(CNN) — A natural wonder visited by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Mark Twain, Niagara Falls has been a magnet for travelers from around the world for at least two centuries. But until this year, the huge tunnel buried deep within the waterfall was closed to visitors.
The rocks below the enormous triple falls that straddle the border between New York and the Canadian province of Ontario are dotted with chambers carved to contain the mighty forces of nature that crash down upon them.
And now the 670-meter tunnel built more than a century ago on the Canadian side has been opened, revealing the impressive scale of these engineering marvels.
From July 2022, it is part of tours of the decommissioned Niagara Parks power plant, which started a year earlier. His research offers fascinating insight into the pioneering work that helped bring this corner of North America into the modern era.
The powerhouse, which operated from 1905 to 2006, diverted water from the mighty Niagara River to power giant generators that electrified regional industry and helped make the nearby port of Buffalo on the Great Lakes known as the City of Light.
According to station manager Elena Zorić, the area around the waterfall used to be the center of activity for entrepreneurs who wanted to take advantage of hydropower.
Adams Hydroelectric 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 Station from 1906 to 1974.
Today, the Niagara Parks station is the only completely intact hydroelectric plant in the world of its time. Originally operated by Canada’s Niagara Power Company, it used Westinghouse generators to create alternating current patented by inventor Nikola Tesla, which was cutting edge technology at the time.
The plant, as the guide Zorić explains to visitors, was built at a time when aesthetics ruled. Its rustic limestone exterior and blue shingles were, she says, New York architect Algernon S. Bell’s attempt to blend the structure into the waterfall.
Before reaching the tunnel, visitors to the power plant are shown a model of the vast engineering works that have been carried out to convert water into electricity.
Zorić shows where the water entered, where it went down the shaft to drive the turbines and where it passed through the tunnel to the discharge point at the foot of Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three Niagara Falls.
Marcelo Gruosso, senior director of engineering and operations for the Niagara Parks Commission, has been involved with the project since it was first launched in 2017.
“The plant started with two generators, and by 1924 all 11 of them that we can see today were installed,” he says, walking through the high-ceilinged building and pointing to a line of blue, cylindrical generators that fill the space.
“Next to each generator is a ‘governor’ that regulates the flow of water to the turbine. The air brake on the governor helped adjust the flow. They needed exactly 250 rpm to get 25 hertz.”
One of a kind
A glass elevator takes visitors 55 meters downhill, passing through six levels of infrastructure necessary for the hydroelectric power generation process. At the bottom is a tunnel through which 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 entrance fee.
“It took thousands of workers four years to excavate the slate beneath the main production hall using flashlights, dynamite, picks and shovels,” says Gruosso.
“During the descent, the water was turning the turbine blades,” he says. “They were connected to a 41 meter long shaft that went to the main plant and turned the rotor of the alternator, creating electricity.”
Walking through the archway of the tunnel, he shows chalky white marks that reach almost to the top of the arched brick walls.
“You can see how far the water has gone,” he says. “The tunnel contained 71,000 gallons of water moving at nine meters per second.”
Built like a fortress, the gently curved tunnel consists of four layers of brick, 18 inches of concrete and is surrounded by slate.
“It’s amazing what they’ve done without electricity,” says Gruosso.
“We did some minor repairs to the brickwork and added stone anchors to the arch to ensure structural integrity, but it’s in pretty good shape. It’s only been serviced twice since it was built, once in the ’50s and once in the ’90s. “, account.
Near the end of the tunnel, a rumble begins to fill the air. Natural light pours in as the trail emerges at a 20-foot lookout at river level almost at the base of Horseshoe Falls. Gruosso has to shout to be heard because of the constant pounding.
“This is where the water from the tunnel flows into the river. It’s the best place to see the falls.”
The platform also offers visitors a vantage point to watch tourist boats, full of passengers in raincoats, bouncing like corks at the base of the falls.
To complete the experience of the power plant, there is an evening show called “Electricity: Niagara’s Power Transformed”. The light and sound experience depicts the history of the power plant and includes 3D projections of moving water, turbines and sparks of electricity.
The visit to the power plant and the tunnel lasts about two hours, but to attend the night show it is recommended to stay the night. Accommodations range from upscale hotels overlooking the falls like the Hilton to less expensive establishments like the Days Inn.
When it comes to gastronomy, Niagara Falls used to be a city sausages and french fries. Fast food still exists, but the destination has improved. Niagara Parks establishments like the Table Rock House restaurant offer menus inspired by local cuisine, and there are independent restaurants like AG, which offers 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 on a rented electric bike. Stops along the way include the Whirlpool Overlook and the Sir Adam Beck Generation Station, a monolithic structure along the river that currently contributes to southern Ontario’s power grid.
A trip to Niagara Falls is energizing in many ways. It’s a place of natural beauty, but it can also make us think about the natural forces that continue to shape our modern lives.