Century-old tunnel to offer tourists never-before-seen views of Niagara Falls
Starting Friday, visitors to Niagara Parks Power Station will be able to experience Niagara Falls in a whole new way.
That’s when guests can access the vast underground infrastructure of the 117-year-old station and new viewing platform near the base of Horseshoe Falls.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place Tuesday recognizing completion of Phase 2 of the adaptive reuse project and opening of the tunnel at the Niagara Parkway site.
Phase 1 opened last July, which included daytime tours of the restored 180-metre generator floor accompanied by interactive and educational exhibits, and an evening sound and light show combining interactive media, lights and a musical score.
Visitors will now be able to descend 55 metres below the generator hall in a glass-enclosed elevator, observing the many underground floors of the station on their way to the historic tunnel.
For more than a century, the power station’s spent waters flowed through this engineering marvel. The experience offers visitors a 670-metre-long journey through the tunnel leading to the portal where the water exited back into Niagara River. There, a viewing platform has been constructed, extending out into the river to provide never-before-seen panoramic views of Niagara Falls and the lower Niagara Gorge.
“Today, the incredible transformation that has taken place here to restore this station to a one-of-a-kind visitor attraction is officially complete with the opening of the tunnel,” said Niagara Parks chair April Jeffs.
“Make no mistake, this is a landmark achievement and one that has and will continue to draw the interest and adoration of a global audience while preserving this heritage building for future generations of Ontarians.”
Niagara-based Rankin Construction was the general contractor for the tunnel project. Jeffs credited the company for also providing sponsorship.
Construction of the power station began in 1901. It began generating power in 1905 and would continue to power homes, businesses and communities for more than a century.
“The plant was built to blend in with the countryside and the parkland next to the falls,” said Tim Johnson, a senior adviser of heritage and legacy for Niagara Parks.
“The stone originally had a blueish-green tint like the water of the Niagara River, and the green-tile roof would blend in with the surrounding tree line.”
He said the station was set back from the river to maintain views for visitors to Niagara Falls, and all the power left the building underground without power lines and towers visibly interfering with the landscape.
“Of greater importance, perhaps, this station did not use a reservoir — no land was flooded, no homes and families were displaced. This run-of-the-river station simply borrowed the water to turn the generators. The massive tunnel, 17 storeys beneath our feet, allowed the water to return to the mighty Niagara River.”
Johnson said for three years, workers blasted and dug their way through 670 metres of rock to allow the water to flow back to the lower river at the base of the falls.
“Today, you will experience the miraculous result of their hard and hazardous work, and also the hard work of the Niagara Parks Commission to convert this into a world-class, one-of-a-kind museum attraction,” he said.
“Over 120 years ago, engineers and industrial designers put serious planning into the creation of this station and in the process started a revolution that would electrify the world.”
The station was decommissioned in 2006. Niagara Parks acquired it three years later. Supported by the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, a revitalization project was assisted through a $25-million loan from the Ontario government.
Marcelo Gruosso, senior director of engineering and parks operations for Niagara Parks, said it was important to create the tunnel attraction while maintaining its “authentic look.”
“If you go down there and you see too much new infrastructure, then we haven’t done it properly,” he said.
“We wanted to preserve and respect the work that was done 117 years ago, so we buried all the infrastructure. All the drainage is underneath of the walkway — we put in a new walkway to make it accessible and safe. All the electrical is running where you don’t see it, and most of the infrastructure was hidden, where we put our interpretation panels.”
Gruosso said as visitors go down the elevator, which takes about a minute, they will “see every level of infrastructure that it took in the power-generation process.”
“For example, you’ll see a thrust deck where the thrust bearing is, you’ll see a break deck, you’ll see an upper and lower guide, you’ll see where the turbine blade was about 135 feet down that spun,” he said.
“Then you’ll land 180 feet down in what’s called the wheel pit. All the water that came in from the river dropped into the wheel pit and then starts the journey through the tunnel, and you’ll see that arch and that beautiful start to the brick-lined tunnel.”
Gruosso said along the tunnel are interpretation panels explaining what was done during the construction process.
“But really, I’ve got to tell you, what is at the end of that walk is amazing — you can’t explain it, you’ve got to see it.”
By Ray Spiteri, Welland Tribune