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Hello From Niagara Falls, Ontario - A City Of Lights And Magic (Part I)

Feb 21, 2008
It had been an exciting day already: my helicopter ride with Niagara Helicopter had given me a close-up aerial view over Niagara Falls and my visit to the Niagara Falls Butterfly Conservatory had made for a perfect winter escape to a tropical sanctuary. But more adventure was yet to come.

Appropriately strengthened from my very late lunch at "The Famous", a 24-hour upscale diner at the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort, I was ready for my evening explorations. First on the menu was the Niagara Falls Winter Festival of Lights. Every year from early November to early January, more than 125 animated lighting displays decorate the city. In total more than three million lights illuminate the Niagara Parks Winter Wonderland.

Just driving out of the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort I was greeted by lighting displays in the form of white and blue snowflakes that were mounted on the light poles. On my left hand side at the end of Murray Street I drove by an entire collection of illuminated characters called the "Enchantment of Disney" displays. I turned right onto the Niagara Parkway and shortly behind the Horseshoe Falls I was greeted by the Canada/US Illuminated Flag.

I continued my drive southwards along the Niagara River and reached an area referred to as Dufferin Islands whose circular roadway featured an extensive collection of illuminated displays called "The Great Canadian Outdoors". Trees were decorated in thousands of colourful lights and a whole menagerie of brightly illuminated Canadian animals, including wolves, bears, fish, squirrels, beavers, deer, moose, buffalo and many more flanked the road. The highlight of this area was Noah's Ark, whose orange, red and green lights were reflecting in the water.

All the lighting displays of the Niagara Falls Festival of Lights can be viewed free of charge, but a group of volunteers was available at the end of the Dufferin Islands displays to accept donations which go to enhance the lights and displays. The Winter Wonderland along the Niagara Parkway includes other lighted displays such as a horse & carriage, an arrangement of grapes and wine, a menorah and a nativity scene. Even a display of Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officers stood on guard.

The Enchantment of Disney displays at the foot of Murray Street include such popular Disney characters as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, the Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Mickey Mouse and Disney's Pixar Cars. In addition to the lighting displays, the Niagara Falls Festival of Lights also features frequent fireworks which are scheduled to run daily between December 26, 2007 and January 6, 2008.

Together with the colourfully illuminated waterfalls these displays made for a truly enchanted environment. The mighty Niagara Falls themselves are illuminated throughout the entire year, a tradition that has been institutionalized since 1925 when the Niagara Falls Illumination Board was put in charge of illumination. But special lighting displays of the Falls were undertaken much earlier, for example in 1860 when a spectacular light display of the Falls celebrated a visit by the Prince of Wales. In 1901 special lighting was installed as part of the Pan American Exposition that was being held in Buffalo. Six year later, the General Electric Company illuminated the Falls for several weeks with 36 powerful projectors.

In 1925, 24 carbon searchlights were installed that created a total of 1,320,000,000 candlepower. Since then the Falls have been illuminated most nights other than during WWII when power was turned off and during the next few years after the war when there was a power shortage due to a construction boom. Nowadays the Falls are illuminated daily at least until 10 pm at night, and from May to December until midnight.

Now I would have a chance to see the illumination process first-hand through a visit to the "Illumination Tower", which is really a former surge tank for one of the now closed power plants that surround the Niagara River. I parked my vehicle at the Fallsview Casino again, walked by the restaurant and retail complex at Queen Victoria Place and right to the heavy set circular illumination tower that reminded me of an early medieval Norman-style castle tower. I found a little bell in the back of the building and rang a couple of times before the door was answered by 76-year old Pete Gordon, star of the show and a lighting operator for the Niagara Parks Commission for 47 years. Pete had not expected any visitors, but graciously let me into the office area of the Illumination Tower. This special visit had been arranged for me by the Niagara Parks Commission.

Pete used to work as a painter for the Niagara Parks Commission, but together with another colleague he has been operating the lights illuminating the Falls for almost half a century. On work days he is usually there from 5 to 12 pm, creating a colourful light display on the majestic Niagara Falls. Pete mentioned that in the early part of the past century the general public was able to go up on top of the Illumination Tower, but due to insurance issues, the tower is closed today to the general public.

After this brief introduction Pete then took me onto the outside viewing platform that houses 18 very large searchlights, each equipped with coloured screens to produce different lighting effects on the huge waterfalls. From here we had a great view of the entire Niagara River, including the American Falls and the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Pete then took me into the control room and showed me some rather ancient-looking control panels which reminded me of an outdated fuse panel, with each colour identified by white, red, green, blue, and yellow knobs. Pete even let me operate the controls and made me create my very own lighting combination of the Falls. After I had done all my colour mixing on the panel inside Pete took me outside to the viewing platform and we actually checked out the colour mix that I had just created.

When the lights overlap they create additional colour combinations and the final product of my attempts was a mix of light blue, yellow, pink and purple. I admit I was rather tickled pink at the realization that I had just changed the colours on the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Back inside the building Pete explained that the huge lights creating this symphony of colour were actually searchlights used during WWII in London during the Battle of Britain. He even pulled out one of the light bulbs used in the search lights, which, incidentally, is made by Osram Sylvania, a German company, and carries a price tag of up to $2000. Today the Falls are illuminated with 500 million candle power. I tought it was rather ironic that these historic searchlights which were meant to protect the city of London from German air attacks during WWII nowadays actually relied on German technology for their illumination power.

Pete, having lived in Niagara Falls all his life, is a great fan of his home town and also has indepth knowledge of this city. He told me the story of the Honeymoon Bridge, which collapsed in 1938 due to an ice jam in the gorge which pushed this steel arch road bridge off its foundation. He even showed me some old photographs of this bridge, before and after its collapse and added that he still remembers seeing the collapsed bridge. He must have been just about six years old at the time.

Niagara Fall's colourful history is evidenced by another disastrous event that Pete remembers first-hand. A hydro power station with the name of Schoellkopf Power Plant, built in 1895, had been located on the American side of the Niagara River. On June 7, 1956 water had been seeping through a wall and cracks were widening rapidly, despite the workers' best efforts to stem the flow of water with sandbags. All of a sudden a loud rumble could be heard and the power plant's wall started to collapse. Moments later the entire southern part of the power station fell into the river below. Debris was thrown as far as the Canadian side of the gorge and one power station worker lost his life. This is just one of the many colourful historic events in Niagara Falls that Pete Gordon remembers first-hand.

I was curious what Pete actually does during his seven hour shift. He said he changes the colour combinations manually every two minutes or so. In between he reads or does crossword puzzles and added that he never feels lonely. Occasionally he gets a special visit from Australian, Japanese, Dutch or Chinese tour groups, and he mentioned that particularly the Japanese travel groups really enjoy the experience of the Illumination Tower. I was admiring the dozens of international, mostly Japanese business cards on the wall. Even celebrities such as Danny DeVito, Rita Perlman and Robert Urich have visited the Illumination Tower.

Before I left, Pete extended a special invitation to me: whenever I planned to return to Niagara Falls he would take me on a personal tour of his home town and show me all the special spots. I am definitely planning to take him up on that and thought to myself that the City of Niagara Falls could not wish for a better ambassador than Pete Gordon who has so much pride and affection for his home town.
About the Author
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions. Travel and Transitions deals with travel to foreign countries and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travelers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. Check out some of Susanne's several hundred video clips at http://www.youtube.com/user/travelandtransitions
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