Niagara Falls


caption A blue-green veil of water tumbles 51 meters over the rocky precipice of the Niagara Falls in this Ikonos satellite image. Every second, more than two million liters of water plummets over the half-circle of the Canadian/Horseshoe portion of the Niagara Falls, shown here, making it one of the world’s largest waterfalls. The force of the pounding water is sending a cloud of mist up from the bottom of the falls; this same force eats away at the rock behind the falls, pushing them back as much as two meters per year. (Source: NASA)

Niagara Falls ( 43° 4'37.60"N 79° 4'30.94"W), situated between Ontario, Canada and the state of New York, is actually three separate falls that have collectively been given the name of Niagara. The American Falls is located between Prospect Point and Luna Island; Bridal Veil Falls is between Luna Island and Goat Island, and the Canadian or Horseshoe Falls is between Goat Island and Table Rock. The Niagara River is part of the Great Lakes Basin, which holds approximately 20% of the world’s fresh water of which the majority is left over from the ice age that occurred 18,000 years ago. That is why many call the water of the Niagara River “fossil water.”

The magnificent cliffs, known as the Niagara Escarpment, are the result of erosion beginning about two billion years ago. In the mid-1800s, the British geologist Charles Lyell first observed that the cascading waters caused large sections of rocks to erode, expanding the gorges. Another geologist, James Hall, later supported Lyell’s observations and was the first to document the extent of the erosion.

Development of Niagara Falls

The rushing waterfalls have long been recognized as a potential source of power. Daniel Joncairs should be regarded as the first man who utilized the power of Niagara Falls. In 1759, Joncairs built a small canal that channeled water from the Niagara Falls River. The water powered a waterwheel that in turn powered his small sawmill.

In 1805, two brothers by the name of Augustus and Peter Porter purchased the falls from New York’s state government. They expanded on Joncairs’ original canal and built a gristmill and tannery powered by the hydraulic power.

Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company, founded in 1853, initiated the construction of canals for electricity generation. Construction of the canal began in 1860 and was completed one year later. The canal measured 35 feet wide and 8 feet deep; it carried water from the Niagara River to several mills below the Falls.

Jacob Schoellkopf (1819-1903) expanded on the preliminary efforts to utilize the hydraulic power. Schoellkopf was a prosperous businessman, owning and investing in several tanneries and mills. He purchased the rights to Niagara Falls Hydraulic canal in 1877 to power his businesses and took over the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company. Schoellkopf realized the potential of Niagara for generating electricity on a commercial scale and installed, in 1882, a small hydroelectric generation station which provided electricity directly to the nearby town of Niagara Falls, New York. At this point, the generator relied on direct current transmission, so the electricity could only be transmitted a few miles.

Edward Dean Adams owned the Niagara Falls Power Company; this was the second enterprise to provide Niagara Falls with electricity. Adams purchased Schoellkopf’s company in 1918 but retained the name. Adams was the president of the Cataract Construction Company (1896), which built the Niagara Falls Power Company, the first large-scale power station at Niagara Falls. The Cataract Construction Company laid the transmission lines from Niagara Falls Power Company to Buffalo, New York.

The Niagara Falls Power Company was in need of a method that would enable the transmission of electricity over long distances. Thomas Edison promoted his direct current (DC) method, but it was Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (AC) transmission system that won the contract to illuminate Niagara Falls and ultimately allowed for the large-scale use of hydroelectric power. In the late 1800s, there was a huge debate over which system was better—AC or DC. Thomas Edison, having invented the DC system, adamantly opposed Tesla’s invention. AC eventually won the battle because it proved to be more efficient; it could be transmitted over long distances while DC systems could not, thus requiring numerous power plants to be built. George Westinghouse, a productive inventor and strategic businessman, purchased the patent rights of Tesla’s polyphase system (an AC system that provides electricity in overlapping phases) in 1888 and offered Tesla a job at Westinghouse Electric Company as a consultant. Westinghouse expanded on Tesla’s development and the eventual widespread adoption of the AC transmission system laid the foundation for the beginning of the electrical age.

In 1893, Westinghouse won the contract to light World’s Fair in Chicago using Tesla’s system. His success at the Chicago World's Fair helped Westinghouse obtain a contract from the Cataract Construction Company in Buffalo, New York for the building of generators that would harness the energy of Niagara Falls' water resource. Westinghouse’s company built several two-phase generators, 5,000 horsepower each.

On the Canadian side, the Ontario government declared the land between Lake Eerie and Lake Ontario as a National Park under the guidance of the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Parks Commission as a means to preserve the land. However, the costs of preservation efforts eventually led to the Commission leasing part of the Canadian Falls to American companies. The majority of the electricity generated from the Canadian Falls was consumed by the United States.

By the beginning of the 19th century, it became evident that the small hydroelectric facilities would not meet the growing demands for electricity. Larger units were constructed, replacing the small-scale ones, which allowed companies to reap the benefits of economies of scale while providing cheap and reliable energy to consumers.

Niagara Falls Today

Today, Niagara Falls has proven itself to be one of the greatest sources of hydroelectric power in the world. Both Canada and America have built several large power plants, distributing the power of the Falls to homes and business. These large-scale hydroelectric plants divert massive amounts of water through channels and pipes that then transport it to nearby hydroelectric power stations.

Canadian Facilities

Sir Adam Beck plant No. 1 and plant No. 2 are Canada’s largest hydroelectric stations. Sir Adam Beck No. 1 opened in 1921 with an initial capacity of 373 megawatts (MW). Today it has a capacity of 498 MW. Sir Adam Beck No. 2 began operation in 1954 and its capacity has increased from 1,223 MW to 1,440 MW. Canada is planning to expand power generation by initiating the Niagara Tunnel Project, which will increase water flow to existing power stations. Upon completion, the project is expected to generate an additional 1.6 terawatt-hours of electricity per year.

United States Facilities

The Niagara Falls project is the largest electricity producer in New York State. Under the Niagara Falls project, two main facilities operate. Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant and the Lewiston Pump-Generating Plant. Together, the two plants generate 2.4 million KW of electricity. Near the two plants is a forebay reservoir containing 164 billion gallons of water. About 375,000 gallons of water per second are diverted from the river and channeled to the two plants. Since 1991, New York City’s Power Authority began upgrading the plants to increase efficiency and output.

Both the United States and Canada have worked together to preserve the pristine beauty and integrity of the Falls, while still allowing for the expansion of hydroelectric plants. Both countries signed a treaty in 1950 that regulates the amount of water that can be diverted for electricity production as a means to retain the magnificent sight of cascading waters for tourists.

Further Reading



Roman, A. (2008). Niagara Falls. Retrieved from


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