Canadian Niagara Power William B. Rankine Generating Station and Tailrace
Exploring the Canadian Niagara Power William B. Rankine Generating Station and Tailrace
The Canadian Niagara Power/William B. Rankine Generating Station and Tailrace is one of a handful of locations that I never imagined I would have the opportunity to explore, ever. This station, and the Toronto Power Company station across the street.
Even before I had started exploring, I had read this incredibly well written story about a group of seasoned explorers who ventured down and into the Toronto Power Company tailraces. Then, upon further research, I also learned of people who had also been into the Canadian Niagara Power Company plant and its tailrace.
These are two experiences that I would have given anything to see first hand, but I thought it highly unlikely that I ever would. My father, who worked for the Ontario power authority for his entire life always warned me of the extreme dangers of entering the Toronto Power Company building and especially the tailrace. The plant was closed down in the early 1970’s, my father told me of a trip he took into the tailrace in the mid to late 70’s and how bad and dangerous this was even back then. Fast forward through 30 plus years of decay, it must be hell down there now. I gave my father my word that I would never enter this building.
I had spoken to a friend who was in town and about to attempt both the Toronto Power Plant and the Canadian Niagara Plant, I warned them of the dangers of Toronto Power and I so badly wanted to join them…but my gut told me not to..remember my word to my father.
Those friends were successful in entering and exploring BOTH plants including the tailraces. I was extremely jealous, but very proud of my friends…I would be lying if the thought didn’t cross my mind to join them on their return visit to the Toronto plant…but I kept my word.
The Canadian Niagara Plant however, also known as the William B. Rankine Generating Station was nowhere near as dangerous as the Toronto plant, so with a tiny bit of information but little enough to allow me to do my own work, I made my way to research, plan and execute my successful explore of the the entire William B. Rankine Generating Station and Tailrace.
The building is a beast, as written by Micheal Cook from The Vanishing Point: “The William B. Rankine Generating Station is the last intact example of the mammoth engineering projects that pioneered the industrial-scale production of electricity at Niagara Falls between 1893 and 1906”. This plant contained twelve vertical axle, 25 Hertz generators rated at 8320 kVA each for a total generating capacity of 100 MVA.
But the plant at the surface level is literally the tip of the iceburg, as the plant descends down into the bedrock of Niagara Falls roughly 150 feet or more. On my first visit (actually for all three of my visits), my heart was pounding, my mind was racing and all of my senses were heightened, every sound, every drop of water, every noise was like thunder rumbling through the silent hall of this vast power plant.
On visit #1, I explored the turbine hall, the tunnels just below the turbine hall, the control room, the offices and the board room. I had enough for one night, so I walked away feeling accomplished and satisfied for now, but further visits were definitely in order.
Entering the halls of the mammoth William Birch Rankine Power Station was a surreal feeling.
It was the explore of a lifetime and I am glad to have had the opportunity to experience this piece of Niagara Falls history from the roof all the way town to the outfall, and everything in between!
Visit #1 – Exploring the Canadian Niagara Power William B. Rankine Generating Station: Turbine Hall, Control Room, Offices and Distribution Tunnels
Stepping alone into the silent main hall of 11 massive blue generators, the only sound was the buzz from the lights and the hum of the massive ceiling fans above.
Here I walked alone in a building that first started generating power on January 5th, 1905, the generators provided power to the province until some time in the year 2001.
From 2001 through roughly 2009 the plant operated with a reduced staff that ensured that this station is being mechanically maintained and can be called upon at a moments notice to begin producing power if required in the case of an emergency
In 2009 the water rights agreement with the power plant expired and the building was retired and handed over to the Niagara Parks Commission.
For 10 years the NPC let the building sit while they pondered what to do with this building. The parks commission owns three retired power plants, two of them are far too dangerous and unstable to use in any capacity without a substantial investment in bring them up to current safety standards.
As I walked the halls of this plant I noted that this should be a Hydro Electric Power Museum, the building is in remarkable shape and given 1) the locals interest in the cities history with Hydro Electric Power and 2) its perfect location in the heart of the tourist district they could easily provide tours here for the public.
Much to my surprise, in 2019 many many months after my visits, the Parks Commission announced two free public tours in October 2019. Then, they announced their plans to open the facility to paid public tours to commence in 2021.
The reception of the news of the two free tours was overwhelmingly well received as both dates were sold out within 20 minutes each.
The tours allowed the public to access the main hall, the inner forebay and gatehouse, the control room and surrounding hallways. Not accessible were the boardroom, offices, lower distribution tunnels and obviously the thrust deck and all that can be found beneath the main hall.
Leading up to these tours, the Parks Commission had the entire building covered with brand new state of the art cameras and surveillance system from the roof to the exterior and I’m told all the way down and into the tunnels.
For visit number two, I now knew where to go and didn’t have to worry about wasting time looking around or questioning things. I had now been inside, I knew what I needed to know and I knew the internal layout. What I didn’t yet know however, was how to get myself down into the tailrace and I didn’t want to ask my friends – I needed to do all of this on my own in order for it to count!
There are 11 subterranean levels to this power plant that ultimately carve down around 150 feet into the bedrock of Niagara Falls.
Directly beneath the hall there are utility tunnels, power distribution tunnels, storage rooms, locker rooms and more, each accessible by various sets of stairs.
From some of those utility tunnels you will find another set of stairs taking you down to another level called the “Thrust Deck”.
I navigated a handful of stairs that each went down one level, but these only ever went down to storage rooms, tool rooms, locker rooms or the power distribution tunnels. Finally, I had found what I was looking for, a set or stairs, surrounded by flimsy orange “fencing” that had clearly been moved and stepped on. Down I went, one right turn and down one other set of stairs and I was now directly beneath the turbine hall in what is known as the Thrust Deck. The thrust deck, just below the generators, features a beautiful arched ceiling which is built to support the immense weight of the generators above. The thrust deck contains large round metal containers which are thrust bearings that hold the turbine shafts in alignment.
I snap a number of photos from the thrust deck and i can see that I am most definitely in the right place, to the left and right of each generator or thrust bearing is a massive pit that descents all the way down to the bottom, then below that floor is the tailrace which takes the rushing water that has come in from the river, through the forebay, down the massive penstocks to spin the blades of the turbines at the bottom, then back out the tailrace into the lower Niagara River.
The thrust deck was well lit and fairly clean, but now it’s time to descend a number of ladders that zig zag their way down through the various levels of the wheel pit from the brake deck to the upper guide bearing deck, down more levels to the lower guide bearing deck, finally to the turbine deck and a terrifying climb down into the tailrace. With every level down the air grew cooler, there was mist everywhere, mist that has eaten away at the metal over years and years. The thick layers of rust were all over me, my gloves were brown and wet, my jeans were caked with rust and my face was soaked from the constant mist.
The next level below the thrust deck is the brake deck, what I loved about the brake deck is this is where the penstocks curve to a 90 degree angle and drop water straight down to spin the turbines. As far as you can see there are massive curved pipes, all perfectly aligned.
The farther down you descend the darker and dirtier it gets, but every level down you are met with the massive penstocks as they drop to turbine deck. You will also pass the upper and lower guide bearing decks, designed to keep everything in alignment as the turbines spin the shafts all the way up to the 11 generators on the powerhouse floor.
Also seen from the turbine deck are the station’s exciter chambers. The exciters are small direct-current generators that supplied the electricity to power the electromagnetic fields in the larger generators upstairs in the powerhouse.
It was difficult to photograph these as it was very dark on the turbine deck.
I come to a hole at the base of the wheel case level, there is an extendable ladder, probably 20 feet long or more….this is my only way down and into the tailrace. The tailrace used to only be accessible by a very dangerous hike down the escarpment, across a slippery field of rocks and boulders, down and dangerously close to the waters of the lower Niagara river and then up and into the tailrace. This could only be done at night because at night is when the Sir Adam Beck Power Stations downriver divert water for power generation, which lowers the water levels substantially. They can’t divert as much by day so as to not cause a reduction in the flow of water for the tourists at Niagara Falls.
Now however, 12 years after those great explorers who were here before me…the water levels are much higher making the rocky and dangerous way in impossible, now I have the luxury of a very shaky yet secured ladder. You used to have to do the plant in one explore and then the tailrace in another, today I am tackling the entire iceburg from tip to base!
With two hands placed firm on the ladder, I give it a check for stability…it’s rock solid and it is also secured at the bottom. With one foot over the other, I slowly, carefully and calmly make my way down into the tailrace of the William B. Rankine Generating Station , this is happening, I am actually doing this!
I touch bottom, I am now at the beginning of a 2,200 foot long underground tunnel, I now stand at the brick lined base of an elongated arch at 18.8 feet wide and 25 feet tall and I now have to walk 2,000 feet to my final destination..it is pitch black and it is very misty.
As I walk towards the sound of the thundering Niagara Falls, each step taking me closer I am amazed at the fact that I am seeing debris, tree branches, lumber, styrofoam, water bottles and more. I can not believe that the water levels and power of the lower Niagara river are so powerful that it carries water THIS far up the tunnel. After what feels like an eternity, the sound of Niagara Falls grows louder, and I am coming closer. Finally I start to see light, the lights that illuminate The Falls provides a small bit of ambient light in the tunnel, and now there it is, the arched outfall, the sound of the Niagara River rising and dropping, the mist flows in and the constant sound of the mighty Niagara Falls which is literally right around the corner from me!
Oddly, I am seeing more running shoes than I would have imagined..I ask myself if these are the running shoes of jumpers, why else would there be random shoes floating about or discarded down here?
I take a moment, I breath in the cool air, take in this moment that I am sure I will never ever experience again…then I gear up and I capture the moment! I start shooting at the outfall and I work my way in and back to the ladder, my lifeline back to civilization and back to the surface level. I stop and acknowledge the many who were here before me, the trailblazers of the early 2000’s, I snap some photos that are reminiscent of those that I’ve seen before, from the hours spent researching this explore and the hours spent wondering if I’ll ever get this chance.
I stop at the end, before I put my camera away and I set up for a grand self portrait, one that will show size, scale, darkness and my sense of adventure and curiosity. I take one final self portrait to remember this moment for the rest of my life!
Now it’s time to pack up my gear, hope the ladder is good to me and start the wet and rusty climb up to join the rest of the world
Visit #2 – Exploring the Canadian Niagara Power William B. Rankine Generating Station: Thrust Deck, Wheel Pit and Tailrace Tunnel
Exhausted, adrenaline pumping, soaked to the bone and filthy from all the rust, dirt and cobwebs, I step out of the powerplant and return to my car. I advise RiddimRyder that I am out and safe, I text my wife that I’ve made it in and out and then I sit and relive the whole thing in my head before driving home, I have a better sleep on this night than I can remember having for a long time.
Now, it’s great and fine that I was able to experience this place myself but what fun is it to enjoy this alone? I tell RiddimRyder all about the adventure and we set a date for us to go together, we had both been discussing how bored we have been with the abandoned mansions and lack of a challenge..so this is just what we both needed.
On this trip, what would my final trip, I give RiddimRyder the lay of the land and I keep watch for a while to ensure we’re all good here. I take advantage of the situation and the time and I capture more photos of the turbine hall, then once I am satisfied that we’re safe I join him in the control room where I capture some more details. Moving down we explore the inner forebay and gate house and we proceed down to the thrust and brake decks. It is already getting very late and Riddim still has an over 2 hour drive home….maybe we’ll come back some time and see the place again.
That next time would not come as in the year following our visit, the Niagara Parks Commission had contracted a firm to install brand new security cameras all over the building, this same firm was installing new state of the art cameras at the Toronto plant across the street.
Visit #3 – Exploring the Canadian Niagara Power William B. Rankine Generating Station: Turbine Hall, Control Room, Thrust Deck, Brake Deck, Gatehouse
So, now 10-12 years after the trailblazers and innovators of this hobby first walked the halls and tunnels, a very small handful of explorers got their chance to walk them, most for the 1st and only time and some for a return visit so many years later. I’m thankful for the good friends I’ve made in this hobby who took chances and risks and made the impossible, possible. I’m thankful for those who had my back and gave me advice leading up to this adventure and I will never forget this most excellent experience to do something I thought not possible!
Thanks for reading