
Adams Hydroelectric Station was the first to open, and operated on the US side from 1895 to 1961. On the Canadian side, the Ontario Power Company operated from 1905 to 1999, and the Toronto power generation from 1906 to 1974.
The 670-meter tunnel was dug into the rock more than a century ago.
Today, Niagara Parks Station is the world’s only fully intact hydroelectric station from its era. Initially operated by the Canadian Niagara Power Company, it used Westinghouse generators to create alternating current patented by inventor Nikola Tesla, cutting-edge technology at the time.
The plant, as tourist guide Zoric explains to visitors, was built at a time when aesthetics prevailed. The rustic limestone exterior and blue shingles were, she says, an attempt by New York architect Algernon S. Bell to make the structure blend in with the falls.
Before arriving at the tunnel, visitors to the plant are shown a model of the major engineering works involved in the conversion of baptismal waters into electricity.
Cylindrical blue generators once turned water power into electricity.
Zoric shows where the water came in, where it went down a shaft to power the turbines and then through a tunnel to a discharge point at the base of Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara’s three falls .
Marcelo Gruosso, senior director of engineering and operations for the Niagara Parks Commission, has been involved in the project since it was first proposed in 2017.
“The plant started with two generators, and by 1924 they had installed the 11 that you see here today,” he says, walking around the high-ceilinged building to point out a line of blue cylindrical generators. that fill the space.
“Next to each generator is a ‘governor’ that regulated the flow of water to a turbine. An air brake on the governor helped adjust the flow. They need exactly 250 rpm to give them 25 hertz.”
One of a kind
The tunnel contained 71,000 gallons of water moving at nine meters per second.
A glass elevator takes visitors down 55 meters past the six levels of infrastructure required for the hydropower generation process. At the bottom is the tunnel where the water would come out.
The tunnel, which is almost eight meters high and six meters wide, is also a unique historical attraction and is included in the price of the entrance to the plant.
“It took thousands of workers four years to excavate the shale under the main generation room with flashlights, dynamite, picks and shovels,” says Gruosso.
“On its way down, the water would spin the turbine blades,” says Gruosso. “They were connected to a 41 meter long shaft that went back to the main floor and turned the rotor on the alternator, generating AC power.”
Walking down the tunnel’s arched corridor, he gestures at the white chalk marks that reach almost to the top of the arched brick walls.
“You could see how high the water was rising,” he says. “The tunnel contained 71,000 gallons of water moving at nine meters per second.”
Built like a fortress, the gently curving tunnel consists of four layers of brick and 18 inches of concrete and is surrounded by shale.
“It’s amazing what they did without electricity,” Gruosso notes.
“We’ve done some minor brick repairs and added rock anchors to the arch to ensure structural integrity, but it’s in very good shape. It’s only had maintenance done twice since it was built, once in the 1950s and another in the 1990s”.
Tourists can now step out onto a platform to view Niagara Falls.
Near the end of the tunnel a rumbling begins to fill the air. Natural light comes in as the trail emerges at a 20-meter observation deck at river level that sits almost at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Gruosso has to shout to be heard over the incessant pounding.
“This is where the water from the tunnel poured into the river. It’s the best place to see the falls.”
The platform also offers visitors a perch to watch the tour boats, packed with passengers in rain ponchos, swinging like corks at the foot of the falls.
To complete the power plant experience, there is a nightly show called “Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed.” The light and sound experience describes the history of the power station and includes 3D projections of rising water, turbines and sparks of electricity.
The visit to the power station and the tunnel lasts about two hours, but to attend the night show it is recommended to stay overnight. Accommodations range from high-end hotels with views of the Falls, like the Hilton, to budget establishments like the Days Inn.
When it comes to dining, Niagara Falls was once strictly a hot dog and french fries town. There’s still fast food, but the destination has upped its game. There are locally sourced, chef-inspired menus at Niagara Parks establishments, such as the Table Rock House restaurant, as well as independent restaurants such as AG, which features produce from its own farm.
Also worth a visit 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 power grid.
A trip to Niagara Falls is exhilarating 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.