“Water has a secret heart. It contains the power of movement.”
Not my words, but those spoken during the Niagara Parks Power Station light and sound show, Currents. And a fitting expression of the lifeblood that once flowed through this historic hydroelectric power station at the top of Horseshoe Falls. Today, this Niagara Falls attraction has not one but two new ways to appreciate the literal power of all that moving water: the Niagara Parks Power Station and its newest addition, The Tunnel!
The Niagara Parks Power Station, Re-imagined for the 21st Century
In 2021, Niagara Parks re-opened the historic William Birch Rankine Generating Station to the public as a thoughtfully reimagined attraction that educates and entertains visitors about both the history of the hydro-electric plant and the power of the water that once flowed through here.
Originally built at the turn of the twentieth century using horse and carriage power, this electricity-generating facility required both engineering prowess and a huge outlay of manpower. Before construction on the structure could even begin, the powerful Niagara River had to be held back, requiring a huge coffer dam to be built to divert the water away from the building site.
Blasting, mining, and drilling followed, in order to build the rest of the infrastructure needed: the water intakes, the wheel pit to house the giant shafts of the turbines, and a tunnel 18 stories below ground to provide an outflow for the water. The whole plant needed to be solid enough to withstand the huge forces that would be placed on it, and it needed to last. Special arched foundations under the powerhouse had to be designed to support the massive generators on the floor above, and even the control room panels were made of marble to ensure they would last a hundred years.
And last it did: once it started generating power in 1905 and for the next 100 years, the Rankine Generating Station helped run everything from elevators and movie projectors to the furnaces of the steel plants in nearby Hamilton. It held the distinction of being the first major power plant on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls – until it was officially closed in 2006.
The Power at the Niagara Parks Power Station is Turned Back On
The Rankine Generating plant lay shuttered for almost 15 years, until Niagara Parks re-opened its doors as a one-of-a-kind-museum and tribute to Edwardian-era engineering. (Today it holds a different title as “the only fully intact, decommissioned hydro-electric power plant of its era in the world”. )
But you don’t have to be a techie or an engineer to appreciate this attraction. Today visitors can explore the massive power station, renamed the Niagara Parks Power Station, via a self-guided tour and interesting interactive displays that help to put this facility into historical context and demonstrate the power of the Niagara River it harnessed.
“This building is a shrine to the spark of innovation. ..to grasp the raw power of nature and harvest it.”
“Currents”: Niagara’s Power Re-Interpreted
In the evenings, the Niagara Parks Power Station returns to life, with a multi-sensory light and sound show called Currents. The interior of the Power House transforms with image-mapped projections on the massive generators and walls and an interpretive narration. Some of these projections are interactive, the lights reacting with visitors and following them as they move around the space.
Like the water that used to flow through here, visitors can now become the source that generates movement.
The Tunnel: Niagara Parks Goes Deeper in 2022
In 2022, Niagara Parks unveiled the final component of its Niagara Parks Power Station experience, and it’s one of the most spectacular of the Niagara Falls Park attractions: The Tunnel.
The Tunnel gives visitors access to the original 2200-metre long underground conduit (called a tailrace tunnel) that returned the diverted Niagara river waters back into the river below Horseshoe Falls. Completed in 1902, it was purposely designed to discharge the water much closer to the level of the river so as to be more discreet and aesthetically pleasing than the American power plants downstream which spewed water from higher up the gorge walls.
As it turns out, this river-level feature is one of the reasons why visitors have such a rewarding experience.
Walk the Path of the Water in The Tunnel
Visitors first descend 18 stories below ground in a glass elevator that allows them to see the massive turbine shafts that would have been activated by the water flowing down over them. Once at the bottom, they enter The Tunnel and walk along its newly-constructed concrete floor as it slowly winds it way down towards the river. (Claustrophobics need not worry, as the tunnel is huge, airy, and well lit.)
The reward, of course, is at the end as you approach the proverbial ‘light at the end of the Tunnel’: visitors see the American Falls framed in the archway, and after emerging completely, they are treated to a 180-degree panoramic view of both the American and the Horseshoe Falls.
This water-level platform is the only one of its kind in Niagara Falls, and it’s amazing to be able to admire both falls from this unique perspective.
Even if you’ve been to Niagara Falls many times, this is an entirely new way to experience the Falls, and its well worth it.
Experiencing the Power of Niagara Falls
It’s not until you really see Niagara Falls up close that you can truly appreciate the power of all this water flowing over the edge to the river 160 feet below. It’s no wonder that early twentieth-century engineers strove to harness its energy and convert it to practical power, ushering in the age of electricity.
Today, thanks to the Niagara Falls Power Station and The Tunnel, visitors don’t just learn about the power of the water that flowed through here, they can follow its path from above the brink of the Falls to hundreds of feet below.
Pretty impressive, given that the only other people who can say the same probably did so in a barrel.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR THE NIAGARA PARK POWER STATION AND THE TUNNEL
COST: Adult admission for the Currents show including The Tunnel start at $28 (more for guided tours). You can book tickets on the Niagara Parks website, where you can also find discount bundles if you are planning to visit other Niagara Parks attractions.
WHAT TO WEAR IN THE TUNNEL: The Tunnel is somewhat cool inside (about 60 degrees F, 16 Celsius) and you may also get a little wet on the outdoor platform, depending on which way the mist from the Falls is blowing, so be prepared. Also, wear comfortable shoes for the 2000-metre walk.
ACCESSIBILITY: Both the Niagara Parks Power Station and The Tunnel are stroller-friendly and wheelchair accessible, but there are no washroom facilities in the Tunnel, only in the Power Station.
Special thanks to Niagara Parks who hosted Henk and I on a media visit to the Power Station and the Tunnel.