Looking towards the Horseshoe Falls, inside the tailrace of the Toronto Power Company.

Journey Behind the Falls:
The Toronto Power Company tailrace

Niagara Falls, Ontario. Commissioned 1906. Decommissioned 1973.
Michael Cook

Further Reading:
Sleepy City

Imagine a tunnel more than ten storeys underground, a hundred years old, bricklined, wet, and completely inaccessible save by descending through a narrow slit in its ceiling thirty feet above the floor, and then returning up the same rope you came down.

Now imagine that this tunnel flows into Niagara Falls, emerging behind the pummeling curtain of water that nearly everyone in North America journeys to see at some point in their lives.

This tunnel exists. In the autumn of 2004, thanks to the work of two people with the experience and equipment to make it happen, I had the chance to feel Niagara Falls.

Hydroelectric generating stations work by capturing the kinetic energy of falling water and converting it into mechanical energy using a turbine and then into electricity in a generator mounted at the other end of the turbine. At the beginning of the twentieth century, this technology had just begun to reach industrial maturity, and something of a race developed among competing private interests to capture the gravitational potential of the most spectacular water feature in Eastern North America, Niagara Falls.

One such group of investors formed the Ontario Power Company, laid great conduits beneath the land along the upper river, and took up residence on a thin strip of useable land in the gorge just downstream of the Falls. Water was piped from an inlet upriver of the falls and dropped through penstocks to the plant in the gorge where it spun turbines and was then returned immediately to the lower river just out in front of the plant.

The Toronto-based investors that formed the Electrical Development Company (which later became the Toronto Power Company), not having the benefit of such convenient real estate, had no choice but to pursue a different strategy: dig.

The wheelpit of the Toronto Power Company's hydroelectric station reaches deep into the bedrock just upstream of the falls. While the plant was operating, water fell through great iron penstocks hung in space in the inside of this chasm to the turbines seated in the floor at the very bottom of the pit. These turbines then spun shafts that reached the entire distance back up to the surface where they turned the generators that powered some of the first electrical industries and lighting in Southwestern Ontario.

Its gravitational potential exhausted, the water was released into two discharge conduits dug one to each side of the lowest level of the wheel pit. These joined a short distance north of the plant, and from there flowed beneath the upper river to the edge of the Falls, emerging behind the spectacular Horseshoe curtain.

The Toronto Power Co. plant had been abandoned for thirty years by the time myself and several other people began exploring it in 2003. As the river had begun eating its way into the wheelpit through leaks in the foundation and forebay of the building above it, the air within became choked with moisture and the metal catwalks, penstocks and turbine shafts rotted away in the darkness.

In those intervening thirty years, the wheelpit's intermediate catwalk levels had become deadly. Beyond the spiral staircase that swept us down to the first level below the switch-locker-filled basement, there was a nearly endless descent down the one passable stairway, well-built but still precarious and untrustworthy in the soaking darkness. It was a trip into an elemental place where everywhere there was water, and beyond that only the crumbling guts of this strange building and the hint of something great and old sleeping somewhere below us.

And when we reached the lowest levels of the pit, carefully lowering ourselves through the caged ladder that was our only route back to a place where a sun shone and rain fell from the heavens only intermittently, we found a wonder buried below a thundering river for all eternity. We pushed through the rushing overpressure to look down the narrow shafts that provide the sole access into the plant's tailrace, and were struck dumb by the size, depth and construction of the two conduits that fed it. And then we tried to imagine how we could get down into it without getting ourselves killed or trapped at the bottom.

I've never felt deeper and more completely embraced by the earth around me than I did when I got the chance to enter the tailrace and push through rising waters to stand in Niagara's secret mists. The specifics of how we did it are best left unreported -- those with sufficient ability and experience to do what my expert acquaintances did for us would have already (the plant is now being renovated by the Niagara Parks Commission, as a result of which the wheelpit is on the verge of becoming completely inaccessible).

Lying below a river that will relentlessly tear into the bedrock until all has been obliterated from Queenston to Erie, this tunnel thirty-three feet in diameter is imprinted into my being forever. A swirling army of red brick millions strong, the eye of a petrified hurricane leading us right into the centre of the stalled but fighting storm that is Niagara Falls. Standing in its back-blast, in a place far deeper and darker than any middling storm sewer, I breathed and drank from the fount of the universe and swam closer to its centre than I ever will again.

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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.