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"Soaring the Gorge" on Niagara's Whirlpool Aero Car

Whirlpool Aero Car Sign

I am a pretty firm believer of having a plan in place before I wander off somewhere (a plan that oftentimes ends up being changed but I still believe it's better than no plan at all!) so while planning out my trip to Niagara Falls this past July, I spent a lot of time pouring over a website for the Canadian side of the falls -  If you're thinking of going up to the Niagara Falls area yourself and crossing over to the Canadian side - and let's be honest, the Canadian side really is the better side - then by all means, check out the website first as it's your go-to place for everything you're going to need/want to know.

One of the places that I saw while perusing the site that became a must for this trip was the Whirlpool Aero Car so after settling into my lovely room at Kilpatrick Manor and taking a short nap following my slightly tense trek down from Toronto, I set out to put my slight fear of heights aside and "soar the gorge".  After all, I had eaten lunch at the top of the 770-foot Skylon Tower just a few hours earlier so how bad could hanging suspended from cables across the swirling Whirlpool of the Niagara River Gorge be?  
Niagara Parks People Movers

The Whirlpool Aero Car is located about 3 miles (or locally 4.5 kilometers) from Horseshoe Falls and is one of the stops along the 19-mile (30-kilometer) route of the Niagara Parks Peoplemover Buses.  I didn't have occasion to use the Peoplemovers but they run from Table Rock at Horseshoe Falls all the way up to Queenston Heights Park along the beautiful Niagara Parkway stopping at most attractions just about every twenty minutes.  Passengers can hop on and off the buses as often as they like all day long with a one-day pass that is quite reasonably priced and it saves the headache of trying to find someplace to park - which can be tricky at best if you're visiting during busy hours. As I was there later in the evening after the usual rush of tourists, parking was quite ample and lines were virtually non-existent.  Needless to say, I loved it!

So, what you may ask, exactly is the Whirlpool Aero Car?  Good question and here's the answer!

Niagara Spanish Aero Car Plaque
The Niagara Spanish Aerocar Company, which was made up of a group of Spanish businessmen, offered up a proposal in 1913 for the building of a passenger cable car to travel across the width of the Whirlpool from the Canadian terminus at Colt's Point to another Canadian terminus at Thompson Point at a height of 240 feet above the surface of the river. Following an agreement that was negotiated with the Niagara Parks Commission to operate the passenger cable car, the group then needed the permission of the State of New York and US Government before construction could begin as the proposed route momentarily eclipsed the international border in the middle of the Whirlpool crossing. In all, the ride crosses the Canadian and American borders four times on a full trip - no Passport required!

The original aero car was built in Bilboa, Spain and was based on the design of a similar cable car at Mount Ulia in Spain which carried fourteen passengers at a time. Constructed mostly of light-weight aluminum, the Spanish Aero Car made its debut over the Niagara River Gorge on August 8th, 1916 at the cost of $120,000 with upgrades made to the system in design and function in 1961 and 1967 as well as again in 1984 when the Niagara Parks Commission conducted an extensive overhaul of the Spanish Aero Car which included replacing the wheels, cables and electrical circuits.

The basket-like cable car carries 35 standing passengers and travels 1,770 feet across the gorge to Thompson's Point before returning to Colt's Point - a journey of approximately 3,600 feet that takes all of ten minutes to negotiate at a speed of approximately 5 mph. Along the way, passengers get some absolutely beautiful views of the Niagara River Gorge as well as the swirling waters below which move at approximately 35 mph and cover close to 60 acres.

A few of my fellow passengers on the ride across the Gorge 
Views from the Whirlpool Aero Car
Views to the northwest and the southeast
A few of the smaller passengers along for the ride
View up the Niagara River Gorge towards the falls
Niagara Rapids
The swirling whirlpool 200 feet below the Aero Car 
Looking down at the Niagara Rapids

Opposite side of the Whirlpool Aero Car
Thompson Point
The cable car is suspended across the gorge by six one-inch interlocking steel cables (the original cables lasted 35 years before needing to be replaced), each of which is attached to an anchorage at one end while at the other end tension is maintained by a 10-ton counterweight. Operating on a back and forth principal, the Spanish Aero Car is propelled by a single 60-horsepower engine which drives a 7/8-inch steel looped cable. As an interesting note, for the first 45 years of its operation, the auxiliary power for the Spanish Aero Car consisted of a small Buick straight-eight engine; it has since been replaced with a back-up diesel engine.

Whirlpool Aero Car
For those that may be wondering "But what if the cable car gets stuck in the middle of the ride, how will I ever get down??", you'll be relieved to know that a) there has never been an accident or injury since the Spanish Aero Car began operations and b) in case of any emergencies, a small rescue car that can hold six persons was installed in 1985 and is kept inside the cave at the Thompson Point terminus.

Stranded passengers would simply have to transfer from the main aero car to the rescue car - easy peasy! Additionally, if for any reason the aero car's engine is not functioning, the rescue vehicle can be propelled manually across the cables using a hand-cranking system similar to that used in the operation of a bicycle. Now if all of that doesn't give you the warm fuzzies as a potential passenger, another reason for relief is the fact that the metal rescue car has never once been utilized since it's installation other than for yearly training sessions held by the Niagara Parks Police.

The over 220,000 passengers per year that take a ride on the high-flying attraction can also take comfort in knowing that in the early spring of each year, the Whirlpool Aero Car - whose name was changed from the Spanish Aero Car in 2004 - as well as all of its mechanics, cables, and the rescue car are examined and subjected to rigorous testing before it is opened to the public. In spite of how it may look, the Whirlpool Aero Car really is a very safe ride for young and old alike though it should be noted that it does not have wheelchair access due to its location and the construction of the aero car itself.

Just about one year ago on September 30th 2010, the Whirlpool Aero Car was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Work recognizing the engineering feat of building a cable car over the Niagara River Whirlpool - a designation which is well-deserved considering that in order to get the cables across the river and over the Whirlpool, they were walked around on land from Colt's Point to Thompson Point after being attached to ropes. Each rope was then hoisted to the level of the winches which in turn pulled the cables to their current locations and height before the aero car was suspended from them. Definitely quite the engineering feat!

Even if you've not got the stomach to make a trip across the top of the rapids yourself, there's a couple of nice viewing areas by the Whirlpool Aero Car at Colt's Point where you can watch the swirling of the water as it folds over and over upon itself or watch those of you in your group who do wish to take the ride across and back. Having been able to conquer my fear of heights by hiding behind a camera lens, personally I'd recommend taking the ride and not just watching but I know it's not for everyone - some don't even want to watch!

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