Suspended in Time: Whirlpool Aero Car

After the Falls themselves, the most frequently visited and awe-inspiring spot on the Niagara River is almost certainly the Whirlpool, a unique geological formation of primal fury and stunning beauty. Here, the racing waters forms a swirling, white-capped vortex that’s both frightening to behold and yet oddly alluring. While it is spectacular even from a safe distance along the river banks, the best way to appreciate this natural wonder is from the confines of the Aero Car that crosses the 1800 foot-wide gorge, offering a bird’s eye view from some 250 feet above the tempestuous waters. 

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer, when unveiled in 1916 the Aero Car was a marvel of engineering and incorporated the latest in scientific thought.

The Aero Car was the brain-child of a brilliant Spanish engineer named Leonardo Torres-Quevado, a man who for all is scientific genius is little known today. Born in 1852, he oversaw the construction of railway lines in southern Spain, did pioneering work in calculators and computers, and designed an improved dirigible system that was an important step forward for blimps. But for all his vast body of work, the Aero Car at Niagara represented his greatest legacy.

In 1913, Torres-Quevado and a group of wealthy investors formed the Spanish Aero Car Company with the expressed purpose of building a cable car across Niagara’s Whirlpool Gorge. It was a daunting task—many thought an impossible one—but Torres-Quevado was confident he had the solution. Work began a year later on what would soon become one of the region’s signature attractions.

By the summer of 1916, just in time to take advantage of the tourist season, the Aero Car was complete. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, the safest cable car in existence. The car rides on six lock coil track cables, the tensions of which are independent of the weight of the car due to counterweights at the end of each cable. As a result, if one cable breaks there is absolutely no danger to the car or its passengers, since there is no increase in the load carried by the other cables. The price tag for this marvel was $120,000, a vast sum of money in those days.

The official ribbon-cutting ceremony took place August 8, 1916. Several hundred enthusiastic guests were on hand for the event, each one excited and perhaps a bit nervous at the prospect of being among the first to ride in the new contraption. The proud inventor, Leonardo Torres-Quevado, was present at the ceremony and was clearly delighted by public reaction to his cable car (it was to be the only time he saw the Aero Car in action; he never again returned to Niagara before his 1936 death).

Shortly after 3pm, Mrs. J. Enoch Thompson, wife of the Spanish Consul in Toronto, broke a bottle of champagne over the car’s gate. As the glass shattered an enthusiastic cheer erupted from the gathered crowd. And then, needing little coaxing, six people stepped forward for the honour of being to be the first to ride over the Whirlpool.

At that time, and for many years after, passengers could get on or off of the Aero Car at either side. Eventually, it was decided that there should only be one point of entrance and exit. The reason? To foil scam artists who were preying upon gullible passengers. The con-men, no doubt struggling to suppress smiles, would tell people that they could get them illegally into the United States by way of the Aero Car. Of course, they could only do so for a fee. They were breaking the law, after all, and had to be compensated for the risk. The victims were then ushered aboard the car and told that, as soon as it reached the other side, they were in America and should jump off and run. This they did, not realising, of course, that they were actually still in Canada. After a few years of such scams, it was decided that henceforth passengers would only embark and disembark at one end.

The Aero Car has delighted visitors to Niagara for almost a century, operated over the years by various private interests, most recently by the Niagara Parks Commission since 1969. It has a perfect safety record, and has even been used to save a life.

In 1949, Major Lloyd Hill, the son of Niagara daredevil Red Hill Sr., decided he wanted to write himself into the history books. His father had made a 1930 trip through the Whirlpool in a barrel. In 1942, his brother, then 19-year old Red Jr., had also taken the thrilling journey. Major was not about to be the only member of the Hill family who didn’t brave the mighty Niagara. It was a matter of pride. But he didn’t just want to follow in his brother and father’s footsteps; he wanted to do something dramatically different. He succeeded in writing himself into the history books—just not in the fashion he envisioned.

Major designed an odd-looking steel barrel equipped with fins that could be manipulated by levers with the barrel that were intended, so he said, to allow himself to steer through the Whirlpool. Most onlookers scoffed at the notion, but he was confident his contraption would give him a degree of control enjoyed by no previous daredevil who had ridden a barrel through the Whirlpool.

On July 30, 1949 Major confidently entered the barrel and was cast out into the Niagara River. A vast crowd lined to whirlpool, anxiously scanning the river for the first sign of the daredevil. Short minutes later, the barrel entered their view and raced into the raging whirlpool. Despite the addition of the fins, Major quickly became trapped in the circling maelstrom. For two hours he was battered and bruised by the raging current, sometimes thrown as high as forty feet in the air by the pounding waves. Onlookers from shore watched helpless, each one privately wondering how much longer the man could endure the terrible beating. Finally, ropes were lowered from the Aero Car and Major, despite the torrent, managed to catch hold of one with hands numbed by cold. The would-be daredevil was hauled to safety.

Not to be dissuaded by his near-death, Major subsequently made three successful rides through the rapids, in 1950, 1954, and 1956.

Thankfully, most of the millions who have ridden the Aero Car over the years have had a more pleasurable experience than did Major Lloyd Hill. They thrill at the spectacular view of the wild waters seething with pent-up fury below. Cameras snap, people point excitedly, and smiles spread across faces.  The Aero Car is as popular today as it was when unveiling 100 years ago.

Written By: Andrew Hind & Maria Da Silva

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