By Jonathan Milner
The Ontario Power Company of Niagara Falls, the one which is largely situated in the Gorge below the Falls, was completed in 1905 after the Niagara Parks Commission opened an agreement to lease the use of water to the American developers. It was the second of the original three power generation plants to be built on the Canadian side of the Niagara River; the first, and contemporary, being the Canadian Niagara Power Company and the other being the later Electric Development Company, also known as the Toronto Power Station. The Ontario’s conduits drew 12,000 cubic feet of water per second. This water was drawn from Dufferin Islands and conveyed two kilometers to the Penstocks where the water plunged to the Power Plant below, spinning twelve Francis Turbines and generating more than 150,000 horsepower. It generated electricity to different capacities until 1999 when electrical generation ceased. But how did we get to this situation with an American company operating on the Canadian shore? Why are these plants not in use anymore.
Work on the Power House of Ontario
Power Company from Goat Island, October 14, 1904
It could be argued there was a clear distinction between the original attitudes in New York and Ontario. The US was able to flourish early due to its industriousness (for example Buffalo had a population larger than Toronto) but also the need of the New York government to purchase parcels of land for use in parklands when that became desirable. On the Ontario side, the Queen Victoria Park Commission, in 1885, expropriated from the owners of the businesses the lands along the Niagara River called the Chain Reserve. The Canadian business owners were often as predatory as their American counterparts, they just did not own the land upon which they preyed. It was this land, the Chain Reserve, that the Commission would come to own and later lease to a company for the purpose of production of hydroelectricity. The first company was the Canadian Niagara Power Company, but this company failed to meet its hydroelectrical production goal, thus the Commission opened the lease to another company, the Ontario Power Company of Niagara Falls. Another company would also open a generation station; this was a Canadian company called the Electric Development Company, later the Toronto Generation Station.
The American government, when it came to the development vs. protection of the Niagara River, followed the former and established private ownership of many parcels of land; the government actually sold the Niagara River including the American Falls to the two Porter brothers. Electricity production using the energy from Niagara Falls started on the US side with Joseph Schoellkopf, who purchased the land which was previously owned by three other companies. In 1877 the company, Niagara Falls Hydraulic and Manufacturing Company, produced electricity which, in 1881, was distributed by Brush Electric Light Company. A large scientific issue at the time was how to transfer the electricity from Niagara Falls, New York to centres of Industry such as Buffalo. Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla provided a solution: alternating current which could transmit electricity farther than direct current which was proposed and used by Thomas Edison’s group. Direct current is better at transmitting a farther distance, but more Voltage is needed and the transforming of the electricity into something useable is much more expensive for Direct Current than Alternating Current. In 1881-1884, the Ontario government, under the leadership of Sir Oliver Mowat, was attempting to secure Public/Crown control of the Canadian side of the Niagara River via the River and Streams Act which ensured that the waters of Ontario were the property and responsibility of Ontario rather than private parties and/or the federal government.
The Canadian Niagara Power Company Generation Station, also called the Rankine Plant, was the first of these three to be completed after a strained start which began in 1888, but it would not start producing electricity until 1905. This Company signed an agreement and lease in order to monopolize the production of water on the Canadian side of the Niagara River; however they fell short of their promised output, allowing the Ontario Power Company of Niagara Falls a foothold. The other Generation Station, the Electric Development Company, also called the Toronto Power Plant, was a year and a bit behind both the Ontario and Canadian and was finished in 1906. It is probably the best looking power plant as it is constructed in Beaux-Arts style, it is also an National Historic Site due to this uniqueness and it being the first Canadian-owned generation station on the Canadian Side of Niagara Falls.
The Ontario Power Generation Company of Niagara Falls was completed in 1905, the middle child, and is the largest of the three. It is also unique because its conduits travel the farthest at around two kilometres from Dufferin Islands to the Power Station. The Ontario plant also greatly changed the geography of Dufferin Islands due to the movement of the fill to construct the inner and outer forebays and tunnels in which the conduits rest; the fill was used to beautify the surrounding area and create new islands as well as the weir that extends to shield the outer forebay. Due to the need of having constantly flowing water, even in the winter, lest the turbines be damaged, the Intake for the Ontario Plant has several levels of filtering for ice. The first level is the weir that extends into the Niagara River which ought to prevent ice from crashing into the Screen House due to a physical barrier which guides debris and ice away from the coastline and allows the Upper Rapids to carry such potentially harmful things away. The screen house, as the name implies, screens for larger items. It is 320 feet long and has 16 inlets sunk deep into the water to ensure that ice does not get into the inner forebay. The final stage before the conduit is the Gate House, which is a 120-foot long building with a façade made of Roman Stone; it has large arches giving view into the facility, however the purpose of this building is to ensure that the water entering the conduits is free from all debris which would otherwise harm the generators. Thus it has three very large inlets built beneath the waterline. These were used to feed the three conduits buried beneath the ground.
Map for Ontario Power Company of Niagara Falls — Dufferin Islands
The water, once admitted into the conduit through the gate house, would flow through three unique conduits, all were encased in concrete but they were all made of different materials; the first was steel, the second was made of reinforced concrete and the final one was made from wood. The wooden conduit was rather quickly relegated to disuse due to its material. The conduits would transfer 12,000 cubic feet of water per second toward the over-flow tank for the steel conduit and toward the surge tank for the reinforced concrete conduit. Both over-flow and surge tank are atop the same piece of land. The over-flow is nearer the cataract and has a cruciform geometry (on the left of the image); the surge tank is closer to the Queen Victoria Park Restaurant and is cylindrical (on the right of the image). The over-flow and surge tanks would only be used if there was either too much or too little water in the conduits. Water which moved into the over-flow structure would lose momentum due to the rise and would then fall back down through spill-way into the River below; water which flowed into the surge-tank could later be used in case of lowered water levels in the conduits. This was required as too much water pressure could damage the equipment.
Prior to the over-flow and surge tanks the water would flow over vertical penstocks which were controlled by separate, motor-driven, 9 feet in diameter valves. The penstocks are each vertical and range from 225 to 307 feet in length. The falling water in each penstock, 12 in total, is divided in two as below, in the generation building. Each of the 12 Generators have two Francis Turbines which attached horizontally to each of the generators via a drive-shaft. The water shoots over and around the turbine which spins the shaft, spinning the Alternating Current Generator producing electricity.
The used water flowed between the two turbines through the Tail-Race (another conduit) venting the water into the Niagara River below. The electricity was then sent to the Distribution Building located atop the moraine. Here it was transformed in voltage from 12,000 to 60,000 Volts. This was required for long distance transmission.
Gate House and Inner Forebay
Screen House and Inner Forebay
Ontario Power Company Over-flow and Surge Tank at Queen Victoria Park
Map for Ontario Power Company of Niagara Falls — Distribution, Surge and Over-flow Tanks and Generation Station
City of Niagara Falls. Heritage Property Details. “Toronto Powerhouse”. https://niagarafalls.ca/living/heritage/273310-toronto-powerhouse.hp.
Nunn, Paul N. The Development of the Ontario Power Company. Niagara Falls: Ontario Power Company, 1905. https://archive.org/details/developmentofont00nunnuoft.
Ontario Hydro. Niagara Falls Canada, A History. “River of Power”. Kiwanis Club of Stamford: Niagara Falls, 1967. Pages 361-372.
The Ontario Power Co. of Niagara Falls and the Ontario Transmission Company, Ltd. The Matthews-Northrup Works: Buffalo.
Topographic Map of the Niagara Gorge. 1913.
Ontario Horizontal Generator Unit in 1918
Interview with Brooke Blackburn
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen
The J4BL Book Club
Fall Film Series: Heroic Journeys – Black Histories on Screen