Building the Power Station
A historic achievement…
The design and construction of the “Canadian Niagara Power Company generating station” was a landmark achievement in design, engineering and architecture. Its construction was a massive undertaking that would utilize hundreds of workers and take many years to complete.
This early artist rendering illustrates the power station’s characterizing Romanesque features and arched windows. The design was inspired by the Adams Generating Station, owned by the Niagara Falls Power Company on the American side of the Niagara River.
The building, in its remarkable setting atop the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, features a rusticated stone exterior, low profile design and dark green roof to help it blend seamlessly into its natural park environment.
Construction of the power station began on May 23, 1901. Excavation of the wheelpit chamber, the tailrace tunnel, cofferdam and the forebay were part of the first phase of construction. The construction of these crucial aspects had to proceed simultaneously to ensure they all worked together flawlessly.
As with most large-scale construction projects, many different companies and specialized trades were involved in building this immense power station that sits on flat parcel of solid bedrock. It took nearly four years to complete preliminary construction.
With only rudimentary dynamite, pickaxes, shovels, literal horsepower and lanterns to work with, work crews were faced with a number of unprecedented challenges in the construction of the power station.
Like with any construction project, delays were inevitable. Delays on the construction of this power station, however, were somewhat intentional. Since hydroelectric power plants were a radical new concept in the early 1900s, the longer this project was delayed, the more work crews would benefit from lessons learned from the hydroelectric power plant projects happening on the American side of the river.
Construction crews were faced with a number of unprecedented challenges.
Stone, brick and cast iron were primarily used in the plant’s construction with integrated steelwork throughout. The plant’s interior limestone came from the Queenston Quarry, one of the oldest mines in Canada, located approximately 15 kilometres away on the Niagara escarpment. It was brought to the site by horse-drawn transport.
The Key Players
American lawyer William Birch Rankine played a fundamental role in shaping the use of Niagara Falls for the production of electricity on both sides of the Niagara River.
In 1889, inspired by the newly incorporated Niagara Falls Power Company on the American side of the Niagara River, Rankine sought potential investors in an effort to get involved in the exciting new power plant developments. He co-founded the Cataract Construction Company that same year and by 1892, at the age of 34, Rankine created the Canadian Niagara Power Company.
Rankine (pictured second from the left) was at the peak of his career by the time construction of the power station began in 1901.
Constructing the Forebay
The forebay area is where water from the Niagara River entered the power station. The outer forebay, which filtered the incoming water through a range of underwater arches, was complemented by a bridge designed with flat steel-supported arches to provide level access for the electric railway and pedestrians. Ice racks in the inner forebay were used to prevent large chunks of ice and other debris from entering the penstocks and disrupting the plant’s operations.
A large temporary cofferdam was built in the river in order to create the forebay area. The cofferdam pushed the river back so that water near the main construction site could be pumped out, leaving a dry, open space where the forebay could be excavated. Crews used pickaxes and shovels to create a depth of 14 feet. The cofferdam remained in place for roughly two years.
The tailrace tunnel is a curving passageway that winds through the depths of the power station’s wheelpit.
The tailrace tunnel is a curving passageway that winds through the depths of the power station’s wheelpit nearly 200 feet below the ground floor. The water used in power station was expelled safely back to the Niagara River through the tailrace tunnel.
Construction of the 2,200-foot tunnel began by creating a vertical shaft halfway between where the tunnel connected with the powerhouse and the Niagara River. The area was blasted with dynamite and crews dug towards the plant and the river simultaneously. Building materials were lowered by derrick crane and the excavated rock was loaded into skips and lifted to the top of the gorge.
Pictured: Wood cribbing was used to hold the excavated sections of the tunnel to prevent loose rocks from falling on workers below. The excavated rocks were loaded into flat-bottomed boxes and lifted to street level.
The Control Room
In the early years, a temporary switchboard located on the generator floor was used to control the plant’s power generating operations. In 1913, a new control room and switchboard was added to the second floor.
The control room features classic marble slab panels and a number of crucial monitoring systems and controls. Load meters, feeder switches, candlestick phones and a self-winding clock were all found in the control room.
The Power Station Opens!
Although the plant was ready to generate power by the end of 1904, its generators did not operate until July 27, 1905.
At the time it opened, the power station was 296 feet (90 metres) long and big enough to house five generators that were brought into operation between 1905 and 1906. In 1913, the plant was expanded to 600 feet (183 metres) and five additional generators were added by 1917. The eleventh and last generator was added in 1924.
Niagara Parks Power Pass
Harness the full Niagara Falls power story with the Niagara Parks Power Pass, including admission to the Niagara Parks Power Station and Journey Behind the Falls.