I confess, the inspiration for our decision to go to Niagara Falls, New York, for our 25th wedding anniversary came from Superman II, in which Lois and Clark are assigned to do a story on the wedding industry in Niagara Falls and Lois ends up discovering Clark’s secret identity in an overly romantic and tacky hotel room.
I was thinking of the beauty of the falls, mostly, and a chance to be on a vacation alone with my husband.
What I also found, with the help of arrangements from the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation, was an incredibly geeky place, starting with Nikola Tesla’s longest-lasting achievement, which is the harnessing of the great power of Niagara Falls for long-distance electricity.
In 1895, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla built the first large-scale hydro-electric power plant, which triggered not only the development of Niagara Falls as an industrial center but jump-started the world’s entry into the electronic age. The original Westinghouse generators remained in operation until 1961, when completely new facilities were constructed downstream at the impetus of planner Robert Moses. It is at that facility, the Niagara Power Vista, four miles downstream from the falls, where you can find the map in the image above.
Sadly, the statue and the discussion of alternating current and the original Adams Plant are about the only vestiges of Tesla’s legacy left in Niagara. The Adams Plant has fallen into serious disrepair, with only the Transformer House still standing, though there are some ongoing efforts to restore and preserve it.
To appreciate the electrical power generated by Niagara Falls and the efforts it took to harness it, both for good and ill, the Niagara Power Vista is a must-visit. It was built in three years at the direction of Robert Moses after a good portion of the Schoellkopf Power Plant, located just past the American Falls, collapsed into the gorge. You can still see vestiges of this plant today, especially on the Maid of the Mist boat tours.
The museum at the Power Vista is free and that includes a tour guide. Our guide last week, Diana Bayger, the Senior Tour Guide, Public, Governmental and Regulatory Affairs, had a number of stories about the plant from her years working at the facility. Her favorite group, she said, was the reunion of the workers who built the plant itself, who told her a number of stories, including one that included being buzzed by a failing military jet while sitting on a crane atop the uncompleted bridge over the Niagara River. During the tour, she also pointed to one of the buildings at the Canadian facility as the culprit in the Northeast Blackout of 1965.
Before 9/11, Bayger, said, visitors often received tours of the facility itself, but now the public is restricted to the visitor’s center. But it’s still a fascinating place, full of interactive displays to teach children the difference between direct and alternating currents, an electric lab with an operating model of a hydroelectric turbine, and over 40 other displays.
My favorite was the huge diorama of the land surrounding the power plant, from the intake canal to the reservoir and back to the river again. Bayger told us that it was so detailed that when she visited the Power Vista as a child, she could pick out her grandfather’s house.
There is one new edition to the Power Vista that refers to part of its checkered history. The exhibit is called “The Times of the Tuscarora” and details the history of the Tuscarora Native American Nation from 800 CE to the present. The Nation was displaced from their lands by the building of the Power Vista, lands they fought to keep all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they lost. In his dissenting opinion in 1960, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said “Some things are worth more than money and the costs of a new enterprise … I regret that this Court is to be the governmental agency that breaks faith with this dependent people. Great Nations, like Great Men, Should Keep Their Word.”
The other often-critcized part of the Vista surrounds the Robert Moses State Parkway, which runs along the river from the Falls to Lake Ontario. It even once ran through the beautiful Niagara Falls State Park, where I spent most of an afternoon walking with my husband, but that road was eliminated in 1985. Some preservationists want to eliminate the road along the river and open it back up to nature.
It seems the struggle between using the power of Niagara Falls and preserving the beauty of Niagara Falls has been there since the beginning. For those looking for a more in-depth explanation, I highly recommend The Power Trail: History of Hydroelectricity at Niagara. It has detailed maps, photos, and explanations for the several different periods of electrical power in Niagara and lays out what’s left of the old compared to what exists now.