Beyond The Rainbow: Iconic Architecture Of Niagara

One late December evening in the year 1900, a lavish dinner party took place at the Toronto home of George Beardmore who was Master of the Fox Hounds at the Toronto Hunt Club. The outcome from one of the topics of conversation that night was to have a profound effect on Niagara Falls. Among the guests was William Mackenzie who, at 51, had already built a business empire that was continuing to grow. A native of Kirkfield, Ontario, he was involved in street railways, coal mines, real estate, power projects, pulp and paper, railways and farming, just to name a few of his interests.

While at the dinner party, Mackenzie and a number of other men began talking about whether it would ever be possible to bring hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls to Toronto. Although some of the group felt that the distance involved was too great for effective transmission, Mackenzie, who already had some experience in electrical generation, thought otherwise. As he left Beardmore’s home late that night, he was determined to develop a means of bringing electricity generated at Niagara Falls to Toronto. There was no doubt that the demand for electricity in Ontario’s capital was increasing dramatically, while at the same time the coal burning generators the city used had almost reached their capacity. In order to undertake this huge enterprise, Mackenzie formed a partnership with two other successful and knowledgeable businessmen who were also close friends, Henry Pellatt and Fred Nicholls. Pellatt was the head of one of the country’s biggest brokerage firms and had also been involved with the organization of the Canadian General Electric Company. He is best remembered today for his remarkable home, known as Casa Loma, which has been a popular Toronto tourist attraction for decades. Nicholls, an electrical engineer who came to Canada from England in 1874 was an early promotor of the uses of electrical energy in Ontario. In early 1903, the three entrepreneurs were granted a franchise by what is now known as The Niagara Parks Commission that authorized them to generate up to 125,000 horse power of electricity using water from above the falls. The water rental fee was to be $80,000 annually. In February 1903, Mackenzie, Pellatt and Nicholls formed the Electrical Development Company of Ontario. It was to be the first Canadian company to generate electricity at Niagara Falls. Construction of the powerhouse began later that year. Located just above the Horseshoe Falls, it was built of Indiana limestone in an Italian Renaissance style. The centre section, along with the north wing, were built first and completed in early 1907. The south wing was constructed between 1911 and 1913. The building then had a total length of 452 feet which provided space for 11 generators. The powerhouse and the gathering weir were built on 11 acres of what had formally been the riverbed. When the area was dried off, hundreds of granite boulders were exposed. These were salvaged and used in the construction of what is now called Queen Victoria Place, across from the American Falls. Construction of the plant and the erection of the transmission lines had advanced enough that power began to be delivered on November 21, 1906, providing Toronto with its first hydroelectricity. Two years later the Electrical Development Company became the Toronto Power Company, with Mackenzie as president, along with Pellatt, Nichols and several other men as directors. The Niagara Falls Plant then became known as the Toronto Powerhouse, the name still used today. In 1922 the Toronto Power Company was purchased by what is now known as Ontario Power Generation.

The Toronto Powerhouse was closed in 1974. It was felt that more efficient use of the same water could be made by the more modern Sir Adam Beck Generating Stations downriver at Queenston. Still standing, its massive size, classical appearance and considerable age clearly qualify the Toronto Powerhouse as a Niagara Falls landmark. A number of other genuine landmark structures can be found nearby, one of which is celebrating its 90th  birthday this year. Now known as the Crowne Plaza Hotel, this building was opened July 1, 1929, as the Hotel General Brock. The name chosen for the new hotel honoured the British General, Sir Isaac Brock who fell, mortally wounded, during the opening stages of the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. (The site of the battle, now a huge park, is only a short distance downriver from Niagara Falls.) Heralding the hotel’s opening, the Niagara Falls Review described the building as “a mammoth edifice, gleaming white in the sunlight, classic in appearance, looming over the Niagara River.” The paper went on to note. “The big hotel is very complete with all the equipment of modern buildings of this kind, from the main floor with its Peacock Alley group of stores and marble staircase to the roof garden on the 10th storey. It is the last word in comfort and beauty”. The hotel featured 247 rooms, a ballroom, four private dining rooms and a cafeteria. On September 12, 1948, the Brock helped to make a bit of television history when it became the site of the first international telecast ever made in the Americas. WBEN-TV (now WIVB) of Buffalo produced the program which showed the falls on television for the first time. The cameras were mounted on one of the hotel’s upper balconies. Over the years, many famous people have been guests of the hotel. Some of these noted individuals include Walt Disney, Gene Autry, Jimmy Stewart, Pierre Trudeau, Marilyn Monroe, King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth just to name a few. The hotel’s impressive guest list has added to its fame. Although the hotel has been refurbished at various times, as much as possible, care has been taken to preserve and enhance its original 1920’s elegance and ambience. At the same time, new amenities have been added, such as an indoor swimming pool. With 90 years of history now behind it, this landmark hotel continues to play an important role in the story of Niagara Falls. “Here at the crossroads of North American tourism stands a structure not only unique in its purpose but unusual and striking in design.” These were the words of William Pigott as he addressed some 800 people at the opening of Niagara Falls’ Skylon Tower on October 6, 1965. Pigott was both Chairman of the Board of the Niagara International Centre Ltd., owner of the Skylon, and president of the Pigott Construction Company of Hamilton which had erected the tower. He went on to predict that the Skylon would quickly “become identified around the world with this great area of tourism.” Pigott’s prophecy has certainly come true. The 525-foot-high Skylon has become a Niagara Falls icon, unquestionably one of the best-known man-made structures here or, for that matter, anywhere in Canada. At the time of its opening, the Skylon Tower was the tallest reinforced concrete structure of its kind in the world. Six hundred people had laboured on the 11 million-dollar project. Three elevators glide up and down the outside of the shaft – or, if you need to walk to the top, you’re facing a climb of 662 steps. The Skylon’s dome features Canada’s first revolving dining room. Seating 265 people, the dining room makes one rotation every hour, giving diners a 360-degree look at not only Niagara Falls but, on a clear day, well beyond. Now owned by the local Yerich family, the Skylon Tower, while not nearly as old as the Crowne Plaza (formerly General Brock) Hotel or the Toronto Power house, can still be legitimately called a landmark. TM

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