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Putting a Little Light on the Subject aka Illuminating the Falls

As previously mentioned in my last post about my trip to Niagara Falls wherein I wrote of souvenirs, statues, and stupidity, as night began to descend on the area the number of tourists really began to increase and that was because they were all waiting for just one thing.

Carriage Ride, Anyone?

No, not a horse-drawn carriage ride around Victoria Park even though that certainly did look like a very romantic way to tour the area - particularly if you had someone to snuggle up in the back of the carriage with!  What all of the tourists - and myself - were patiently waiting for was the nightly Illumination of the Falls, a treat for visitors that has occurred every night throughout all seasons since June 8th, 1925 with the exception of several periods during World Wars I & II, in January of 1938 when a major ice jam shut down the Ontario Power Company Generating Station at the base of the gorge, and once again for a few evenings in August 2003 when the lights were turned off to support recovery efforts during a major North American black-out.

The American Falls illuminated at night

That date wasn't the first time that the Falls had been lit up at night though. The first occurrence was in celebration of the Prince of Wales visiting the area when, in his honour, both the American and Horseshoe Falls were fully illuminated for the first time in history at 10 p.m. on September 14th, 1860 using a system that was designed by Mr. Blackwell, owner of the Robert W. Blackwell & Company electrical engineering and contracting firm of England. Mr. Blackwell used 200 Bengal lights (a blue flare-type light that was formerly used for signaling) to illuminate the Falls from the high bank of the Canadian shoreline as well as from Table Rock and behind the water of Horseshoe Falls. It was a successful lighting but the method wasn't adopted for future illuminations.

The American Falls take on a red glow during the nightly illumination.

In 1879 during the Royal visit of Princess Louise and her husband the Marquis of Lorne - Governor General of Canada, Niagara Falls was once again illuminated. This was another historic event as it was the first time in history that the Falls were illuminated by use of electricity when the Brush Electric Company of Cleveland, Ohio used arc lights to illuminate the Falls.

Other historic illuminations occurred during the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York when the Falls were illuminated with spotlights to attract the attention of visitors at the Exposition and on October 9th 1907, when the Falls were illuminated during a visit by the Duke of Cornwall and again on October 18th 1919, during a visit by the Prince of Wales.

Some of the lights for Niagara's Nightly Illumination

During the early 1920's, businessmen from Niagara Falls, New York formed a group that became known as the "Generators" and they began lobbying officials of both the American and Canadian Governments to improve the illumination of the Falls. After the group had raised $58,000 for the purchase and installation of twenty-four new arc lights, the Niagara Falls Illumination Board was formed on February 24th, 1925. With power being provided free by the Ontario Power Company, the group had a $28,000 annual budget for the management, operation and maintenance of the illumination lights.

The twenty-four new lights, which were originally built to search the sky for enemy aircraft over Britain during World War II, were mounted in a row on the Ontario Power Company water surge tank, located next to what is now the Edgewaters Tap & Grill, on the Canadian side of the Falls which allowed both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls to be lit from the same location.

An official ceremony to commemorate the lighting of the new lamps took place on June 8th, 1925 and included a light parade in Niagara Falls, New York which was followed by an International ceremony in the middle of the Lower Arch Bridge (now known as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge) before the lights were turned on to illuminate the Falls to the delight of the many spectators looking on. The twenty-four spotlights were operated by a crew of three men who manually slid colour gelatin films into place in front of each light in order to change the colour of the Falls.

More of the lights for the Falls Nightly Illumination

On June 20th 1958, twenty new carbon arc lights were installed by the General Electric Company of Canada to replace the 1925 lights and those in turn were replaced by twenty Xenon gas spotlights in 1974. Following complaints that had been received stating that the current lights were too weak and ineffective to properly illuminate the Falls, in 1997 the Niagara Falls Illumination Board began work to replace the old illumination lights with a new 21-light system that allowed 60-70 percent more illumination. At a cost of $150,000 the first ten lights were replaced during 1997 and in 1998 the eleven remaining lights were installed. The new lights were much brighter and more economical producing twice as much light as the previous lighting installations and consuming 10% less power. Eighteen of the lights are located at the Illumination Tower, not too far from where the statue of Nikola Tesla stands, and three are located below street level in the gorge opposite the American Falls.

The illumination configuration that was designed by lighting expert Linus MacDonald in 1995 and still in use today, is best viewed from a distance rather than close-up in order to obtain the best possible visual impact. The center of Horseshoe Falls is not illuminated because of the water-borne mist that rises from the base of the falls high into the air above which then forms an impenetrable wall of water molecules that reflect the light and doesn't allow the light to penetrate to the waterfall behind it.

Horseshoe Falls illuminated

The illumination project is still administered and funded by a five member International Board known as the Niagara Falls Illumination Board which consists of representatives from the City of Niagara Falls Ontario, the City of Niagara Falls New York, the Niagara Frontier State Park Authority of New York, Ontario Power Generation (Ontario Hydro) and the Niagara Parks Commission. Linus MacDonald, who redesigned the lighting system in 1997, continues to maintain all of the lights that illuminate the Falls which includes the job of replacing each Xenon Light Bulb yearly in a process that requires him to wear a ballistic vest and full face protective shield while working with the lamps as they require extreme caution due to their elevated rates of atmospheric pressure.

It is estimated that the cost of illuminating the Falls is approximately $85 an hour which includes the services of an operator who changes the colours of the lights every 5 to 10 minutes by using a touch-screen computer system that was installed in 2009. Prior to that the operator changed the light colours by manually turning a series of four colour-coded (red, blue, green, yellow) round-shaped toggle switches for each of the twenty-one lights. A large coloured panel (or any combination of the four panels) is housed in the section above the actual light and drops down in front of the lights - or rises as the case may be - changing the standard white light to the rainbows of colour that shine upon the Falls. Taking less than 30 seconds for the colours to change, there is no set computerized pattern for the lights. The artistic choices are left entirely up to the expertise and whimsy of the operator of the lights much to the delight of the crowd of tourists.

Just a glimpse at a few of the tourists crowding the sidewalks along the Parkway
Yellow Lights to Illuminate the Falls
Lighting up the falls
The American Falls illuminated
The Canadian Falls illuminated

Watching the play of colours across the magnificent falls, it was pretty easy to see why so many people had flocked to the water's edge and also why so very many of us had cameras!  A lot of people also had tripods but I had left mine in the back of my car up on the top of Clifton Hill so instead made do with steadying my camera on top of some of the rocks that make up the barrier between the Parkway and the Falls.  It wasn't ideal but I wasn't about to trek all the way back up that hill and down again! I guess I'm just not that dedicated of a photographer!

Horseshoes Falls with a blue illumination.

I also wasn't going to climb on top of the railing to try to get the "perfect" shot either but that's exactly what a lot of people were doing and I found it simply amazing that they didn't tumble over or at least lose their cameras over the side.  Again, I feel the need to ask people to have some sort of common sense when it comes to these sorts of things; I'd really rather not see any more newscasts about people falling to their deaths at Niagara Falls and saying "Hey! I've been there!" No picture is worth losing your life over even if the scenery in front of you does look like this -

A patriotic red-white-and-blue illumination.

If you're visiting Niagara be sure to visit the Falls at night when their beauty takes on a whole new look. The times are approximate and subject to change depending on the whims of Mother Nature but be sure to check the Niagara Falls Illumination Schedule before you head out so you've got an approximate time-frame of when to go. I should also mention that from June to September, the Niagara Parks Commission puts on a fireworks display over the Falls every Friday and Sunday evening; there are additional displays throughout the year so be sure to check the Niagara Parks website for other dates and times!

Next post I'll finally make that climb back up Clifton Hill!

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