Augustus Porter's hydrocanal map
Even the earliest Europeans to lay eyes on the Falls dreamt of harnessing its power. Waterwheels were in operation along the river from the 18th century, but no one could figure out how to harness the great Fall itself. Augustus and Peter Porter, first owners of Goat Island and water rights to Niagara, tried to sell the place in 1825, on completion of the Erie Canal, to “Eastern capitalists” who would develop its water power. Augustus tried again in 1847, just before he died, this time issuing the above map showing the planned route for a hydraulic canal. This canal was subsequently completed by Horace Day, coming into use in 1861.

Postcard: Niagara's milling district, Alcoa front and center
By the 1880s, when Frederick Law Olmsted was helping lead the movement to preserve Niagara Falls, a dense “milling district” had grown up downstream of the Falls. The factories clustered there used the hydraulic canal to power their waterwheels, discharging the water over the side of the gorge. Olmsted considered the milling district to be an eyesore, but he didn't try to get rid of it: after all, commerce is commerce.

Postcard: Niagara Falls Power Company powerhouses
After the creation of the Niagara Reservation in 1885, Gilded Age industrialists moved to develop Niagara's water power—choosing electrical transmission as the best method. Tesla and Westinghouse's demonstration of an alternating current polyphase motor showed for the first time a way of transporting electricity over long distances. To help promote their new endeavor, the power brokers hired blue-chip architects McKim, Mead & White to design the new powerhouses, which became tourist attractions in their own right, until taken out of service in 1926.

Postcard: inside the 1895 power plant
Once running, the power plants were as big a tourist attraction as the Falls. Tourists were impressed by the clean, quiet operation of the electrical machinery. This was no longer William Blake's “dark, Satanic mills.” This was power for a new industrial age: gleaming, efficient and huge. H.G. Wells was not alone in declaring the power plants more interesting than the Falls, and looking forward to the day when the waterfall would disappear completely into the turbines, reappearing as light and power.

Postcard: Ontario's grand early power plant
The Electrical Development Company Ltd. was the first Canadian company to generate power at Niagara, completing this station in 1906. Canada's Power Commission Act of the same year established the public Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, which purchased the plant in 1922.

Power Company brochure from the Niagara Falls Public Library
When park commissioners and the public complained about increasing water diversions by industrialist developers, the spin doctors got to work. This 1924 power company brochure asked “Why is the Horseshoe eating itself to ruin?” The answer was clear: there was too much water! Cleverly,“preserving” Niagara's beauty was now defined not as leaving it alone, but as taking more of its water away.

Postcard: the destruction of the Schoellkopf Power Plant
Built by Jacob Schoellkopf, the Schoellkopf Power Plant actually produced electric power before the Niagara Falls Power Company's famous achievement. In 1881, a Brush electric generator there powered streetlights in downtown Niagara Falls. The plant was added onto in 1895 and 1904. The Schoellkopf plant remained in service until a landslide destroyed it in 1956. All but one worker managed to escape.

The ruined Schoellkopf Plant today
The Schoellkopf Geological Museum is on the gorge rim above the destroyed plant today. Some ruins from the old Schoellkopf power plant still exist in the gorge: intrepid walkers can find a crushed turbine and the outfall of an old penstock along the gorge hiking trails.

The Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant
One person who was happy about the Schoellkopf plant's destruction was Robert Moses, head of the New York Power Authority. He was able to get the state legislature to approve the Niagara Redevelopment Act, giving his Authority the right to re-develop Niagara's power. Moses set about toppling every objection raised by local citizens and communities, issuing glossy brochures like this one to promote his project.

New York Power Authority brochure
Moses decided to build his power plant reservoir on part of the Tuscarora Indian Reservation. When the Tuscaroras objected, Moses produced another glossy brochure showing how the Tuscaroras weren't really using their land anymore. His nasty campaign against them finally paid off in a 1960 Supreme Court decision letting him take their land. Today, almost 10% of the Tuscarora Reservation is at the bottom of Moses's reservoir.

U.S. and Canadian power plants on the Niagara Gorge
Today, the New York Power Authority's Robert Moses Power Plant faces off with Ontario Power Generation's Sir Adam Beck I and II Plants. Together, the plants produce about 5 gigwatts of power from Niagara's water: enough to power about 5 million homes. The 1950 treaty between the U.S. and Canada ensures that 100,000 cubic feet of water per second goes over the Falls between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. during the tourist season.

back to top

© 2008 Ginger Strand. Website design by Caroline Caldwell Design