To hear Marcelo Gruosso tell it, the 115-year-old Niagara Parks Power Station is Canada’s Mona Lisa of heritage properties.
The senior director of engineering at Niagara Parks leads the team responsible for breathing life into the once-abandoned hydroelectricity station that will open its doors to tourists this summer – and he makes no secret of his affection for the building.
“There’s an awe factor with this place,” says Gruosso of what was the first hydroelectric AC generating station to be built in Canada. It was responsible in large part for the industrialization of Southern Ontario, but was decommissioned in 2006.
“Incredibly smart people, before there was ever power, came up with all of this – the idea, engineering and equipment – dug these tunnels, and then put it all together and had it working. They started building in 1901 and were producing power in 1905.”
Though the building, scheduled to open on July 1, is an architectural stunner, it’s what lies inside and underneath that will win people over, says Kim Viney, senior director of business development for Niagara Parks
“We call it the cathedral of power,” Viney says. “There’s a sense of awe and reverence you get when you enter those huge doors and walk into this space. I had one architect come in and she almost started to cry.”
This is the kind of place that young families and engineering geeks will both love. Visitors will be able to choose between guided and self-guided tours of Generator Hall, the 173.7-metre long, 18.3-metre tall main floor of the plant. There, exhibits, including some developed in conjunction with Sudbury’s Science North, help explain the water flow in the plant; hands-on opportunities include a chance to help solve simulated emergencies (such as a storm-blown tree branch threatening entry into the power station’s penstocks and wrecking the turbines below) using levers and audio instructions. Many of the exhibits focus on people, and alongside Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse – who were involved with the building’s creation – Indigenous peoples’ and women’s perspectives are shared. Guests can also use their own handheld devices to scan story markers for deeper content.
The journey from decommissioned power generator to the region’s biggest tourism initiative has been long and arduous.
The station is like an iceberg, with the above-ground Generator Hall – housing a total of 11 alternating current (AC) 25Hz generators that each produced 10,000 horsepower – being the smallest part of its operations. That’s where 140,000 litres of water per second would have rushed in from the Niagara River through large steel headgates.
From there the water would travel 54.8 metres underground through 11 three-metre-wide vertical steel tubes known as penstocks, turning electricity generating turbines as it passed, before continuing into a common wheel pit and rushing out through a 6.24-metre wide tunnel to the falls.
The building – and the generators and equipment it contained – had sat ignored and unused since its decommissioning. In 2018, a 10-year strategic plan introduced by the Niagara Parks Commission, which has a mission to preserve and conserve, put the possibility of a resurrection in motion. Buy-in from the provincial government in 2020 (along with its offer of a $25-million loan) made it a reality.
The biggest restoration challenge was that parts of the building had suffered from its lack of upkeep. Gruosso was involved in 2017 when a concrete wall was built as a stop-gap measure to end years of water damage. In 2020, the commission’s engineering team committed to an even bigger undertaking: building a cofferdam to hold back one of the most powerful waterways in the world while they reinforced the walls. More than a century ago the original builders had done the same thing – without any modern-day equipment.
“They did it to create the plant,” Gruosso says. “A hundred and fifteen years later, we’re doing the same thing to preserve the plant. "
During restoration, geotechnical experts used maintenance shafts to assess everything from rock condition to electrical infrastructure. When Gruosso describes how his team built a swing stage inside the shaft and hoisted themselves down, it sounds like a scene out of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
“It’s the coolest space you’ll ever come across because every single floor has infrastructure and equipment that was built 115 years ago,” he says.
Niagara Parks chief executive officer David Adames says the investment supports the commission’s mandate to be “the environmental and cultural stewards of the Niagara River Corridor” while boosting tourism development at a time when the industry needs it most. The commission also operates other area attractions, including Journey Behind the Falls, the Butterfly Conservatory and the Whirlpool Aero Car.
The historical legacy of the station – documented by an extensive collection of photographs of what was, at the time of its creation, an engineering marvel – made it a heavy responsibility for tradespeople, Gruosso says.
“The workmanship in this place is unbelievable. They didn’t have diesel engines, they were doing all this with either steam or hard work or mechanical leverage. It is pretty incredible to be a part of that so many years later.”
All decisions big (how to preserve the original masonry work, metalwork and equipment) and small (what paint to use on the generators) were made with a strategic conservation plan in mind. And from the outset it was intended that the water that played such a pivotal role in this space would remain at the building’s heart.
Now, instead of thundering through the interior, it will be showcased through a 30-metre-wide water feature in the forebay. While the water has been tamed, Viney says the rush remains.
As the adaptive reuse work continues, so too will the expansion of tourism experiences. Night visits are expected to commence Sept. 3 with Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed, an immersive light and sound show where the power plant comes to life through laser effects, projection mapping and reactive technology. The 40-minute, 3D show designed by Thinkwell, a design firm from Montreal, will be time-ticketed to control capacity.
And by summer 2022, visitors will be able to replicate the water’s trip through the Tailrace Tunnel Experience. A glass-enclosed elevator will take them down the shaft and allow them to walk the almost 671 metres that it would have travelled – providing an all-new vantage point facing the American Falls and overlooking the Niagara Gorge.
“Anybody who’s been coming to the park has seen this building and probably always wondered what’s in there,” Viney says. “It’s going to be one of those experiences where you’ll walk in and your jaw will drop.”
Tickets for the Niagara Parks Power Station are available at niagaraparks.com.
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