Foundations of Construction: Massive hydroelectric plant demanded enormous equipment

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A photo taken in the 1920s, showing completed rock section of the canal as seen from the bottom, with concrete lining at the Niagara, St. Catherines & Toronto Railway Bridge

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

What do you do when Ontario’s population is rapidly growing and the need for electricity is skyrocketing beyond the capabilities of local plants? If it is 1913, you draw up plans for a new generating station to take advantage of rivers near Niagara Falls. In the 1920s, the Queenston-Chippawa Hydro-Electric Development was the world’s largest hydroelectric generation project.

Private companies produced power but were unable to meet burgeoning energy demand for homes and businesses in Toronto and southwestern Ontario. Promoting public electricity, “Sir Adam Beck began looking to build a publicly-owned hydro-electric generating plant to utilize the maximum drop of the Niagara River,” said Niagara Frontier. “By bringing in water from the upper Niagara River at Chippawa and around the Falls along the top of the gorge,” Beck could create a waterfall 97m high at Queenston.

The power plant construction budget in 1917 was estimated at $10.5 million. World War One and the pressing demand for electricity inflated the costs to over $29 million by the opening of the facility almost five years later. Horsepower grew from 275,000 to “an aggregate capacity of at least 550,000 horsepower,” according to Official Opening of the Queenston-Chippawa Power Development, Hydro-electric Power Commission of Ontario, 1921 (HEPCO).

The job was complicated. Twenty kms long, the canal required a downward run, but a portion of the route was uphill. At the confluence of the Welland and Niagara rivers, 6 kms “of the Welland River had to be widened and deepened to reverse the natural direction of the water flow,” noted Niagara Frontier. Instead of the original easterly flow, “the waters from the Niagara River flowed westward into the Welland River.”

The excavation of more than 13 million cubic yards of earth and more than 4 million cubic yards of rock was so colossal a task that the heavy equipment was inadequate. Shovel machinery was redesigned to handle the substantial work, and special concrete forms were produced. Digging the earth and rock was only part of the job; the materials still had to be hauled away. It was a perfect fit for the railway.

“To handle excavated material 82 miles (132 kms) of standard gauge railroad track were laid,” stated HEPCO. “Trains were hauled by 50 locomotives, the majority being electrically driven.” One of the 14 massive shovels could load a train “car of 20 cubic yards capacity, standing 60 feet [18 m] above the shovel, in 1 ½ minutes.” Need a cellar excavated for home construction? The shovel operator could have the job done in four minutes.

Penstocks of plate steel controlling water flow were attached to cement anchors and then to the powerhouse by a Johnson valve. (The valve controls flow through pipes.) The powerhouse was robustly built with “reinforced concrete floors and roof, and concrete, brick and tile walls and partitions,” said Parks Canada. Outfitted with “maintenance shops and stores, lubricating and insulating oil plants, battery room, staircases, fully equipped hospital room, kitchen, dining room, and offices,” noted Parks Canada, it also held “main generators, transformers, generator units and sump pumps.”

The site’s first air-cooled generator was tested on Dec. 25, 1921 and put into operation in January 1922. Three more generators were fired up at the same time. Within three years, five more were added to the line-up.

Like the rest of the massive project, one generator weighed in at over 1040 tons, and one transformer weighed 100 tons. The 60,000 horsepower turbines were “the largest in capacity of any hydraulic turbines ever built,” HEPCO described.

Turning on short vertical shafts, the turbo-generators ran at 187-1/2 rpm. Generating 12,000 volts at a frequency of 25 cycles, the energy passed through circuit-breakers and transformers “by which the voltage is increased from 12,000 to 110,000.” To assure steady operating speed no matter the power variance, the factory installed hydraulic governors.

Requiring electricity itself, the plant was powered by a pair of service generators. The 2,500 horsepower machines provided energy for “the station lights, pumps, cranes, elevators” and more, according to HEPCO. The station was accessed by two elevators, one inside to carry passengers to the floors, and “a high-speed elevator running from the screen house.”

A boost for workers during wartime, the hydro-electric project employed 10,000 men for nearly five years. The average pay cheque per week for one worker was $35.00, approximately $600 in today’s dollars.

The Queenston-Chippawa station was estimated to produce approximately 1,500,000,000 kilowatt-hours (kwh) of power annually. Although the final construction cost was close to $30 million, when spread over the kilowatt hours produced only a fraction of a penny was added to each kwh.

Modernized over the decades, the plant was renamed Sir Adam Beck–Niagara Generating Station #1 in 1950. A marvel of engineering, the Queenston-Chippawa Hydro-Electric Development was named a National Historic Site of Canada in November 1990.

© 2021 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.

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