Highlights of the Great Trail: The Niagara River Part 4

Go back to Part 3

Hike: 2
Date: Friday 18 December 2020
Start: Queenston Heights Park, Queenston
End: Burning Springs Hill at Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls
Distance Covered: 13.9 km
Total Distance Covered: 26.0 km

36. Our second hike takes us from Queenston Heights along the Niagara Gorge, past the great hydroelectric plants and the Whirlpool, into the city of Niagara Falls, then past the Falls themselves as far as Burning Springs Hill in the Dufferin Islands Nature Area. As with the previous hike, I’ll divide the record of our progress into several parts.

Part 4: Once Around the Whirlpool

37. We pass under the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge and are now hiking upstream along the western rim of the Niagara Gorge. Whereas pre-Confederation Canadian history was the hallmark of the previous, Queenston section of the hike, now new themes come to the fore …

Photograph of Adam Beck ca. 1916 courtesy of Wikipedia

38A & B. … the first of which is hydroelectrical engineering. Looking north (the way we came), we can take in the length of the reception building of Sir Adam Beck Generating Station I (opened 1922). Here the Parkway (though it is not obvious to us at this point) runs across the top of a dam higher than Niagara Falls. By 1930 this was the site of the largest hydroelectrical generating station in the world. Adam Beck (1857-1925) (left) was the founder of the publicly-owned utility the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, later Ontario Hydro. The Canadian Encyclopedia calls Beck ”an electrical Messiah”: “in speeches and publicity he extolled the power of abundant cheap light to brighten the homes of working people; cheap electricity would create more jobs in the factories of the province; hydro would lighten the drudgery of the barn and the household; and electric railways radiating out from the cities into the countryside would create more prosperous, progressive farms even as light and power made brighter, cleaner cities.” Beck was knighted in 1914 for his promotion of hydroelectricity. What was originally called the Queenston-Chippawa Power Station was renamed for him in 1950. Ontario Hydro was broken up in 1998 and the facility is now run by Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

39. From the Parkway one can glimpse only the top part of the Adam Beck I Powerhouse below. It’s 180 m long, 41 m wide, and 18 stories high. It holds ten generators and cost $76 million to build. How does it work? Well, the smaller Welland River used to flow into the Niagara River at Chippawa, just upstream from the Falls. The 14 km Chippawa-Queenston Power Canal was constructed, reversing the flow of the Welland River so that it channelled water from the Niagara River into the Power Canal and finally into a forebay (reservoir) behind the powerhouse. As the water falls in a controlled manner from the forebay through the dam back into the Niagara River, it turns turbine blades that generate electricity. In other words, a sort of artificial indoor Niagara Falls, about twice as high as the natural Falls and therefore more efficient at generating hydroelectricity, has been constructed on this site. The adjacent Sir Adam Beck II, to which water from the Niagara River upstream of the Falls is diverted through tunnels, came onstream in 1954. The 26 generators of Adam Beck I and II together produce almost 2,000 megawatts of electricity. (That’s the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge again at back.)

40. Adam Beck I and II have an American counterpart: the Robert Moses Power Generating Station in Lewiston, New York. It’s just across the River, giving us a view of its full width and height. It was opened in 1961, five years after its predecessor disastrously collapsed, and is the largest of all the Niagara hydroelectric stations. As with Adam Beck II, water from above the Falls is diverted through tunnels into a forebay behind this dam. The water falls under gravity through penstocks (channels for conveying water) to 13 turbine generators and thence back into the Niagara River, producing up to 2,675 megawatts of electricity. Robert Moses (1888-1981), the unelected and often controversial “Master Builder” behind many major urban developments in New York City, was chairman of the New York State Power Authority at the time of its construction. It’s currently the third largest hydroelectric station in the USA, behind the Grand Coulee Dam but way ahead of the Hoover Dam. So important is tourism at Niagara Falls that there’s a Niagara Water Diversion Treaty of 1950 between Canada and the USA to ensure that an “unbroken curtain of water” flows over the Falls during daylight hours in tourist season. Both Beck and Moses hydroelectric plants divert more water from the Niagara River system at night, thus preserving the “look” of the Falls.

41. The Niagara Gorge is at its deepest (98 m) at Queenston, which is why the great hydroelectric plants are located near there. Its depth gradually declines to about half of that as we approach the Falls themselves (51 m). Still, the canyon is always impressive. Here, for the moment free of monstrous concrete and steel impositions, the Gorge makes a sharp turn to the southeast. The tops of highrise buildings overlooking the Falls can be seen poking above the rim. We are closing in on… the Whirlpool!

42A & B. These strange metal structures have nothing to do with power generation. They are part of the WildPlay Whirlpool Adventure Course overlooking the Niagara Whirlpool. The towers and connected wires allow suspended climbing, jumping, ziplining, and swinging aerial games, all the while offering great views of the Niagara River and Whirlpool. Here you’ll find suspended obstacles, wobbly bridges, mini ziplines, log ladders, rope swings and cargo nets that guests can navigate at their own speed. But sadly, no, the facility is not open at the moment.

43. The churning waters of the Whirlpool, which average 38 m in depth, can be seen here from a viewing platform near the Adventure Course. The cables belong to the Whirlpool Aero Car (see #45 below), and although both ends of the cables are in Canada thanks to the dogleg in the River’s course, the aerial car actually crosses and recrosses the midriver Canadian/US border in the course of its run.

44. The Niagara Whirlpool occurs at a northwest to northeast elbow in the Niagara River about 6 km downstream from the Falls. Ever since the last Ice Age, the Falls have been retreating southward in the direction of Lake Erie as a result of their (in geological terms) rapid erosion of the Escarpment edge. Over 4,000 years ago, when the Falls reached this point, the Niagara River washed away the soft filling of a pre-glacial river valley, and the Whirlpool was created. It normally turns in a counterclockwise direction, but reverses if sufficient water is diverted from the River by the power plants downstream. The whitewater rapids upstream and the water in the Whirlpool itself run at up to 48 km/h and are classed according to the International Scale of River Difficulty as either “V. Extremely Difficult” or “VI. Unrunnable.” Of course, classification VI makes this stretch of the River a magnet for daredevils.

Photo of Leonardo Torres y Quevedo in 1917,
courtesy of Wikipedia

45A, B & C. It’s not till we’ve almost rounded the Whirlpool that we get a look at the Niagara Spanish Aerocar. It was designed by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo (1852-1936) and even has its own historical plaque in English, Spanish, and French. Torres y Quevedo (left), born in a small village in Cantabria, northern Spain, was a mathematician and Esperanto speaker who had a significant role in the early development of analytical and calculating machines, dirigible airship construction, chess automata, and robots worked by remote control. He was also a pioneer in the use of cable cars, constructing one in Spain as early as 1887. Evidently a technician worthy of the name Leonardo! His most famous legacy is this aerial car that was built 1913-16 and has run smoothly ever since, offering a maximum of 35 standing passengers a spectacular ride of about 1 km over the Whirlpool and back between March and November. If this ride has survived more than a hundred years, I suspect it’ll be back after the Covid-19 pandemic.

46A & B. The Ten Thousand Buddhas Sarira Stupa is not a place you’d expect to find as we enter increasingly garish, touristy Niagara Falls. It’s a high-rise Buddhist temple on the land side of the Parkway, which at this point has reverted to its older name, River Road. In tiered pagoda style, it was opened to the public in 2001. It was constructed “to facilitate the expounding of Dharma and the propagation of Buddhism” here where visitors from all over the world normally swarm. The main feature of the first floor is a seven-ton bronze statue of the Buddha. On the seventh floor is the huge Grand Bell of World Peace. It has only been rung once, and then the vibration shattered all the windows on that level! To mark its 50th anniversary, the Buddhist Association of Canada opened a Museum of Buddhism here. There are Buddhist artifacts and memorabilia from China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Tibet, including 2,200 small Buddha statues. Impressive, but still a few short of ten thousand.

47A & B. The second road crossing across the Niagara River as we head upstream is the spandrel-braced, steel-arch Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. It connects the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario (pop. 88,000) with the smaller city of Niagara Falls, New York (pop. 50,000). About 2 km north of the Falls, it was opened in 1897. Its upper deck is a single-track rail bridge used by the Maple Leaf passenger train jointly operated by US Amtrak and Canadian VIA Rail that normally plies daily between Penn Station in New York City and Union Station in Toronto, taking a leisurely twelve hours. During the pandemic, however, the train goes only as far as Niagara Falls, NY, i.e., it does not cross the Canadian border. The lower deck of the bridge is a toll road reserved for non-commercial vehicles, all of whose passengers must have a NEXUS pass. These passes are granted to citizens of either Canada or the USA who are low-risk frequent cross-border travellers. The bridge also has a pedestrian walkway, though this was closed after the 9/11 attacks and has never reopened. At the moment there is very little traffic of any kind on this bridge.

48. If these were normal times, about fourteen million people would be expected to visit the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario this year. The Falls themselves are the most popular tourist attraction in Canada! But Covid-19 has hit this city hard, and an estimated 98% of its tourism sector has been laid off. The vast majority of foreign visitors come here from the USA. But American visitors to the very tourist-oriented Canadian side of the Falls are down to zero, as the land border is closed to all but essential travel. This empty tourism information centre on River Road with someone camping in a tent outside perhaps encapsulates the state of the local tourist trade.

Annie Edson Taylor, first to survive a trip over Niagara Falls
in a barrel, 24 October 1901
Francis J. Petrie Photograph Collection, courtesy of Wikipedia

49A & B. We’re getting close the Falls now, and in range of the hoopla and daredevilry for which this stretch of the Niagara River has been notorious for years. Outside a motel on River Road stands “The Original Hill’s Barrel,” at least according to the label (above). But anyone can see that it’s not a barrel, and if it dates from July 1949 it can’t be original. The first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel was 63-year-old Annie Edson Taylor (1838-1921), a native of New York State, in 1901. That’s Annie with her converted pickle barrel. William “Red” Hill, Sr. (1888-1942), born locally, was Niagara’s most famous daredevil and riverman. Red Hill never went over the Falls in a barrel; but he did run the Niagara Rapids below the Falls several times, once becoming stuck in the Whirlpool for three hours, his barrel spinning violently. He was noted for his rescue of as many as 28 people, as well as having pulled over a hundred drowned corpses from the River. Red Hill died in 1942, so this “original” barrel of 1949 cannot be his. His son Red Hill, Jr. attempted to outdo his father by going over Horseshoe Falls in 1951, not in a barrel but in a contraption made from inner tubes he’d designed himself. It disintegrated on impact, and Hill Junior was killed. So the pictured object can’t have been his. It must be the 650 lb steel “barrel” belonging to Major Lloyd Hill, Red Jr.’s brother, who successfully navigated the Whirlpool Rapids in it a number of times starting in July 1949. On that first trip he too became stranded in the Whirlpool and had to be rescued by the Niagara Fire Department. But Major Hill never went over the Falls in this or any other barrel. Of course, all of this makes Annie’s feat in her pickle barrel even more extraordinary.

[Part 5 coming soon]