Niagara Falls


SCHOELLKOPF
POWER STATION
DISASTER

Thursday June 7th 1956

a history

 

 

 

 

On Thursday June 7th 1956, John HANEY was working at the Schoellkopf Power Station when it collapsed. The following is his account of his horrifying experience.

"That was more than 50 years ago. 

I can still see some of it in my mind but have hard time putting it in words.

 I started work that day as a janitor.

There was water seeping in and we were trying to keep it away from the generators. The pressure on building was tremendous. The windows facing river were just popping out.

I had to go and operate the 2nd elevator for emergency evacuation but that elevator got flooded out. I returned to the floor of section that was (subsequently) wiped out. I started down to my locker and the concrete floor would buckle-up and I would jump over it.

The area where my locker was located was devastated. I returned to generator floor and was going to get my shirt that I wore for work. I opened door to toilet area my shirt was in area just off this area next to the sinks. I saw the sinks cracked in half and toilets in shambles. I closed door and came back.

Then the wall toward the falls came crashing down. I then headed to elevator. Water and stone was falling into fore bay. I stood under the steel door frame watching and did not hear the elevator door open. The operator called to me and I jumped on. It took 45 seconds to reach the top and I saw the gorge collapse on the area I was at. The rest of the crew ran through the section that was not crushed and into the gorge. Then I helped maintenance close the gates to stop some water flow.

After returning to work next, I and my brother in law were on security in gorge at the down river end of building. I remember keeping times of magazine people from going into the building.

I must say it was quite an exciting day. It was most likely the closest I ever came to dying. I hope this gives you something that you do not already have. Thanks for listening." -  March 14th 2007

John Haney
age 74
Longmount, Colorado

 

 

 

 

The following history was compiled from newspaper reports as recorded at the time by staff members of the Niagara Falls Review (Ontario) and the Niagara Falls Gazette (New York). The reports provide a uniquely detailed perspective of one of the most terrifying and costly disasters ever to have occurred at
Niagara Falls and the Niagara Frontier.    

 

 

On May 1st 1877, Jacob Schoellkopf purchased the hydraulic canal land and water and power rights for $71,000. When Schoellkopf had taken control of the hydraulic canal, power was transmitted by a combination of belts and drive shafts. Electricity was still in its infancy and used only for telegraphy and the newly invented telephone.

Schoellkopf improved the hydraulic power canal and organized the fourth Canal Company.

Schoellkopf found new customers for his powerhouse. Soon water was flowing over the edge of the gorge to the turbines below, a sight that was as spectacular as the Falls themselves. Schoellkopf realized the future in harnessing the power of Niagara was in the commercial production of electricity. He adapted this available electrical technology to his powerhouse turbines and one of the first hydro-electric generating stations in the world was born.

Illumination of Niagara Falls had been an attraction since 1860. Calcium flares were used originally to light the area however they were expensive and did not last long.

In 1881, Charles Brush of Euclid, Ohio arrived in Niagara Falls with 16 electric carbon arc lights and a generator to illuminate the Falls. Schoellkopf offered the power from his water turbines to power Brush's generator. This marked a milestone in the history of the illumination of Niagara Falls.

By 1882, Schoellkopf had built a small power house at the end of the canal and installed a small generator . It was one of the first generators to be built by the Bush Electric Light Company. Bush had recently demonstrated his successful arc light. The small generator lighted sixteen lights in the streets of Niagara Falls, New York. The Bush generator produced direct current which could not be transmitted more than 1-2 miles.

By 1882, Schoellkopf had attracted seven mills along the high bank (the top edge of the Niagara Gorge north of the American Falls) all producing power from the hydraulic canal.

In 1895, Schoellkopf built his second power plant directly in front of the original plant. The sides of the gorge were walled in. Behind the walls shafts carried water down the 210 feet (64m) to the turbines located just above the water level. Behind these shafts and rear walls of the new plant were old cuts in the rock face which were used during the era of the belt and shaft drive technology. Over the years, water seeping behind the wall had undermined the rock face of the gorge behind the plant.

Jacob Schoellkopf Sr. died in 1903. His sons: Jacob and Hugo took over the operation of the power business.

In 1904, a second power station was built boosting power output to 34,000 horsepower.

In 1918, Schoellkopf's Hydraulic Power Company merged with the Niagara Falls Power Company owned by Edward Dean Adams. The Niagara Falls Power Company name was retained.

 

 

The Collapse of the Schoellkopf Power Plant   

 

This picture will change every 20 seconds

 a series of 10 pictures
courtesy of the Niagara Falls Review

 

 

Friday June 8th 1956

 

Slide Crashes Power Plant

2nd Building Is Toppling Onto Ledge

39 Escape - 1 Believed Dead.

Officials Say Loss Is $100 Million Dollars

Building Flies Apart Like A Jet Stream

 

A rock slide roared like a thousand lions followed by three earth shaking electrical explosions, buried two-thirds of the Schoellkopf Power Station in Niagara Falls, New York at the base of the Niagara Gorge shortly after 5 p.m. (Thursday June 7th 1956).

Thirty-nine terrified workers emerged from the plant just as the remaining section of the plant burst into orange flames.

Richard A. Draper, age 39, of Lewiston, New York, a maintenance foreman was hurled through the window into the river. He is presumed dead.

A jet like burst of water from a broken penstock carried his body along with thousands of tons of debris into the surging maelstrom.

Three men were treated in hospital. Two men were blown out of the building with Draper, were picked up by a motor launch from the Maid of the Mist Company. Another worker was hauled up the 215 foot face of the gorge on ropes.

According to Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation - Vice President, Charles J. Wick of New York, the damage is estimated at $100 million dollars. The building and its equipment cost $36 million dollars in 1918-1921.

Dr. Austin C. McTigue, chairman of Canisius College - Physics Department and Seismology director was quoted a saying a minor earthquake caused the disaster. Workers however clung to the belief that water seepage had undermined the base of the gorge.

A huge structure housing switches located directly on top of the gorge which was badly undermined may fail at any time. It has been sealed off.

Reports that drinking water was contaminated in Niagara Falls, New York proved erroneous. Water changed colour after diesel pumps went into operation when the city's electrical supply was blacked out.

Three - 70,000 horsepower and three - 32,500 horsepower generators, mostly 25 cycle were dumped into the river.

While officials flatly refused to comment as the cause of the catastrophe last night, they confirmed reports that a work crew was in the gorge building to investigate water seepage which was noticed in the penstocks earlier in the day.

Workers who escaped said they believed that the water had eaten away at the base of the gorge and this may have caused the collapse.

Cleliaw Cory, a tourist from New Mexico gave evidence of trouble in the plant. He said the plant guards turned his party away from the visitors gate minutes before the crash, telling them that site was closed to visitors owing to the discovery of a serious water leak.

Witnesses reported seeing stones and pebbles start rolling down the side of the gorge. Clouds of white smoke billowed high into the air and over the Rainbow Bridge about 500 meters (1,640 feet) upstream from the rock slide.

"Suddenly it seemed like the whole face of the gorge collapsed" declared Albert Cooper, a television producer of Buffalo, New York. "It smashed right down onto the building below. Water gushed all over and into the other building."

 

Too Much Water For Power Use

The Ontario Hydro Electric Commission said today it is providing 300,000 kilowatts of power to northern New York State where supply was cut Thursday when a rock slide wrecked the generating station at Niagara Falls, New York.

The commission said in a statement that 200,000 kilowatts was being furnished at 25 cycle and 100,000 kilowatts are being provided at 60 cycle.

Under the treaty signed by the US and Canadian governments in 1950 (the Water Diversion Treaty) fixed volumes of water must be permitted to flow over the Falls by day and by night.

Water in excess of these amounts are split 50%-50% by each country for generating power.

 

Terminal Building May Fall

At press time, reports said the building overhanging the gorge is ready to go over. Its collapse appears imminent. A three (3) inch wide crack - 300 feet long just behind the edge of the gorge was sighted.

The terminal building at the top of the cliff above the blasted Schoellkopf plant today seemed doomed to follow the bulk of the power house into the gorge, company officials admitted this morning.

It is undermined so greatly that the building is in peril. At noon  today the area was still in a state of alarm and barred to traffic. Whether or not the garage and the gatehouse, both of which were connected in a series to the terminal building by the heavy power lines are in grave danger could not be learned today at noon. Both are subject to the great pull of the lines that came with the collapse of the generating units into the river.

An attempt is being made this afternoon to construct a log barricade at the fore bay feeding water to section "A" at the Niagara Mohawk Power Plant. A company spokesman said the remaining 1/3 of the plant is under 10 feet of water. It could be a complete loss.

Plans are being made to stop the flow of water through a tunnel which feeds the station.

 

Plants Here Operated At Full Tilt

The Canadian Niagara Power House, the Toronto Power Plant and the Ontario Hydro Power Plant (at the base of the Falls) zoomed into peak production last night. Their output coupled with 25 cycle generators at Queenston and the outputs of the Niagara Mohawk's Tonawanda plant are keeping Niagara Falls, New York industries rolling today.

Most of the silent Schoellkopf plant served 25 cycle power to Niagara Falls, new York industries. Nobody knows whether its generators will be able to operate again. Meanwhile Canadian power output has quickly taken up the slack.

The Ontario Power Company (OPC) and Toronto Power Company each have capacities of 100,000 kilowatts on 25 cycle power and eight - 25 cycle units at Queenston are capable of producing 300,000 kilowatts. Normally 45,000 kilowatts of 25 cycle power from these plants are normally exported the United States. Today, they are pouring 225,000 kilowatts into Niagara Falls, New York and are running their machines wide open.

 

Gorge Collapse Like The Fall Of A Skyscraper

The roar was awesome. It looked as if the whole gorge wall had opened up like the side of a skyscraper down it came. Rocks and masonry burst into the air splitting into thousands of pieces and pelted the river like shrapnel. And a few fell on the Canadian side. A jet stream of water was unleashed. Three violent blasts followed. The river turned a sickly brown. White smoke poured upward from the gaping gorge mouth and the resounding echo died.

What caused the sudden wrath of nature? One scientist called it a minor earthquake. Workers said they thought water from the Mohawk penstocks had swept under the gorge shale base and undermined it.

The catastrophe occurred less than two years after cracks sent Prospect Point a half mile upstream into the Niagara River Gorge.

Time and the ravages of nature caused gradual physical changes in the mighty gorge. But never have so many been underneath an impending disaster such as yesterdays that cut 2/3 of the big Niagara Falls, New York power plant to ribbons.

 

Quake Is Blamed In Rockslide

A very small earthquake was blamed last night for the partial destruction of the huge Schoellkopf Power Plant in Niagara Falls, New York.

Dr. Austin C. McTigue, a nationally known seismologist and chairman of Canisius College Physics Department in Buffalo, New York said flatly the power installation was wrecked by an earthquake. He discounted the theory of erosion saying there is no reason why there should be the erosion effect that we normally see at the Horseshoe Falls. Dr. McTigue said it was just another release of the elastic strain in the earth in the area. Any energy released must necessarily be the result of an elastic adjustment in the area, Dr. McTigue said in pointing out the Schoellkopf station was not subject to erosion or erosion like forces found in the Falls. He theorized there was a definite pattern with earth disturbances stretching from Anna Ohio to as far north as Messina New York and Toronto, Ontario.

 

Need Action Of New York Power

Robert Moses, chairman of the New York State Power Authority said the destruction of the Schoellkopf Hydro Electric plant by a rock slide makes urgent need for congressional action on power issues in Niagara. Moses made the statement in a telegraph to representative Charles Buckley (Democrat-New York) - chairman of the House of Representatives, Public Works Committee.

 

The Most Destructive Rock Fall In History

Like Wild Rapids As Rocks Plummet Down The Building

The most destructive rock fall in the recorded history of the spectacular Niagara Gorge took one life late Thursday and left a huge power plant on the American side in a tumbled down ruins.

More than 40 other employees of the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation scrambled along the dangerous bank to safety. Two of the stations three sections roared into the wild rapids behind them. Company officials were appalled by the damage which wiped out 360,000 kilowatts of power capacity in the twinkling of an eye. They could only say that damage will run into the millions.

The original cost of the two completely wrecked sections was about $36 million dollars more than 30 years ago.

Lost in the maelstrom of the rocky debris was Richard Draper, age 39, a machinist,  of Lewiston. Two companions saw Draper disappear when the cascading remnants of the power house walls.

Draper and the others had been working feverishly sandbagging a leak at the base of the station. The seepage had been discovered only hours earlier. The staccato reports of cracking walls warned the men that the end of the building was near.

"All I know is the walls and the ceilings started coming down and I ran like hell" said Chris Nelson, age 25, one of the crew members. "I didn't stop for anything. I was really scared".

The station, the largest in the Mohawk system was hit by three earth shaking slides which followed each other in rapid order starting just before 5:30 p.m.

When it was over, the six turbine generators in the two sections were buried at the foot of the 220 foot gorge. The sudden loss of power brought much of the areas big chemical industry to a halt.

A third section where company officials hope to salvage some remnant of their investment houses four - 7,200 kilowatt generators in 25 cycle service and nine - 8,000 kilowatt generators in standard 60 cycle service.

All power in this highly industrialized city of 100,000 was instantly cut off but a gradual return began within two hours as the company drew power from its central division, from steam plants and from the Ontario Hydro Electric Commission (HEPC) from across the river.

J. Russell McCollough, Regional Manager of the Hydro Electric Power Commission said more than 230,000 kilowatts was sent to the United States as soon as commission officials learned of the rock fall.

Hundreds of tourists along the lip of the gorge and on the Rainbow Bridge watched in horror as the rock fall crashed into the rapids. Thousands more have poured into the area afterward. Traffic jammed the two bridges linking the border to watch the emergency operations.

American residents were unable to cook dinner on electrical stoves, headed to Ontario for meals. Many others came to view the ruins across the river.

There were many eye witnesses to the spectacular slide. Mr. C.A.R. Warren, a retired banker who lives near the gorge said "the roaring noise sounded like a jet flying low" sent him rushing to his living room window. "Everything seemed to be short circuited. Water was shooting high in the air and flames crackled through the building. I saw a wall start to break up. It crumbled a little bit at a time and then big sections came crashing down".

Phillip Mullett of Brampton, Ontario was walking across the Rainbow Bridge when he noticed a big dust cloud. "Then there was a roar like a low flying jet plane" he said. Mullett stated the cloud seemed to spread up. When he saw a huge rush of water shooting out of the cliff from above the station, a section of cliff seemed to be ripped away and then the whole business crumbled and smashed into the building.

More then 40 persons escaped from the plant before it fell. two men were trapped on the side of the gorge were rescued by a power launch owned by the Maid of the Mist Company. The men were unable to move from their perch on the gorge and searing flames from the wreckage cut off one route and a bridge abutment cut off the other. The men were directly below the power station. The launch set out from the Canadian side noticed the plight of the two men while searching the river.

Company officials speculated that the collapse was caused by seepage of water into the rock crevices between the face of the gorge and the hydraulic canal that fed water to the station. He suggested there had been an earth movement.

 

Fear Top Plant Is Doomed

If the remaining station "A" should prove to be flooded and beyond salvage, the Schoellkopf station will be a complete loss said Charles J. Wick, administrative vice president of Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation - Western Division.

 

Crew Dashed In Terror For Lives

Rocks pelted the roof. Windows popped from their frames and the walls separated and cracked while workmen in the Schoellkopf Power Plant fled in terror yesterday.

They ran almost the full length of the 1,500 foot long generator floor to the north entrance through a small door and scrambled along the steep Niagara Gorge bank about a mile to the Niagara Falls, New York incinerator plant where they found ladders leading above.

"There was no panic but we all ran" said Jack Smithson, age 30 of Niagara Falls, New York, one of the workmen. " I thought I was scared in Korea" the US Marine veteran declared "but it wasn't like this".

Chris Nelson, age 25 of Niagara Falls, New York, a veteran and workman who was in section 3C stated "all I know is the walls and the ceiling started coming down and I ran like hell". "I didn't stop for anything, I was really scared".

Paul Barthau, age 59, of Niagara Falls, New York, an operator at the electrical station for more than twenty years said "I suddenly heard rumbling noises. Rocks started to hit the roof and the far wall separated and cracked."

"All the windows started to pop out" said Robert Miller, age 26 of Niagara Falls, New York.

"2 or 3 minutes after we got out the whole building collapsed" said Alex Kerilovich, age 33 who was pumping water from the station.

Kerilovich said he started to run to the crumbling buildings south end but saw the elevator shaft was blocked. He then fled to the north end with the others.

"When it started we all screamed at once - lets get out" said Joseph P. Berett, age 42 of Niagara Falls, New York, foreman of the nine regular operators on duty on the generator floor. Berett said the men were told that when they came to work at 3:45 p.m., that cracks and leaks had cropped up and one piece of the floor had buckled. He added "we feared something might happen. I made sure the small door at the northern end of the generator floor leading out into the gorge bank was open and I had a man stationed there. Several minutes more and none of us would be here".

 

River Road Dwellers Take Vantage Points

Residents on River Road and in the streets in the immediate vicinity were on the scene a few seconds after the collapse of the power house. Mrs. Burtis Phillips was sitting in her home looking out the front window when she suddenly saw a flash out of the top of the power plant and then the far end of the building let go. Her husband who was proceeding along River Road from work to his home also saw the collapse of the wall. "The piece that took off part of the lawn at the top of the cliff fell towards the Canadian side" said Mr. Phillips.

Alonzo B. Robertson, a building contractor who lives a hundred yards from River Road heard the terrific explosion and ran to the river bank. "Water from the hydraulic canal and the power house tunnel was surging out over the battered power plant. The crash sounded like the whine of a jet plane at 5:05 p.m."

Glen Grassbrook of Bender Hill was one of the first witnesses on the scene. Grassbrook said "there was a hole in the roof at the cliff face and the building kept sliding into the river in parts. A blue and yellow fog was rising from the gorge from the generators and turbines. The crash sounded like a whine of a jet".

Thousands of tourists lined the river bank on the Canadian side and several hundred walked across the Rainbow Bridge for a better view. The vehicular traffic increased ten fold.

Walter Thompson, Public Relations Officer of Niagara Mohawk gave out the following press release:

At 10:25 a.m., seepage of water was discovered and construction workers were called in to find the leak and make repairs. At 5:15 p.m. water behind the rock structure caused it to fall on top of the station which obliterated the building. Generator sections "A" and "C" were completely demolished. He said there were 40 men present when the break-up took place.

The building was 500 feet long and 100 feet high. The generators which operate on 25 cycle and have an output of 44,000 kilowatts. Surface operations were completely shut down. One man - Richard Draper is missing.

 

Sirens Could Be Heard Throughout The Night

Police Prepare For Heavy Traffic For One Of The Heaviest Weekends Of Year

Disaster Strikes Twice In One Year

Disaster struck for the second time in a few months at the residence of Richard Draper, age 39 of Lewiston, New York.

Earlier this year, the kitchen of his home was gutted by fire. His eleven year old daughter Bonnie was badly burned about both legs.

Mr. Draper is survived by his wife Erma (Tallman) originally of Port Dalhousie and three children - daughters: Bonnie and Lorraine and son Lloyd. Draper was  a maintenance foreman at the Mohawk Power Corporation - Schoellkopf Power Station for twelve years.

 

 

Saturday June 9th 1956

Switching Station Is Seen Doomed. Demolition Is Essential Now

Starting Search For Drapers Body.

The Schoellkopf switching station perched precariously atop the ledge of the Niagara Gorge is doomed. If it doesn't tumble of its own accord, we will be forced to demolish it, a Niagara Mohawk official said.

The structure was undermined Thursday when 400 feet of rock - 20 feet thick fell off the face of the American Gorge burying 2/3 of the gorge power station. Meanwhile a boat crew will begin searching for the body of Richard Draper.

Workers are working around the clock attempting to dam the hydraulic canal. By damming the canal, officials hope to seal off the jet stream that is rolling into the river. When this is accomplished workers will be able to go into the mass of wreckage and estimate the damage in part of the plant left standing. It is flooded now to a depth of 10 feet.

 

Blame Erosion And Seepage For Mud Slide

A team of geologists examined the scene yesterday afternoon. They are virtually certain that erosion and water seepage combined to cause the devastating rock slide that crushed 2/3 of the Schoellkopf Power Station. State Geologists: John G. Broughton and James R. Dunn of Albany, New York along with Austin McTigue and Louis S. Bernstein, an engineer of the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation conducted a scene survey. They estimated that 120,000 tons of rock or an estimated 1,000,000 cubic feet of rock plunged into the gorge crushing the power station. A section of rock measuring 400 feet long - 200 feet high and 20 feet thick had broken loose from the top of the cliff.

 

Monday June 11th 1956

Dam Canal For Gorge

The cofferdam across the hydraulic canal should be completed by nightfall.

        

Sunday June 20th 1956

List Wrecked Power House At $8 Million Dollars

Mr. Earl J. MacHold, president of the Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation told stock holders yesterday that the two sections of the Schoellkopf Power Station wiped out June 7th by a Niagara Gorge rock slide carried a depreciated value of $8 million dollars.

Meanwhile, seepage through the cofferdam in the hydraulic canal prevented company officials from inspecting the wreckage. Only station "3A" escaped destruction.

Workers from McLain Construction of Kenmore, New York were using cinders and gravel to plug leaks in the cofferdam. The cofferdam measures 140 feet long and 35 feet high and is located in the hydraulic canal at the mouth of the Niagara River at Port Day.

Seepage kept the water level in the 4,500 feet long hydraulic canal approximately 5 feet deep.

Niagara Falls, New York - Police Chief Charles Gorman said at least 5 safes have turned up so far as the water level in the hydraulic canal dropped. Chief Gorman stated the criminal elements used the canal as a dumping site. The canal was last drained in 1923.

 

Wednesday June 23rd 1956

Recover Many Weapons From Power Canal

Police Chief Charles Gorman indicated that police had recovered 5 revolvers, 1 automatic and 12 toy pistols from the Niagara Mohawk Power Company hydraulic canal during a four and a half hour search yesterday.

 

Saturday August 7th 1956

Recover Body Of Man Lost In Rock Fall

The badly decomposed body of the 39 year old Lewiston man killed two months ago when a gigantic rock fall crushed the Schoellkopf Power Plant in Niagara Falls, New York was recovered from the Niagara River shortly after noon yesterday.

It was identified at the Morse and Sons Chapel as that of Richard A. Draper, maintenance worker who was reported missing after thousands of tons of rock fell on the plant on June 7th causing an estimated $100 million dollars damage. 

The body came to the surface opposite the shattered remains of the power installation yesterday morning. It passed through the lower rapids and circled around the whirlpool for an hour before being brought to shore by Wesley Hill and Ken Sloggett.

 

 

"I was barely 3 years old when my father, Michael Hajzak, experienced the collapse of the power station.  He was 43 years old at the time.  My father had been given the job of measuring the cracks in the wall and that he was involved in the sandbagging efforts.  He was one of the very first men that realized that the Power Station was collapsing and began running for his life along the top of the building.  My father retired in 1963 as a maintenance worker for the Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. after 18 years of service.  He died on February 5, 1995, at the age of 81."

Mary Jane Hajzak Mitchell
December 13th 2008

 

 

 

 

 

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Date last updated: February 13, 2012

 

 

 

The following locations and facts about them are but a few of many famous sites & attractions to be found in Niagara Falls. The best of it is FREE to see...so think of Niagara Falls when planning your next vacation. If you have questions of a current or historical nature about the Niagara Falls area or suggestions feel free to e-mail Rick at

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