Niagara Falls, Ontario – A City of Lights and Magic

In 1925, 24 carbon searchlights were installed that created a total of 1,320,000,000 candlepower. Since then the Falls have been illuminated most nights other than during WWII when power was turned off and during the next few years after the war when there was a power shortage due to a construction boom. Nowadays the Falls are illuminated daily at least until 10 pm at night, and from May to December until midnight.

Noah’s Ark at Dufferin Islands


Now I would have a chance to see the illumination process first-hand through a visit to the “Illumination Tower”, which is really a former surge tank for one of the now closed power plants that surround the Niagara River. I parked my vehicle at the Fallsview Casino again, walked by the restaurant and retail complex at Queen Victoria Place and right to the heavy set circular illumination tower that reminded me of an early medieval Norman-style castle tower. I found a little bell in the back of the building and rang a couple of times before the door was answered by 76-year old Pete Gordon, star of the show and a lighting operator for the Niagara Parks Commission for 47 years. Pete had not expected any visitors, but graciously let me into the office area of the Illumination Tower. This special visit had been arranged for me by the Niagara Parks Commission.

Pete Gordon, illuminating the Falls for 47 years


Pete used to work as a painter for the Niagara Parks Commission, but together with another colleague he has been operating the lights illuminating the Falls for almost half a century. On work days he is usually there from 5 to 12 pm, creating a colourful light display on the majestic Niagara Falls. Pete mentioned that in the early part of the past century the general public was able to go up on top of the Illumination Tower, but due to insurance issues, the tower is closed today to the general public.

Pete, hard at work


After this brief introduction Pete then took me onto the outside viewing platform that houses 18 very large searchlights, each equipped with coloured screens to produce different lighting effects on the huge waterfalls. From here we had a great view of the entire Niagara River, including the American Falls and the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Pete then took me into the control room and showed me some rather ancient-looking control panels which reminded me of an outdated fuse panel, with each colour identified by white, red, green, blue, and yellow knobs. Pete even let me operate the controls and made me create my very own lighting combination of the Falls. After I had done all my colour mixing on the panel inside Pete took me outside to the viewing platform and we actually checked out the colour mix that I had just created.

Me turning the knobs on the ancient switch panel


When the lights overlap they create additional colour combinations and the final product of my attempts was a mix of light blue, yellow, pink and purple. I admit I was rather tickled pink at the realization that I had just changed the colours on the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Back inside the building Pete explained that the huge lights creating this symphony of colour were actually searchlights used during WWII in London during the Battle of Britain. He even pulled out one of the light bulbs used in the search lights, which, incidentally, is made by Osram Sylvania, a German company, and carries a price tag of up to $2000. Today the Falls are illuminated with 500 million candle power. I tought it was rather ironic that these historic searchlights which were meant to protect the city of London from German air attacks during WWII nowadays actually relied on German technology for their illumination power.

Pete shows me the German-made high tech bulbs


Pete, having lived in Niagara Falls all his life, is a great fan of his home town and also has indepth knowledge of this city. He told me the story of the Honeymoon Bridge, which collapsed in 1938 due to an ice jam in the gorge which pushed this steel arch road bridge off its foundation. He even showed me some old photographs of this bridge, before and after its collapse and added that he still remembers seeing the collapsed bridge. He must have been just about six years old at the time.

Here is my creation – the colour mix that I created


Niagara Fall’s colourful history is evidenced by another disastrous event that Pete remembers first-hand. A hydro power station with the name of Schoellkopf Power Plant, built in 1895, had been located on the American side of the Niagara River. On June 7, 1956 water had been seeping through a wall and cracks were widening rapidly, despite the workers’ best efforts to stem the flow of water with sandbags. All of a sudden a loud rumble could be heard and the power plant’s wall started to collapse. Moments later the entire southern part of the power station fell into the river below. Debris was thrown as far as the Canadian side of the gorge and one power station worker lost his life. This is just one of the many colourful historic events in Niagara Falls that Pete Gordon remembers first-hand.

The Niagara SkyWheel – beautifully lit at night

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