At the end of the tunnel there is light.
And when the sun hits the misty air just right, the light is a dazzling rainbow that begins and ends in the churning pool of foam below Niagara Falls.
The brilliant arc of color is an added thrill for visitors who step out of the damp, dimly lit tunnel onto a platform that offers a whole new perspective of the falls.
Even on a cloudy day, the unobstructed view of the entire Canadian Horseshoe, American Falls, Rainbow Bridge and tour boats pounding the raging waters doesn’t disappoint.
It’s, in an overused word, great.
The tunnel, deep beneath Canada’s 1905 Niagara Power Plant, opened to the public in July, the second phase of a $25 million restoration of the facility, which was decommissioned in 2006.
Last summer, phase one reopened the magnificent Italian Renaissance-style building, which faces the river about halfway between the rim of the falls and the wreck of Old Scow. With its stunning architecture, massive generators and intriguing brass and cast iron fittings, the ‘Cathedral of Power’ was an instant hit.
“The response to phase one was phenomenal,” said David Adames, CEO of the Niagara Parks Commission, which owns the facility — now known as the Niagara Parks Power Station — along with two other aging power plants nearby.
“But that was even more amazing. It’s another way for people to connect with the water,” he says. “The tunnel was the last piece of the puzzle and really completes the picture.”
Adames is proud that both phases were completed “on time, on budget and during COVID”.
The gently sloping tunnel is chillingly cold, streams of water run down the brick walls, a half-mile long string of incandescent bulbs casts an eerie glow, and human voices echo in the domed chamber. Nevertheless, it is much more hospitable down there than when the power plant was in operation.
During those 100 years, streams of water that powered the turbines used to generate hydroelectric power thundered through the 2,200-foot tailrace tunnel at 30 feet per second before breaking through a portal in the escarpment’s great limestone wall and into the river returned.
Even now, visitors walking through the curving 25-foot-diameter tunnel can’t help but look back to make sure a giant wall of water isn’t thundering in their direction.
That the tunnel has survived a century of uninterrupted use and unbridled violence is a testament to the engineering and engineering mastery of the entire facility.
McMaster University engineering graduate Marcelo Gruosso, Senior Director of Engineering at NPC, spearheaded the plan to transform the complex into a viable tourist attraction.
“We knew we had to do something with it,” says Gruosso. “He was the only one left with all his original equipment. How could we not keep it?”
It took just a year to restore the cavernous generator hall, dominated by 11 generators, each weighing 125 tons with their cast-iron cases and complex internal mechanisms. There are six more layers or decks in front of the bottom level.
The tunnel was a bit trickier.
The steel gates that controlled the flow of water to the facility had to be sealed with concrete before an inspection of the tunnel could be conducted.
A window cleaner slewing platform was then built and in 2017 Gruosso and his team descended through a maintenance shaft into the dark abyss. Equipped with lighted hardhats, steel-toed boots, and large flashlights, the team descended the ladder into the total darkness of the tunnel.
It was both scary and exciting at the same time, Gruosso recalls.
They didn’t know what they would find, despite having studied the original, meticulously detailed construction documents as well as videos posted online by unauthorized urban investigators who had entered from the river end. But it was pretty much as they expected – wet, dark, and littered with crumbled bricks, tree branches, dead fish, trash, and other debris washed up by the river.
If the tunnel presented challenges in the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine what went into the 1901 excavation. There were no computers to do the critical mathematical calculations, just “great old-fashioned engineering”.
And the equipment was rudimentary at best: lanterns, dynamite, pickaxes, shovels, carts, pulleys, horses, steam-powered derricks, and plumb bobs attached to piano wire. It was grueling, dangerous work.
“They built it very cleverly,” says Gruosso. “The workmanship is flawless.”
The water was diverted into the facility and sent down through one of 11 cast-iron penstocks, huge vertical pipes 10 feet in diameter and 136 feet long. Five decks below, the water hit the turbine blades, turning a shaft that led back to the generators to produce electricity. After the water had served its purpose, it spilled back into the river through the tailrace tunnel. Meanwhile, circuit breakers at the power station connected the electricity to an underground cable duct, where it was transported to a transformer station and distributed along power lines.
But as times changed, the plant’s 25 Hertz frequency no longer met modern 60 Hz standards and newer plants were built.
For Gruosso, however, the Niagara Parks Power Station remains an “engineering marvel” and its restoration is the most remarkable project he has ever worked on.
“A lot of people took a lot of effort,” he said. “The feedback we have received is exceptional. Nobody comes out disappointed.”
when you go
What: Niagara Parks Power Plant and Tunnel
Where: 7005 Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls, Ontario.
When: Power plant and tunnel open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed sound and light show nightly at 7:00 p.m
Entry: Power Plant and Tunnel $28 adults, $18.25 children; Power Plant, Tunnels and Currents $46 adults, $30 children; Electricity only $30 adults, $19.50 children; Guided tours are also possible for a surcharge.
Information: 1-877-642-7275 or www.niagaraparks.com