Niagara Falls stories: Schoellkopf Power Station

Schoellkopf Power Station ruins, Niagara Falls, New York State, USA

Schoellkopf Power Station ruins, Niagara Falls, New York State, USA

I once went to Niagara Falls, to see the waterfalls, as you do.  I stayed on the USA side, in what the cab-driver described as “the best b&b in town”:

Over a couple of days I saw and photographed the Falls from all angles, including the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds.

I spent an afternoon in Canada, because the Canadians have all the best views, while the Americans have all the best close-up vantage points.

One oddity intrigued me on the bus-ride along the Canadian side – a heap of rubble and vestiges of an industrial site on cliffs that form the opposite bank.

I was told that this was the site of the Schoellkopf Power Station, which collapsed in a spectacular manner in 1956.

This was the creation of Jacob F Schoellkopf (1819-1899), the first person to harness the power of Niagara Falls to generate electricity.

He was a remarkable entrepreneur, who built his fortune first in tanneries and later in flour-milling.

He bought the previously unsuccessful Niagara Falls Canal in 1877 and opened the first of a succession of hydro-electric power stations, No 1, in 1881.  No 2 followed in 1891, and after his death Nos 3A and 3B opened in 1904, and No 3C in 1921-4.

Schoellkopf looked for a more efficient way of illuminating the Falls at night than the ineffective calcium flares that had been used since 1860.  In 1881 he made a contract with Charles F Brush (1849-1929) of Euclid, Ohio, to harness sixteen carbon arc lights to his hydraulic power company’s generators.

The Schoellkopf generating stations worked efficiently, but there was a fatal weakness in the construction of No 2 station, which was built immediately in front of its predecessor.

Between the two structures water slowly penetrated until on the morning of June 7th 1956 leaks became evident and increased despite the efforts of forty labourers to pile sandbags against the retaining wall.

At 5.00pm a loud rumble was immediately followed by the collapse of Power Stations 2, 3B and 3C – two-thirds of the entire plant – into the Niagara River, taking out six huge generators and throwing debris as far as the Canadian bank, cutting 400,000 kilowatts of power from the grid.

Only one worker, Richard Draper of Lewiston, was killed.  His companions, Louis Bernstein and Robert Chapman, were picked up by a Canadian Maid of the Mist boat.  All the others escaped without injury.

The destroyed power-stations were replaced by what became the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, named after the controversial New York city planner Robert Moses (1888-1981), generating 2,525 megawatts.

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