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The "cathedral of power" turned Niagara Falls into electricity from 1905 to 2006.

Niagara Parks Power Station

Field review by the editors.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

"Imagine that you are that drop of water," says a disembodied voice over the sound of percussive drips. "You can go where you want, wherever your flow takes you. You can run into other drops, splash together, see what happens."

In Power Plaza, pose with part of the generating machinery.
In Power Plaza, pose with part of the generating machinery.

This is not an exercise in social visualization at some New Age meditation retreat. It's the opening of the nightly multimedia show at the Niagara Parks Power Station, a 1905 plant built to turn Niagara Falls into electricity.

Nine billion gallons of water tumble over Niagara Falls every minute, making it a tempting spot for a hydroelectric plant. Yet the Power Station, perched at the precipice of Horseshoe Falls, wasn't powerful enough to satisfy the electricity demands of the 21st century. It was closed in 2006.

Fifteen years later, Niagara Parks reopened the Station as a tourist attraction. Christened "the cathedral of power," it had been built solid and alluring -- marble control panels, mosaic tiles, Beaux-Arts architecture -- to fit in with the picture-perfect Falls (Unlike the utilitarian and modern stations out of sight further down Niagara Gorge). "The workers did a great job maintaining it for over 100 years," said Jim Hill, one of the Power Station's tour guides and its resident historian. "When we moved in, all of the brass was still polished. You could've eaten off of the floor."

Tron is made real: the nightly multimedia show at the Power Station.
Tron is made real: the nightly multimedia show at the Power Station.

Tourists dwarfed on the viewing platform at the base of the Falls.
Tourists dwarfed on the viewing platform at the base of the Falls.

The Station's main Generator Hall sits beneath 60-foot-high ceilings, is as long as two football fields, and houses a bewildering array of Industrial Age equipment, most of it built on a colossal scale: multi-ton exciters, governors, dynamos, alternators, regulators, induction motors. Everything is immense, including the bronze front doors, a collection of well-used wrenches hung on a wall, and a 3-D model that helps to explain the H2O flow through the Station. "You turned on the power plant like you'd turn on a tap," said Jim: tens of thousands of gallons of rushing water each second, in and out. Displays try to put a human face on all of it, recounting the contributions of Indigenous residents, George Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla.

Marble control panel operated the Power Station like turning a tap off and on.
Marble control panel operated the Power Station like turning a tap off and on.

Despite Generator Hall's vast size, it's the smallest teaser of the Power Station. Glass elevators drop visitors nine stories underground into an immense chamber blasted out of solid rock. It was in this lightless hole that Niagara's falling water spun the Power Station turbines, then poured into an equally huge tunnel dug out to the base of Horseshoe Falls, where it spilled back into the Lower Niagara River.

Approaching the end of the Power Station's tailrace tunnel.
Approaching the end of the Power Station's tailrace tunnel.

The tunnel, lined with concrete and vitrified brick nearly two feet thick, is 2,198 feet long, and wide and tall enough to drive a double-decker bus through (with room to spare). It's a long walk from the elevators in the chamber pit, 15 minutes each way, and as you reach the far end you start to hear the pounding cascade just outside of the exit. Free rain ponchos are provided when you reach the outdoor platform, which offers a panoramic river-level view of all of Niagara's various cataracts. You have to shout to be heard, and it's colder down here than it is up top, but you're just far enough away from Horseshoe Falls that you usually won't have to seal your smartphone in a waterproof baggie. The perpetual mist forms rainbows on sunny days.

Jim pointed out that all of this public access is possible only because the Power Station no longer generates power. If it still did, and visitors rode down those elevators, they probably wouldn't come back alive.

Dramatic moment in the show: the Power Station is revived!
Dramatic moment in the show: the Power Station is revived!

The after-dark multimedia show in Generator Hall is a several-steps-advanced evolutionary upgrade to the laser wireframes once beamed onto Grand Coulee Dam, another temple of hydroelectricity. The narrator, who sounds young enough to be in high school, tells the audience, "This building is a monument... a cathedral, a shrine to the spark of inspiration and flame of ingenuity that pushes us to dream." A musical score, variously ethereal, bombastic, and triumphant, puts you in the proper frame of mind while projection mapping and sound effects transform the Hall and its machinery into a cityscape at night, a Tron-like network of glowing hydro-pathways, and Niagara Falls itself, flooding down the walls and across the floor. "Reactive technology" follows you with visuals wherever you walk, changing you into that imagined drop of water whether you want to be or not.

"Pools of energy are forming all around you," says the soothing narrator. "It's becoming part of you. And you're becoming part of it. Follow it. Discover how it connects you to one another. Into a sacred space."

We asked Jim what the former workers at the Niagara Parks Power Station -- the ones who used those giant wrenches -- thought about the multimedia show. "They just love that people get to go through the place," was his tactful answer. "They just think it's great that it has survived."

Niagara Parks Power Station

7021 Niagara River Pkwy, Niagara Falls, ON, Canada
Between the Table Rock Welcome Centre and the Floral Showhouse. Park in Lot A next to the Power Station.
Daily 9-dusk. Multimedia show dusk-9:30 (hourly on the half-hour) (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $28 self-guided daytime, $54 guided tour daytime plus nighttime show.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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