Sir Adam Beck was a prosperous London, Ontario, manufacturer, who was simultaneously the Mayor and the Conservative member of the provincial Legislature (which was then permitted). Given Ontario's water power resources at Niagara, Beck was an early champion of municipal and provincial electric power ownership to spur economic development. When his party won the election of 1905, the time was right for Beck to implement his conviction that power from Niagara Falls should be available at cost to Ontario municipalities. In the government of Conservative Leader, James Whitney, Beck became "Power Minister" and chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, the world's first publicly-owned utility.
Its initial project was to build a 110,000-volt transmission line from Niagara Falls to carry power to southwestern Ontario municipalities, including Toronto and 13 other municipalities. On October 11, 1910, Beck held his first ceremonial "switch-on" in Berlin (now Kitchener). He pressed the switch, a street sign saying "For the People" lit up and the town went wild.
In 1914, Beck was knighted by King George V for services rendered to the Commonwealth of Canada. Sir Adam served as Chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario until his death in 1925 and was instrumental in developing the 450-megawatt Queenston Chippawa power station at Niagara. At the time, this was the largest power station in the world. In 1950, this station was renamed Sir Adam Beck I in his honour.
He may be the most influential Ontarian you've never heard of. Born in Baden, Ontario, he became the Mayor of London and the first Chairman of The Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. Sir Adam Beck believed passionately that electricity should be made available and affordable to everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful.
"The gifts of nature are for the public" he said, and the gift of nature he was most determined to harness was the hydroelectric potential of the Niagara River. He envisioned, and presided over, the building of the Sir Adam Beck 1 Generating Station and the 20 kilometer canal that diverts water to it from the Welland River.
Sir Adam Beck lived to see the power begin to flow across Ontario. For his vision and his devotion to the public good, he was knighted by King George V. His statue still commands the intersection of University Avenue and Queen Street in Toronto.
Sir Adam Beck Generating Stations
The mighty Niagara Falls and the entire Niagara River Corridor have long been recognized for their natural beauty and incredible power. The river's whirlpool and rapids, and the thundering beauty of the Horseshoe and American Falls, draw more than 11 million people each year to witness the spectacle of moving water.
Over one and a half million gallons plunge over the brink of Niagara Falls every second. Since the early seventeen hundreds, engineers have harnessed this raw energy to power local industry, first through direct water-power and later through hydro-electric generating systems.
In 1906, a committee of the Ontario Legislature studied the Falls and saw the great potential for low cost electricity through this power. Niagara Falls had more falling water than any other place and that meant they could build the greatest hydro-electric power generation plant in the world.
The basic process of creating electricity is simple. Start with a coil of wires. If a magnetic field is passed over that coil of wires, a flow of electrons is started and that is electricity. A hydro-electric generating station is based on this simple concept, but on a much larger scale. The force of falling water is used to move powerful electro-magnets, each weighing three or four hundred tons, inside a huge coil of wires.
The beauty of hydro-electric power is its simplicity. A pipe of water is directed over a cliff, through a tube called a penstock and then released at the bottom to turn a propeller or blade. The moving propeller, or turbine, drives a shaft to spin the electro-magnets. The result is electricity. As long as the Niagara River continues to feed the powerful Falls, we can harness its power to create electricity.
Engineers recognized that to maximize output of a hydro-electric plant they would need to choose the site with the greatest potential. This meant they required a location along the Niagara River with the highest drop, to create the greatest force of falling water. Unfortunately for the engineers the highest point was not at the Falls, but 5 miles down river at Queenston, where the cliffs are more than twice as high. If the water could go over these cliffs, the engineers knew it could double the payoff in electricity, but they first needed to meet massive engineering feats to realize this potential.
It was simple in theory but the task was heroic. There was water in a great river to divert, a massive canal to dig and a generator of unprecedented scale to build. There was even a river that had to be turned backward, to run the other way.
In 1917, work began on what was at that time the largest construction project ever seen in North America and it would not have been possible without the man behind the Queenston-Chippawa Power Development. Adam Beck had been a manufacturer and a politician, but from 1905 to the 1920s Beck was Ontario Hydro. He led Ontario with the vision of cheap, unlimited electric power and he made the lights come on all over the province.
The Queenston-Chippawa project was the largest that Beck's Ontario Hydro had ever attempted, needing an unprecedented amount of equipment and labourers. Even in the midst of wartime, the project employed ten thousand workers, mostly immigrants who had settled in the surrounding cities. Excavation materials alone could have filled a train from Halifax to Vancouver and back to Winnipeg.
Successfully but not without difficulty, Beck's Ontario Power reversed a river, built a new mile long channel through the city of Niagara Falls and cross country to feed the new plant and the monumental new generators with water.
After 4 years of difficult work, the Queenston-Chippawa plant opened on December 28, 1921 and the electricity began to flow. "If I have helped to lessen the cares of the housewife by making electricity her servant" said Adam Beck, "I have my reward." Other rewards had already come his way, including a knighthood.
In 1950, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Beck's death, the Queenston-Chippawa plant was renamed in his honour, the Sir Adam Beck Niagara Generating Station Number One. Today, Beck Number One generates between one and two percent of Ontario's electricity and the basic technology remains the same, though ten generators stand where once there were two.
Ontario's hunger for power grew exponentially after World War II and by 1948 work began on a second generating station at the same Queenston site. It would take 8 years to complete and would follow a slightly different plan. Water would be taken from the upper Niagara River through large concrete gathering tubes and conveyed to the plant under the City of Niagara Falls through two five-and-a-half-mile long tunnels, each forty five feet in diameter.
On March 6, 1954, 25 tons of explosives opened the final waterways and Beck 2 was operational. The new power plant had sixteen generators and could produce about three times the power of Beck One. "Now I have very much pleasure in declaring open the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station Number Two" announced Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Kent, who officially opened Beck 2 on August 30, 1954.
Canadians were not the only ones taking advantage of the seemingly endless supply of water. It was obvious by 1950 that without regulation the demand for electricity by both Canadians and Americans would leave barely a trickle of water where once had stood a mighty cataract. In order to protect the natural spectacle of the Falls, an agreement was signed between the two neighbouring countries, limiting the amount of water which could be diverted. It was agreed that a minimum of 100,000 cubic feet of water per second must flow over the Falls from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day during the tourist season (from April to October) and at any other time the flow of water could be reduced to half that volume.
Power plants on both sides of the border created large reservoirs so that at night, when less water was needed for the beauty of the Falls, they could divert extra water. This reserved water was then used to supplement the limited draw during the daytime. By controlling the water this way, both Canada and the United States have protected the integrity of the Falls and ensured an infinitely renewable, clean source of energy.