Niagara Falls

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      About 17 miles north-northwest of Buffalo, New York, on the Canadian border, is a group of three famous waterfalls. You may know the name — but you might not know all the history. Today, we're heading north to find out about the power behind the beauty of Niagara Falls.

      One of the most-visited tourist attractions in the world is open almost every day of the year, but nearly empty on the coldest.

      Angela Berti is a New York state park spokesman.

      Angela Berti: Each year we get about 9 million visitors. Certainly this time of year is not the bulk of that.

      Which means relatively few ever witness Niagara Falls in person when it looks like this [frozen]. But it wasn’t always this way.

      Berti: So, right now we're looking at one of the most natural attractions in the world, but, like you said, if you could picture mills lining the river, industry was using the river in the 1800s and the water that was being generated to generate power.

      The bleaker side of Niagara Falls is profiled in a film shown on site.

      NYS Parks film: It is 1869, and the beauty of Niagara Falls has been overwhelmed by crass commercialism and bleak industry. The land surrounding Niagara Falls are largely controlled by private owners and public access to the falls is limited.

      Berti: It was all privately-owned land. We're standing on Goat Island right now, which was also privately-owned. It was an amusement park, for crying out loud. And so, in order to come here and see the falls, you would pay to peep through a peephole, and people decided that that wasn't good, and that it should be restored to a natural green space open to the public, and 140 years later we're doing that.

      What many visitors may not know is that an important part of Niagara’s transformation is rooted in an important scientific discovery.

      Berti: So it's part of the power story here, Nikola Tesla did find alternating current here at Niagara Falls State Park. He came here with George Westinghouse, and they worked to create alternating current, and that was done right here at Niagara Falls.

      At the time, the only kind of electric power used in homes was DC or Direct Current. Problem was, it couldn’t be transmitted over long distances and couldn’t be easily converted for a variety of appliances and uses.

      That’s where scientist Nikola Tesla entered the picture, inventing generators that produced alternating current, or AC, that could travel over long distances.

      NYS Parks film: Armed with his invention, Tesla teams up with another proponent of AC power, industrialist George Westinghouse. A competition is held for the contract to build the new Adam's Power Plant at Niagara Falls. Tesla and Westinghouse demonstrate the advantages of alternating current at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. They win the commission.

      Adam's Power Plant went online in 1895, the first hydroelectric power plant of its size, and the first to generate AC power. A feat showcased at Buffalo’s Pan-Am Expo in 1901.

      NYS Parks film: To the amazement and wonder of all, the Adam's Power Plant at Niagara Falls lights up the Pan-Am Expo in Buffalo in a spectacular and dazzling display of lights, unlike anything ever seen before.

      Today, Niagara remains an important source of power for New York state and beyond.

      Sharyl (on-camera): Behind what tourists see as a natural wonder is a complex system that carefully controls the water flow as needed for appearances, or based on how much electricity is needed.

      Berti: The power authority does control the flow in conjunction with the Canadians. There’s the International Joint Commission, which oversees all of that. So they don't just arbitrarily get to stop it and slow it down and whatnot. But in the summertime, in the tourism season, you're going to see a lot more water go over. In the evenings and this time of year, you're seeing less.

      Sharyl: Because they regulate it that way?

      Berti: They’re regulating it. In the summer, obviously we need more electricity for air conditionings and whatnot. But they're very clear that during the day, when people are here, you get the full effect, for whatever that's worth.

      Sharyl (on-camera): The three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls have the highest flow rate among waterfalls in North America with a vertical drop of more than 160 feet.