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Niagara's supervillain hideout

The treacherous descent into the bowels of Niagara

A leisurely stroll drive around Niagara Falls is a juxt of majesty and crass consumerism, from the thundering torrent of water to the tacky tourist casinos. Drive away from the spectacle of the town along the parkway and there's an ornate but delapidated sandstone building, the Toronto Power Corporation power house. Buff the dust off the window and push your nose to the glass and you'll see the hundred year old cylindrical blue generator shells, a relic from the early days of hydroelectricity. You'd not know from this quick peek but this old lonely building extends another ten stories underground, concealing a secret like none other. One we'd come a long way to see.

Construction photo. Source Niagara Falls Public Library

The water from the Niagara river flows into the powerstation and is funnelled into the penstock, a massive iron pipe, which descends 8 stories into the wheelpit cavity below the generator hall.  The water plummets into the turbines, spinning them furiously. Via the huge drive shafts connected to the generators above electricity is created. This huge quantity of water now robbed of its usefulness must be expelled from the turbines. In 1906 the tunnel they built to dump the water back into the raging falls was the largest of its kind in the world.  Ten metres tall, lined with brick and built by hand this monstrous tunnel had an alure we couldn't pass up. Cost of entry: sneak into a derelict powerstation, descend 10 levels through a decrepit rusty death trap then finally bolt and abseil into a tunnel 40m below the falls. Worth it to immerse yourself into the crashing water of Niagara, bet your arse.

This is important.

JonDoe, Stoop and I laid out all the necessary kit, piled it into the rental and rolled out of Toronto towards Niagara. Not knowing specifically how to pack for your average hundred year old, ten meter tall brick tunnel we abused the carry-in limits liberally.

7kgs per person

From the parkway which follows the river we got out first view of the TPC powerhouse. We'd come expecting to find the place abandoned, dark and quiet but instead the powerstation and its surrounds were a conflagration of temporary fences, glaring halogen floodlights and workmen all together in a giant bubbling cauldron of activity. Mr Murphy was riding shotgun, with a pile of spanners just in case. The jackhammers echoed loudly from within the plant, tearing apart what one hundred years ago was the pinnacle of electrical generation technology. Swarming with workers or not, we'd come to play in Niagara's belly and nothing would stop us. Stoop took a radio and slinked off towards the building from shadow to shadow towards the temporary fencing near some pipework at the building's end. While waiting a few cop cars cruised past, presumably doing the lazy border patrol thing. Reassuringly none paid us any mind since we had no plausible reason for a car full of drills and abseiling gear in the middle of the night. Still, we slouched lower behind the dashboard and waited nervously.

looking into the generator hall. Photo Jannx

While solemly contemplating all the possible outcomes Stoop returned with a grin that split his face and explained sans punctuation, breathing or pause: _we_were_in_. Loaded to the brim with kit we slipped into the station as the jackhammers echoed above, intermittently pausing to yelling voices and a flurry of worker activity. The concrete superstructure of the hall supports the massive generators above and provides maintenance access to their lower sides. The workers toiled above oblivious to our passing as we slinked like rats below.

the lower generator hall. Photo by Air33

In a vague attempt at OH&S a giant metal plate had been dropped into separate us from the wheelpit and further, Niagara's bowels. Jondoe peeked cautiously down the hall while Stoop and I heaved at it, straining and pushing hard enough to slide back across the rough floor. Jondoe ran over and the three of us heaved in unison to create a narrow but usable entrance. Light beamed through the scant opening to illuminate a rusty mud covered spiral staircase. Through matted hair and sweat my companions dirt smeared faces grinned at me, no doubt a reflection of my own. As we moved from the lower hall and down into the wheelpit we stopped to ask, where were the save points?

TPC-Stack Wheelpit-Fiasco

The ten story descent of the wheelpit has been likened by others to a journey into the depths of hell. Our headlamps cut wide shallow arcs through the dense mist. With the thick humidity lingering over us opressively I could taste rust in my mouth. The jackhammers above shrunk to a dull monotonous clank in the background accented only by the constant dripping of water. Like a vicious poison it seeps through the walls biting deeply into every metal surface. A ladder bolted into the side of the penstock led us down at least 6 levels past reams of bright yellow caution tape. It might as well have read "I Dare You".

We reached a level which appeared to stretch the length of the entire hall. The floor was constructed of metal I beams upon which sheets of thick mesh were laid a century ago. Devoured voraciously by the atmosphere the mesh hung in various states of decay, patched in places by rotted timber planks. They did little to reassure anyone crossing this pestilence riddled skeleton of steel. We peered through the gaping mouth like holes at the fetid water and the distorted metal shapes within it. Turbines, pipes and cogs poked through the water's surface like the ribcage of an ancient dinosaur partially exposed above the desert sands.

Stoop tentatively began towards the upstream end across the worst section of flooring. With each step slabs of rusty metal dislodged, fell for a brief moment then crashed loudly into the water. A fall from that height wouldn't kill unless one were skewered upon the assorted pungi rust sticks below. Stoop clambered onwards taking what scant purchase he could. I worked the other way from the ladder heading downstream into a sturdy concrete area. Frequent splashes echoed through the wheelpit.

At the downstream end of the station a once staunch iron door sagged lazily open before a 7ft brick corridor. In the corridor I was engulfed by a howling wind which seemed to pull me into a tall arched chamber along whose upstream edge ran an narrow slot cordoned off by a wearily rusting guard rail. With a light push a forearm length of rail tore free and clattered down through the slot followed by a loud splash that knocked my jaw to the floor. Confluence.

The narrow slot yielded a hazy glimpse of ankle deep water rushing past and the echoing crash of the falls. Whipping out the drill like gunslingers of old we quickly drilled the concrete. Jondoe muttered uneasily as The Brits gave the holes a quick clean, eased in the bolts, then punched them home with a hammer. Our pitch was bolted and the base of the rusty guard rail served as our backup. Our single rope into the tunnel was literally a lifeline - the only other exit from the tunnel is to brave a plunge into the backside of the falls. If you read the historical documents you'll know it's been done before. While keen for the real behind the fall experience, we weren't that keen.

Locked, loaded and ready. Best rusty backup you've ever seen.

As the most experienced on a rope Stoop donned his harness and slid over the edge. The rope drew tight, creaked softly and held. The anchors we'd installed, tiny silver plates bolted into the concrete, showed no movement as Stoop's headlamp was engulfed by the hazy abyss and then suddently he was gone into the tunnel. A few tense moments later his whooping and cheering echoed up the slot and the beam of his maglite waved towards us victoriously. I jumped into the harness, breathed deeply and succumbed to the beast. Jondoe followed quickly thereafter. Stoop was still cheering.

Jondoe in the slot amongst the mist. capture by Stoop

Fuck those two teabaggers know how to go hardcore. Jondoe among the bricks.

The tunnel was a monster. Just upstream from our position was the underwater outlet of the subtunnel which joins the tailrace to the turbine exhausts. Their wide metal mouths loomed ominously below the water. Rough textured granite blocks trimmed the edge of the tunnel downstream of the slot, ready to absord the degradation caused by millions of litres of water rushing past. Their blue grey colour and rugged surface contrasted the smooth redbrick construction of the tunnel itself. Downstream the junction of the two tunnels, the confluence, was an immense underground space unlike any I've experienced before. Again the details are striking - acutely angled steel plates layer over the brick wedge where the tunnels merge. Arched red brick soar overhead to the central spine of granite. Metal supports hang from the ceiling which appear to have originally suspended a walkway. Consider for a moment the men a century ago who walked through this tunnel, who built it with their bare hands. They'd been involved in something special, something groundbreaking for their era. Their detailed and intricate construction a testament to ages past.

Sacrificed to the falls.

Moving downstream towards the falls shards of brick and mortar fallen from the the ceiling littered the tunnel floor. This concerned us until we saw the falls properly and the risk of anything collapsing on our heads was forgotten. The coloured spotlights used to illuminate the falls for the tourists shone through the thick waterfall in a mesmerising rainbow. A large pictureque lake filled the end of the tunnel, formed over the years as the tunnel mouth has erroded. A kaleidoscope of colours danced across its surface and beckoned. We could only oblige. The chilly water crept slowly up our bodies as we inched along the very edge of the tunnel probing with our toes for any sudden drops. The roar grew louder and filled our ears as the falls loomed ominously above us.

From the lake we scrambled onto the pile of rocks and rubble at the tunnel mouth. I stood tall in the maelstrom of water and wind, like a kungfu master weathering the storm upon the mountain top. The water pelted me from all sides stinging my naked torso. Gusts of furious wind battered me to and fro inside this elemental cauldron. I yelled in unashamed triumph from the depths of my chest for every drop of Niagara's sweet bukkake that stung my face and trickled down my cheeks.

Jondoe scooted up through the slot and left me under the instruction of Stoop to learn the awkward art of ascending. We snapped a group photo, stowed our gear, bid the tunnel goodbye and began the long, careful ascent through the station's rusty bowels. Shortly before sunrise we slipped out of the powerstation cloaked by the noise of the jackhammers. To the rest of the world it was just another day. For us we'd been to the bowels of Niagara and back, survived the malestrom and swam in the absolutely elemental. Top fucking notch.

The confluence behind Niagara falls. Best tunnel junction in the world.

Thanks to Kowalski and Siologen. Shouts to Stoop and Jondoe - Team Conf 2006

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