YOU COULD SAY THAT THERE’S NOTHING AT NIAGARA FALLS THAT ISN’T THERE BECAUSE OF THE FALLS. The town, its attractions, even the Niagara River Gorge itself – none of those things would be here if it weren’t for the incredible power of the Falls, eroding backwards between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, leaving behind a dramatically altered landscape. Which is what’s great about the place – there’s a lot to do and see once you’ve stood in front of the Falls for an hour or a day (early visitors would spend days sitting near the cataract, contemplating its terrible majesty) and want to find an answer to questions like “So what do the Falls mean?”
The best place to start is downstream, where the Niagara River takes a sudden right turn, creating a deadly whirlpool. There used to be an incline railway that took visitors down to the river here, but after frequent rock slides damaged it, a group of Spanish investors hired engineer Leonardo Torres Quevedo to build a cable car over the whirlpool, between two points on the Canadian side of the river, facing Whirlpool Point on the US side. Rock was excavated out from the cliffs to hide the machinery and the attraction opened in 1916.
Cables span the 500 metres between both sides, down to 67 metres above the whirlpool at the lowest point. The cable car moves at 7 km/h over the water – a ride that takes about ten minutes and carries thirty-five passengers at peak (which is to say non-COVID) times. At some point in its century-plus history a roof was helpfully added to the cable car, but it’s basically the same mechanism of six supporting cables that have carried visitors since it opened. Looking down, it’s worth remembering that the water swirling in the river’s bend was where daredevil boatsmen and barrel riders faced the most dangerous part of their stunts, turning around and around in the deep water that confounded rescue attempts.
Just visible upriver from the Aero Car are the Whirlpool Rapids, a deadly Class 6 rapids – the highest rating possible for a waterway – that begin just after the two railway bridges (one in use, one abandoned) that cross the Niagara River from Canada to the United States. At the White Water Walk, an elevator takes you 70 metres down through the rock to a tunnel that emerges next to the river, where water rushes past at nearly fifty kilometres an hour. A boardwalk has been built with viewing platforms that get you up close to the rapids.
This is probably the most dangerous part of the Niagara River, a magnet for daredevils since tourists began arriving at the Falls. Tightrope walkers, starting in 1859 with Jean Francois Gavelet – aka Blondin – have crossed the river at various points, from the Rainbow Bridge all the way down to the whirlpool. Crossing over the rapids was considered the most dangerous spot of all next to the Falls themselves. (It wasn’t until 2012 when Nik Wallenda actually walked a wire over the cataract.) Barrel riders might survive a plunge over the Falls, but not the Falls and the rapids, which would batter the most stout barrel to pieces.
The boardwalk and its viewing platforms provide a remarkably placid place to enjoy the turbulence of the rapids, roaring past in peaks and eddies and boiling into whirlpools. The cliff face on the opposite American shore provides an educational cross-section of the geology that’s made the Falls and the Niagara River Gorge possible – the layers of hard dolostone alternating with softer shale, sandstone and limestone, millions of years of the Earth’s history cut through like a wedding cake.
The newest attraction at the Falls this year is a former power station, built when there was a gold rush of hydroelectric plant construction on the Canadian side of the river, all eager to harness the power of the Falls. Opened as the William Birch Rankine Power Station in 1905, it generated electricity from its eleven turbines for a century until it was handed over to the Niagara Parks Commission in 2009. They spent the next decade restoring the building and preparing to turn it into a museum to tell the story of water and electricity, finally opening this summer.
During the day you can tour the main turbine hall, where the vast engineering challenge of creating the power station is told – displays designed to a steampunk aesthetic that echoes the building around you, with its pipes and machinery in brass and steel, its gauges and controls preserved to look like they’d still work today. At the end of this summer the museum opened Currents, a nighttime immersive light show that will graphically tell the story of the plant.
Next summer will see the debut of the Tailrace Experience – a tour that takes you down through the vast lower layers of the plant in a glass elevator, on its way down to the 671 metre tunnel that discharged water from the plant’s penstocks back into the Niagara River downstream, an epic spectacle that would have been impossible (deadly, in fact) when the plant was in operation. It’s an attraction that could rival the reliably epic Journey Behind the Falls, and I can’t wait to see it.
Until the creation of the Niagara Parks Commission, there were hotels, restaurants, curiosity shows, flea circuses, fairground attractions – a wild tourist village operating right at the edge of the river. Today that essential part of the Falls has been moved back several hundred yards in favour of parkland, and the Falls’ exuberantly colourful sideshows are mostly clustered around Clifton Hill, the road that runs down from the heights overlooking the river, its name a remnant of the original name of the town on the Canadian side.
There are the various Ripley’s attractions, the upside-down house, the casinos, the dinosaur mini-putt, the Skywheel, the horror houses and arcades and fast food chains, renovated and upgraded over the last decade, all competing with each other under the most outlandish facades and signage they can afford – a cartoon-like funland, a permanent carnival midway. It might be fashionable to downplay the particular thrills of Clifton Hill in favour of the edifying natural wonders nearby, but this part of town has an evergreen sugar-rush charm that’s especially appealing after two years where summer fairs and festivals have been canceled and postponed.
And if you like that sort of thing – and I do, abundantly – the craft brew revolution has arrived on Clifton Hill with the Niagara Brewing Company, which opened in 2015 on what was once the site of a luxury hotel. Their two-storey brewpub has a concise but excellent menu and taps featuring their rotating selections. A flight features their four flagship brews, which includes a lager and an IPA and a Peach Radler that isn’t either sweet or cloying. They also have an excellent sour – not too tart but full of flavour. It’s a nicely adult spot on a strip with an abundance of greasy kid stuff, and worth an hour’s retreat while you plan the rest of your day or night.
(To read more behind the scenes detail – and see more photos – click on the link here.)
Photos and story © 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved