Niagara Falls: Just How Do They Light Up The Falls?

The Illumination of Niagara Falls has been amazing visitors for more than a century.  Each time we are there, my husband and I sit in our hotel room, looking out onto the falls and hypothesize how it all works.  Are the lights behind it?  In front?  It is automated?  How many lights?  How did it start?

We were lucky to be able to get a behind the scenes tour of how it all works and were able to actually change the lights ourselves which should be added to your bucket list.  The lights for the Horseshoe Falls are housed atop of the Illumination Tower which, in a previous life served as a surge tank.  There is a “lightkeeper” at the helm who is responsible for changing up the show of lights each night.  The Illumination board doesn’t have the capacity to offer tours to the public at this time but there are tour operators in the area that are able to.

As tends to happen on these kinds of stories the unique people we meet take more of the spotlight than the main event itself.  Gene, the man working that night was one of a kind.  He should share the title as the World’s Most Interesting Man, along with the Dos Equis guy, of course.  He know everything there is to know about the history of Niagara Falls and has an unlimited supply of fascinating stories.

10 Incredible Facts of the Illumination of the Great Falls

  1. The very first illumination took place in 1860 as a one night event to honour the Prince of Wales during his visit. It was lit with 200 Bengal Flares.
  2. In 1925 6 local businessmen got together and purchased 36 lights that were mounted atop the tower.
  3. The spotlights were shipped over to London, England during WWII to help spot bombers. 36 lights were sent over with only 21 making the trip back to the falls.
  4. The old lights were coloured by sliding gels in front of them. These gels couldn’t be left on for more than 10 minutes or they would start to burn through.
  5. The lights that light up the American falls are mounted along the gorge. Many, many moons ago, men were paid $0.50/night to stand by the lights along the gorge to change the gels on command.
  6. A lighting upgrade last year to LED lights cost 4 million dollars and changed the system from 21 individual bulbs to 10,400 LED bulbs.
  7. The lights previously being used took 2 people to change and it could be dangerous work due the gases.
  8. Candlepower of the lights in 1879: 32 Thousand
    Candlepower of the lights in the 90’s: More than 5 BILLION!
  9. The new LED lights use less than half of the energy and provide a brighter light than the previous ones and have colours that change at the touch of a screen.
  10. When I grow up I want to run the lights at Niagara Falls.You can find more information about the Illumination Board and the Illumination Schedule along with their special dates here.

One of the men behind the magic, Gene has all of the stories and facts that could only be garnered by spending many years behind the scenes in Niagara.  Here is a sampling of the fun stories that we learned from him.

  1. There is a small island between the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls named Luna Island. Luna is a Huron word for light.  Apparently, from time to time a lunar rainbow can be seen from this spot.
  2. Goat Island, which can be seen from the Canadian side and is a popular spot to view the falls from the American side, derived its name from the fact that a couple of centuries ago a farmer used to keep his goats there to protect them from the wolves. However, one particularly cold winter froze a nice, icy path for the predators to cross.  The farmer came back to find all but one of his goats gobbled up.
  3. The journey for the water that pours over the falls starts with a melting glacier. It then travels through some of the 2 million kilometers of lakes, rivers and streams, down the falls, to the St. Lawrence River, eventually landing in the Atlantic Ocean.
  4. The Horseshoe Falls are 56 metres high and at the deepest part the water below is 56 metres deep.
  5. Niagara Falls used to erode at 4 feet per year but now, since they have discovered how to control the water, that has dropped to 1 foot every 10 years.

The Illumination Board lights up the Horseshoe & American Falls every night of the year and honour special occasions and holidays such as Canada Day, the 4th of July & Valentines Day with special colours and light shows.  What started from such humble beginnings with Bengal Flares has grown into a beautiful show that is seen by millions of visitors each year in person and via the webcams.  Having the opportunity to change the lights ourselves was super cool.  Although the kiddos can’t quite grasp what a unique opportunity they’ve had, I’m sure when they are older they’ll be amazed at the fact that they changed the colours on the World Famous Niagara Falls themselves.  I can’t wait to see what light show they will come up with for Canada’s big 150 this year.

The cover photo of the Horseshoe Falls is courtesy of Niagara Parks because as you can see in the video, it was super foggy which is actually quite beautiful but makes capturing great photos a bit of a challenge.

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