Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Power of Niagara

I picked Niagara Falls to talk about this week for three reasons. I was just there and have pictures of my own to post, I think it is interesting, and lastly, I’ll was there again on Saturday. There is a ton to write about, but what I think is the most alluring, other than its obvious natural beauty, is its history of hydro electricity. Niagara Falls is one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and was formed from the glaciers of The Last Ice Age. One thing that will be clearly absent from this blog is the idiotic stories of people going over the falls in a barrel. Dumb!

Today, there are power plants on either side of the continental border of Canada and the “US and A” (as Borat would say). These stations produce ¼ of the world’s hydro electric power. Hydro Electricity is created when energy is extracted from water by generators and turbines, returns the water with the same chemical make up. It is a renewable resource, and creates very little waste.

Even before the very beginnings of the use of electricity, Niagara Falls was a focus for generating power. In 1759, Daniel Joncairs dug a ditch to his nearby sawmill to power a water wheel from the Niagara River. Later on, Augustus and Peter Porter, brothers, purchased the rights to the Eastern rapids with plans to trench a hydraulic canal and reroute a portion of the water to a reservoir above. The water would then flow downward to the gorge and with the help of turbines, would power industrial machinery above.

In 1853, Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Co. was chartered. In following years, they successfully powered up the nearby city of Niagara Falls.
At that time, there was no way to run power a long distance because everything was run on direct current.

In the late 19th Century, The Niagara Power Co. offered a prize of $100,000 if someone could figure out how to get power to run longer distances. “Currently” it was running only about 2 miles. Enter Nikola Tesla. He won the contest with the principle of alternating current. He came up against a lot of resistance from Thomas Edison, his former teacher. Thomas Edison had previously developed alternating current, but it had a lot of 'bugs' and didn't work efficiently. He paid Tesla, while under his wing, a lot of money to further develop it. Shortly after, Nikola Tesla left Edison and introduced his latest development of alternating current. For the rest of his life, Edison discredited Tesla. The drama was “shocking”!

Today, we have alternating current/direct current or AC/DC. This means that now electricity can be run extremely long distances AND we would later have a late night bar anthem of drunk moms everywhere– “You Shook Me”. bleh!

Rumor has it that Mr. Tesla’s entry included this statement to Niagara Power:

“I’m the one that wants to be with you.
Deep inside I hope you feel it too. “

photo of Tesla from

(It’s not true…but…. I couldn’t resist!)

At this point in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s, power plants were being built on both sides of the border. This area did not escape tragedy, however. In 1895, the Schoelkopf Power Plant had a wall collapse from water seeping behind the rock face wall. In the morning, the workers noticed the wall leaking and attempted to slow it with sandbags. Too late! One worker died, but the others were luckily unhurt. I mention this to demonstrate that there was indeed struggle and failure when it came to the harnessing of the Falls. It was a long hard road full of shortages and not free of controversy. Another reason that I mention this is because THIS is MY WORST NIGHTMARE. If I believed in past lives, I would swear I was there to witness this. I am terrified of leaking and/or dripping water! Terrified!

Old power plant on the Canadian side.

There have been many people and companies involved in the development of the power usage of Niagara Falls, and I can’t possibly cover it all. Today’s result is the United States operating the two major power plants with an output of 2,700,000 KW of power and Canada outputting 2,338,000 KW out of 5 different plants. It is also been said that the actual force of The Falls has been backed off because of the nearby power plants. Figures as much as 50% less water flow currently as opposed to its natural flow. Don’t worry, it’s still wicked!

One other note that I’d like to point out is that my parents were witness to when the Falls were turned off completely in 1969. They say they have pictures, but I would bet that the film is still in the camera, in the toy box, in the sewing room and that is pretty safe to say.


  1. Great article! Very interesting. Are you originally from that area, or Horseheads? Seems that a lot of people that I went to school with weren't born in the area...

  2. Nope! I was born in Elmira and lived in HHDS until I went to college. Nate lives up there now until we get married, then I am making him Southern Fried!