The long, colorful history of lighting Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is illuminated in orange, to honor the late New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Enlarge photo

DOUG BENZ/Associated Press file

Niagara Falls is illuminated in orange, to honor the late New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario – You can’t take a boat ride into the roar and spray of Niagara Falls in the winter, but this time of year offers a different spectacle: Nighttime illumination of the falls in a changing array of colors – red, white, blue, purple, orange, amber and green.

In spring and summer, the colored lights shine for just three hours, but with less daylight in winter, curtains of color wash over the falls each night for as long as seven hours.

Crowds gather along the sidewalk and railing on Niagara Parkway to see the show as mist rises from the falls and basin in front of them; others watch from the windows of hotels and restaurants on the Canadian side.

The display starts with patriotic themes – red, white and blue for the American Falls, red and white for the horseshoe-shaped Canadian Falls – and frequently includes colors to honor a cause. When Niagara Falls hosted the first wedding after New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage last July, Mayor Paul Dyster arranged for a rainbow of colors, the symbol of gay pride. On Nov. 16, the falls were lit by white light for 15-minute stretches for lung cancer awareness, a request made by Christine Dwyer, who founded a group called Make Some Noise for Lung Cancer Awareness after losing her best friend to the disease.

“I think it validates us a bit,” said Dwyer, of Becket, Mass. She said supporters sent her emails after the lighting saying, “I heard about this, I’m in tears, I’m so grateful.”

The light beams emanate from a bank of 18 spotlights, each 30 inches in diameter, sitting atop a raised stone bunker across the road. For more than 50 years, Peter Gordon, 80, has been running the light show, splitting the week with “the rookie,” Dick Mann, 78, who has been at it for almost 30 years. Both are from Ontario.

The best views come on crisp winter nights, Gordon said, when the mist is transformed to sparkling ice crystals that catch the soft colors.

For the last year, Gordon and Mann have used a relatively new technology to control the lights – computerized touch screens. But the history of Niagara’s illumination goes back more than 150 years. The falls were lit for the first time at 10 p.m. Sept. 14, 1860, when 200 lights such as those used to signal for help at sea were put in place for a visit from the Prince of Wales. Electricity first was used in 1879. An illumination tower, still used today, was built in 1899.

Colors appeared in 1907 when gelatin films were included in a 36-light system near the base of the gorge designed by General Electric Co. of Schenectady, N.Y. Workers, including Peter Gordon’s father, were paid $3 a night to change the gels when a foreman shouted cues.

The Niagara Falls Illumination Board, a cross-border body established in 1925, has kept the lights on most nights since with a few exceptions. They were turned off during World War II, for example, to conserve power.

The control room where Gordon and Mann work 75 feet above street level has a musty, old feel with stone walls, well-worn wooden floors, cobwebby beams overhead and a couple of bare bulbs above a bank of humming generators.

But then there’s that million-dollar view. After changing the lights’ colors on the touchscreen, the controller can see the result 15 seconds later by looking out the windows or stepping through a door to a platform outside where the lights are mounted.

On the face of the waterfalls, colors fade to white as the next colored gel covers the spotlight and a new hue spills with the water over the falls. With each color change, it’s as if someone has dumped dye into the river above as it careens over the edge to the rocks below.

The 4,000-watt spotlights burn with a combined brilliance of 8.2 billion candles, about what NASA used to light the runway for night space shuttle landings. Gordon staggers the lights to avoid repeating color combinations, changing them as often as every five minutes to keep things fresh for tourists milling across the street below.

Like other landmarks, including the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower, the falls have been lit to honor a variety of causes: Alzheimer’s Disease, World AIDS Day, Canada’s Remembrance Day, March of Dimes and others. The charities are not asked to pay the $85 an hour it takes to light the falls. The cost is split among Niagara Falls, N.Y., Niagara Falls, Ontario, Niagara Parks and Ontario Hydro. Each bulb costs $1,500.

Not everyone loves the illumination.

“All that does is make it into a sideshow,” said Niagara Falls historian Paul Gromosiak, who advocates for keeping the falls in their most natural state and questions the logic and expense of using artificial light on a natural wonder. “The only light we should have on the falls is moonlight.”

As midnight nears, Gordon goes back to the patriotic colors that began the night, leaving them on for 15 minutes. The colors retract and the water rushes white for the last few minutes, and the falls fade to black.

Niagara Falls is illuminated in orange last August to honor the late New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Enlarge photo

DOUG BENZ/Associated Press file

Niagara Falls is illuminated in orange last August to honor the late New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton in Niagara Falls, N.Y.