Standing at the Adams tailrace portal, as treated wastewater from Niagara Falls, NY rushes into the lower Niagara River.

Corridor of Power: The Edward Dean Adams Hydroelectric Tailrace

Niagara Falls, New York. Commissioned 1895. Repurposed as treated wastewater outfall c. 1977.
Michael Cook

Further Reading:
Clearwaters (Fall 2000)

Archival Material:

Beneath the streets of Niagara Falls, NY courses the source of all power, the city's forgotten spine, the tap-root of an industrial region that stretched from here to Buffalo. The Adams tailrace, repurposed to carry the treated effluent of the Niagara Falls sewage plant, still stands in the earth, awash in some of the same hydraulic forces that remade this frontier region into a short-lived economic juggernaut propelled by wars and sunk by peace, inflation, and the geographic reworking of the American and global manufacturing economy away from the Northeast.

1895 saw the opening of the first of two powerhouses of the Niagara Falls Power Company. A year later, electricity was transmitted for the first time from the plant's alternating current generators to Buffalo, a distance of some 23 miles. Attention has focused on the gleaming industrial generators developed for Westinghouse by Nikola Tesla, and on the battle between proponents of alternating current and direct current. Yet the whole enterprise was underwritten by a 2.5 mile discharge tunnel that had been completed in 1892, a tunnel that in its size, depth, and the stability granted by four layers of brick finishing, allowed the first industrial-scale exploitation of the upper Niagara River's potential energy.

Corridors of Power

The Adams tailrace takes a direct route beneath the city of Niagara Falls, an assertive diagonal unconcerned with the street system, the hydraulic canal and the later intake tunnel of the Schoellkopf plant that cross it near the junction of Highway 384 and the Parkway, or even the modern conference center and Seneca casino that have been built across its path. It is the ultimate ley line, a corridor of power stretched across the city from Port Day to the border crossing at the foot of Niagara Street, a line of buried water whose sources are now obscured and whose outfall is marked by an enormous steel rainbow.

In the structure of the tunnel and in the greywater that flows through the tailrace, we can find signs of all that corrupted Niagara Falls, NY. Designed by the same engineers and industrialists that laid out the parkland of Niagara Falls, it is a line linking not just the upper river to the lower gorge, but Morgan, Westinghouse and Rockefeller to McKinley, Hooker and Vietnam. Tesla opened the power station by calling it a monument to "our present thoughts and tendencies... a monument worthy of our scientific age," but he could barely have foreseen the future that awaited the station and the tunnel. A city contaminated in the twentieth century with heavy metals and persistent chemicals now bleeds and evacuates through the surviving artery of one of the nineteenth century's greatest engineering triumphs.

The great shame is that, after the early 1970s demolition of the powerhouses that originally fed the tailrace, the engineers and accountants that were designing the sewage treatment plant that now occupies the site failed to take advantage of the potential of the stations' wheelpits. With the tailrace reused as an outfall for effluent emerging from the treatment plant, modern generators could have been installed to take the same advantage from this treated wastewater that the Adams generating stations had once taken from the falling waters of the river. Instead, the wheelpits were backfilled with demolition rubble and other debris, and what little value is left in the wastewater of Niagara Falls is squandered to the lower river.

Chlorinated Surf

Today, the tunnel courses with the heavily chlorinated greywater that emerges from the treatment plant. The atmosphere is thick with the gas, and your sinuses quickly flare as they might do in an over-chlorinated swimming pool. Ropes are still strung along the north wall in the lower part of the tunnel, where they were presumably hung during inspection and repairs carried out in the early 1970s. While in places large gashes were torn from the surface layers of brick during the decades of hydroelectric operation (and since then patched with concrete), much of the tunnel remains in good condition, comparing adequately with the tailraces on the Canadian side that are a decade younger and employed higher-quality brick.

When we visited, we pressed upstream through the fast flow that ran knee-deep even at the edge of the tunnel. Thigh-deep standing waves rose at every minor inconsistency in the tunnel floor, and the water would surge and splash higher as we battled through these areas of turbulence. I can only present some very limited photography of the tunnel because of the force of the water flowing through it, which quickly displaced even our reasonably heavy tripods and kept us moving single-file along the one wall, where the flow was shallowest and weakest.

About a third of the way to the buried and bulkheaded pits of the station, we reached a shaft where stormwater dropped into the tunnel from a large hole in the ceiling. The atmosphere and the rushing water just grew denser upstream, and regrettably we found it advisable to turn around. The Adams wheelpits remain lost to the earth and fill, somewhere upstream in the corrupt heart of Niagara.

This article wouldn't have been possible without the determination of Andrew Emond that we should try to enter a tunnel that various people (including myself) had thought too fast-flowing to explore. Emond also did the archival research that found many of the early images presented in the column at right.

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Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.