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History of the Incline Railway

Incline Railways are a fascinating part of Niagara's history. Also known as "funiculars",eight have operated along the Niagara River over the past 230 years. Five were built on the Canadian side and three on the American side of the Niagara River. Only one remains in operation today - the Niagara Parks' Falls Incline Railway, that runs up and down the short moraine between Table Rock next to the Horsehoe Falls and the Fallsview Tourist area hotels above.

In 1764, a British engineer constructed what may have been the oldest railway in North America, incline or otherwise, at Lewiston, New York. A primitive human-powered, wooden-rail device, it raised waterborne goods to the top of the Niagara River bank for 30 years.During the "golden age" of the incline at Niagara, from 1845 through the late 19th century, five other funiculars were built to transport sightseers to lookout points along the Niagara Gorge.

The high point of this era was around 1895, when the Great Gorge Route electric trolley line was opened and ran to or near, all of these incline railways. Starting near the American Falls, where the Prospect Park Incline Railway operated (today the site of a glass observation tower), trolleys would cross the Falls View Bridge into Canada to serve the Clifton Incline. Traveling downriver, they would stop at the Whirlpool Rapids Incline before going down the escarpment at Queenston, to cross the suspension bridge into Lewiston. Along the most spectacular stretch, rails ran close to the edge of the Whirlpool Rapids along the American riverbank, passing directly under the Niagara Rapids View Incline (near the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge) before going to the top of the Great Gorge for the return to Niagara Falls, New York.

The Whirlpool

Another incline was already out of commission before the trolley train was in place. Around 1869 Leander Colt built a railway down the bank of the Whirlpool. His design used a continuous belt of metal buckets that collected water from a stream, to turn the wheel that drove the device. This incline was damaged beyond repair during a landslide in 1889.

The site of Colt's incline, at the elbow in the Niagara River, remained a natural draw for tourists. In 1916, The Niagara Parks Commission opened the Niagara Spanish Aero Car, a cable car suspended by six cables high above the mighty Whirlpool. The southern terminus of the ride is today known as Colt's Point and the attraction has been renamed the Whirlpool Aero Car.

The Rapids

The narrowest point along the Niagara River is through the Whirlpool Rapids, a breathtaking world of steep rock and whitewater. A steam-powered Whirlpool Rapids Incline was built some time after 1876, a wooden-railed, covered incline that carried visitors to a stone pathway at the river's edge. The railway underwent four ownership changes and was upgraded to water power, then electricity, before being destroyed by fire on May 5, 1934.

A new attraction was opened at the site, the Great Gorge Trip, with a 70m (230ft) elevator trip connecting by a tunnel to the riverside path (later replaced by the present boardwalk). After a 33-year leasing arrangement, The Niagara Parks Commission took ownership of this facility in 1967. The name was changed to "Great Gorge Adventure" in 1989 and to the "White Water Walk" in 2003.  

The Maid of the Mist

The Maid of the Mist Steamboat Company was created in 1884 and is now North America's longest running attraction, providing continuous service on its popular sightseeing boats. In 1894, an incline railway carried Maid of the Mist patrons on the Canadian side of the river between the foot of Clifton Hill and the boat dock. The Niagara Park and River Railway (N.P.R.R.) obtained permission from the nine-year-old Queen Victoria Park Niagara Falls Park Commission (renamed The Niagara Parks Commission in 1927) to build the electrically powered Clifton Incline on Commission property along a 50.3m (165ft) embankment.

Niagara Falls Incline RailwayThe Clifton Incline as well as the Whirlpool Rapids Incline were among the assets of the N.P.R.R. purchased by The International Railway Company in 1902. With the demise of the I.R.C. in 1932, The Niagara Parks Commission assumed ownership of both funiculars.

The Clifton Incline, (renamed "Maid of the Mist Incline" in 1973), with its small 12-passenger cars running on open, separate tracks, carried 395,000 passengers in its last year of operation. At the time it was dismantled, beginning October 18, 1976, the incline had been in service for 83 seasons.

A new Maid of the Mist Incline opened on May 14, 1977, with bright yellow and orange cars designed to resemble trolley cars of earlier days. Each car carried 24 passengers (double the capacity of the cars they replaced) up or down the gorge in just 45 seconds.

A year prior to the new incline's first season, the "Maid of the Mist IV" had entered service, increasing the overall passenger capacity of the sightseeing fleet of four boats, from 350 to 550. Demand for the incline's services increased further with the arrival of the 300 passenger "Maid of the Mist V", which replaced the much smaller Maid II in 1983. The double decking of Maids III and IV before the 1986 season added room for yet another 160 persons per trip to the fleet, but no more could be done to increase the 900 passenger per hour capacity of the incline railway.

In the late 1980s, Niagara Parks redeveloped the site adjacent to the upper station of the Maid of the Mist Incline. The Princess Elizabeth building was replaced by the much larger Maid of the Mist Plaza. This complex, built below ground to give sightseers an unobstructed view of the Falls and gorge,contained four elevators,doubling the hourly capacity of the incline. After 15 seasons the second Maid of the Mist Incline was closed in October 1990.

20th Century Changes

In the 19th century, Niagara Falls was growing into a very popular tourist destination with travelers transported quickly and comfortably by railways. In the 20th century, the dramatic increase in the number of automobiles enabled unprecedented numbers of visitors to make their way to Niagara. Due to this changing environment, the street railway along the Canadian side of the river was put out of business in 1932 and funiculars were replaced by more efficient elevators not only at the Maid of the Mist Plaza, but at White Water Walk, Prospect Park by the American Falls, the Journey Behind the Falls and U.S. Cave of the Winds attractions.

By the 1950s, the landscape near the Falls had changed greatly, as paved areas were added or enlarged to allow cars to navigate through and park in Queen Victoria Park. 1,500 angle parking spaces were added along the Niagara Parkway from Clifton Hill south to just beyond the Falls, yet even this was not meeting demand.

Niagara Parks wanted to alleviate the traffic congestion and demand for parking that were compromising the park's appearance and frustrating visitors. A major step in 1963 was the creation of a parking lot set back from the Falls to allow for the removal of some on-street parking. A further component of the solution, was the creation of an Incline Railway, the first to be constructed at Niagara in nearly 75 years.

A New Incline at the Falls

Queen Victoria Park is separated from the rest of the City of Niagara Falls by a treed moraine that is about 30.5m (100ft) high in the Table Rock area. The upper area overlooking the Park was growing into the Fallsview Tourist Area, starting with the construction in 1962 of the 99m (325ft) Seagram Tower (now the Minolta Tower), the first of Niagara's major observation towers. The Niagara Falls inter-city bus terminal relocated near the Tower in 1966, providing new customers the Incline Railway that Niagara Parks was soon to open. The Tower provided 500 free parking spaces to be connected to the upper level of the Incline by a pedestrian walkway above Oakes Drive.

The new incline was manufactured and installed by Von Roll Ltd. of Switzerland, at a cost to Niagara Parks of $265,000. Opened on October 8, 1966, the electrically-powered Horseshoe Falls Incline had two 40-passenger cars riding on 185cm (almost 6'1") gauge independent tracks. Although said to be the slowest incline in the world, with a maximum speed of 57.9m (190ft) per minute, its tracks were only 51.8 m (170ft) in length. A single trip up or down the 36° slope takes 57 seconds, for an impressive maximum capacity of 1,600 passengers per hour.

In the 1980s, the name was abbreviated to "Falls Incline Railway" and through the 1990s, paid ridership averaged about 650,000 per year. (Children less than five years old are not included in this figure as they ride for free.) The Niagara Parks Commission is currently developing plans to upgrade the Railway to an enclosed, fully accessible service that will be available year-round.