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For more than a century, the imposing Beaux-Arts-style building perched beside Horseshoe Falls harnessed the fierce flow of the Niagara River to bring electricity to western New York and southern Ontario.

Now, Canada's first major hydroelectric power station is the newest major tourist attraction on the Canadian side of the falls. Amid a sea of commercialized activities that include zip lines, casinos and a climate-controlled SkyWheel, the Niagara Parks Power Station offers visitors a unique perspective of one of the world's most famous natural wonders.

Decommissioned in 2006, the power station sat idle for years until the Niagara Parks Commission, the self-funded government agency that oversees the area, took over and set in motion a plan to bring it back to life as a tourist attraction. After a nearly $19 million renovation, the 65,000-square-foot main hall opened to the public in July 2021, followed a year later by a walkable tunnel that ends at a large platform with unparalleled views of the entire Niagara Gorge.

The viewing platform at the end of the tunnel was the finishing touch of the restoration and is a key step in understanding the hydroelectric process from start to finish. Visitors descend by glass elevator to the wheel pit, where they follow the same path the spent water once took on its way back to the lower Niagara River. Here, the close-up views of Horseshoe Falls emphasize the power of the water and how it was harnessed back in the 1900s to generate electricity.

Beginning operation in 1905 using patents developed by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, the facility is one of the few power stations from the early 20th century to close with all its equipment intact, said Marcelo Gruosso, senior director of engineering and parks operations at the Niagara Parks Commission.

The people who worked at the Canadian Niagara Power Co. "took exceptional care and pride in it," he said. "Everything you could imagine was still there when it closed. They even left the drawing board."

Gruosso and his team had access to 1,500 archival photos dating as far back as 1901, chronicling "every step of the build," he said. That included the construction of a huge temporary cofferdam to divert the thundering water from the building site. More than a century later, workers used modern technology and tools to build a similar watertight enclosure to hold back the river so they could reinforce the walls.

Then there's the marvel that is the tailrace tunnel (the channel that discharged the tailwater back to the river), built in the early 1900s with little more than pickaxes, shovels and rudimentary dynamite.

Engineers weren't sure what they would find when they first explored the idea of opening the tunnel to visitors. They built a swing stage, a scaffolding platform akin to those used in high-rise window cleaning, that allowed them access to the cavernous space beneath the power station to assess the tunnel's condition.

"Once we saw how incredibly good the condition of the tunnel was after 100 years of use, we said, 'Okay, we definitely have a winner here,' " he said.

A tunnel beneath the restored Niagara Parks Power Station leads to unique views of the falls.
A tunnel beneath the restored Niagara Parks Power Station leads to unique views of the falls.

Laura Randall/Washington Post

On a recent visit, a dozen or so visitors stood on the platform, basking in the sunny August morning and unobstructed views of the Niagara Gorge. Horseshoe Falls felt stunningly close, its rushing water a soundtrack that invited lingering. The Maid of the Mist and Hornblower boat cruises, long a fixture of Niagara tourism, barreled past, carrying poncho-clad passengers to and from the base of the falls.

"It offers a whole new perspective on the lower Niagara River," said David Adames, the commission's chief executive.

The power station is an easy walk from Table Rock Centre, a prime shopping and eating hub in Queen Victoria Park, yet it feels far removed from the bustling, selfie-taking crowds that tend to dominate the area. A landscaped walkway leads past a key piece of hydroelectric equipment known as an exciter unit (now a blue-and-white art installation) to the main entrance. It's the first hint that the experience ahead might go beyond a typical nuts-and-bolts engineering tour.

Inside, the light-filled "generator hall" features 51 large arched windows, limestone and granite floors, and the original 14-foot-high red-brass doors, each weighing 3,500 pounds. Interactive exhibits, vintage photographs and repurposed artifacts show how the water entered the building via a 575-foot-long forebay, then flowed through huge steel tubes known as penstocks to spin the blades in turbines that powered the generators to produce electricity.

Visitors can opt for a self-guided or guided tour of the power station's main hall, which intersperses history exhibits with interactive displays and original equipment such as motorized oil switches, giant wrenches and all 11 alternating-current generators (painted a striking robin's-egg blue). Computerized screens hooked up to an original control panel let children test their hydropower knowledge and solve simulated emergencies. There are also exhibits detailing Nikola Tesla's groundbreaking inventions and his famous DC vs. AC "currents war" with Thomas Edison; a paean to female scientists and staffers; and a scale model of the plant as it looked during peak operation.

The gift shop is also a must-see, not only for its eclectic selection (Tesla socks, upcycled beer glasses, triple-gear wall clocks), but also for its location beside a 100-foot section of the original forebay, where water from the Niagara River first entered the power station. Visitors can peer over a glass protector to observe the inner forebay, which, through underwater arches, filtered the incoming water into the plant before it churned through the penstocks.

In the evening, the power station hosts "Currents: Niagara's Power Transformed," a sleek, highly immersive light-and-sound show that brings the machinery to life through music, special laser effects and 3D mapping and imagery.

About 200,000 people visited the power station in its first year of operation, according to the commission. With the tunnel's opening in July, officials expect the number to grow to 300,000 to 350,000 annual visitors, thanks in part to the attraction's ability to appeal to a wide range of interest levels, said Adames, the CEO.

"There are so many stories to tell, starting with those who are simply curious about what's behind those beautiful stone walls," he added. "There's the story of hydroelectric generation, the story of innovators at the turn of the century, the human story of the people who worked in the plant and the competition of the people building [power] plants on both sides of the border. It has all of it."

IF YOU GO

Niagara Parks Power Station: 7005 Niagara Pkwy., Niagara Falls, Ontario (877-642-7275; bit.ly/niagara-power-station).

The Niagara Parks Power Station was Canada's first major hydroelectric plant; it's now a tourist attraction with interactive exhibits and repurposed equipment showing visitors how the power of the Niagara River was harnessed to generate electricity. Open daily at 10 a.m.; closing times vary. Check website for details. Regular admission about $20 per person for ages 13 and up; about $14 for ages 6 to 12; and children 5 and under are free. Guided tours and admission from about $28 per person ages 13 and up and about $19 per person ages 6 to 12. Night shows from about $22 per person for ages 13 and up and about $15 ages 6 to 12.