Skip to main content

Niagara Falls Illuminations

Lights over Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls represents one of the most spectacular sights in North America, and in fact in the world. The spectacle is even more remarkable at night, when the cascading waters are lit by various colors and styles of light, and frequently by fireworks as well. Illumination of the Falls began in 1860, when English electrical engineer Robert W. Blackwell proposed to celebrate a visit to the Falls by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, with Bengal lights, signal flares used for illumination and communication and particularly important in sea rescue.

Sixty lights were placed in a row on the Canadian shore and aimed at the American Falls, another 60 were placed under the Table Rock and the remaining 80 were put behind the water at Horseshoe Falls. Several hundred white and colored flares were placed above and below the American Falls, along the Canadian side of the Niagara Gorge and behind the Horseshoe Falls. The lights were supplemented by fireworks and these created an effect that The Times of London said was “grand, magical and beyond all power of words to convey”. This arrangement was not used again, but calcium flares or “torpedo lights” were on occasion used to light the Falls in the late 1860s.

The newly-developed power of electricity was used for illumination of the Falls at the beginning of 1879, when Queen Victoria’s son-in-law the Marquis of Lorne, newly-appointed Governor-General of Canada, was greeted with the equivalent of 32,000 candles. The Brush Electric Company of Cleveland, Ohio used arc lights to illuminate the Falls. A water wheel was located in the rapids upstream of the American Falls. It was connected to a dynamo- type generator capable of producing 36 horsepower of electricity for 16 arc lights.

Twelve lights placed in Prospect Park while the remaining 4 were positioned at the base of the American Falls. This was done again for Canada Day and Independence Day, but the Brush system was also used for only one season. In 1892 the owners of the Maid of the Mist steamboats put a 4,000-candlepower light on their dock and projected light of various colors on the Falls with gelatin plates. The Great Gorge Railroad, which ran excursions along the Niagara River, put 40 red, white and blue arc lamps of 2,000-candlepower each along its route 250 feet apart, as well as attaching a searchlight to the trains, and began to offer night-time excursions three times a week in 1895.

The Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 is mainly remembered today for the assassination of President William McKinley, which thrust Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency, but special trains brought large crowds to Niagara Falls for nightly illuminations as well. William D’Arcy Ryan of the General Electric Company in Schenectady designed a new light system in 1907: 36 lights with a total of 1,115,000,000 candlepower were mounted along an access road to the Ontario Power Company generating station at the base of the Niagara Gorge. These were aimed at the American Falls, and men were paid 50 cents each to place gelatin films across the faces of the lights to project different colors onto the American illuminate the Falls. The Falls were not normally lighted on Sundays, but exceptions were made for the Duke of Cornwall, later King George V, in 1907 and in 1919 for a visit by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII.

Lights and Fireworks every night
In 1920, lights were installed on the roof of the Ontario Power Generating Station located at the base of the Niagara Gorge just north of the Horseshoe Falls. Additional lights were mounted on the Table Rock House. This allowed for illumination of the Horseshoe Falls. The lights were strategically located to conceal their location.

During the early 1920’s, a group of businessmen from Niagara Falls, New York formed a group known as the “generators”, to ensure the continued illumination of the Falls and to improve the lighting system. This group began lobbying officials of both American and Canadian governments to maintain the illumination lights. The “generators” group had raised $58,000 for the purchase and installation of 24 new arc lights, each 36 inches in diameter. The Niagara Falls Illumination Board was formed in 1925, originally with ten members from the twin cities of Niagara Falls and the Queen Victoria Park Commission. The Board had an initial budget of $28,000 for the management, operation and maintenance of the lights.

New lights were mounted in a battery on the Ontario Power Company water surge tank, just north of the Horseshoe Falls. This allowed lighting of both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls from the same location. Each light used 4,500 watts and were had originally been used as searchlights in Britain during World War I The power was provided for free by Ontario Power. The new lights were lit for the first time on May 26, 1925. A Festival of Lights was planned to coincide with the official dedication of the system on June 8. This included a light parade in Niagara Falls, New York and an international ceremony in the middle of the Upper Steel Arch Bridge, after which the lights were turned on to illuminate the Falls with many spectators looking on. The twenty-four (24) spotlights were operated by a crew of three men. Color gelatin films were manually slid into place in front of each light. Each light produced 55 million candlepower. The series of lights generated a total of 1,320,000,000 candlepower.

Summertime light shows continued until World War II and then stopped for a decade, first to conserve electricity for the war effort and then because the boom in postwar construction taxed the electrical generating systems on both sides of the border. After 1950 there was sufficient generating capacity to light the Falls again, but power could no longer be provided for free. In 1951 the Illumination Board worked out an arrangement by which half of the cost was paid by Niagara Falls, New York and the other half was divided between Niagara Falls, Ontario, Niagara Parks and Ontario Hydro. Twenty new carbon arc lights were installed in 1958 by General Electric of Canada at a cost of $153,000. Ten lights were aimed at the Horseshoe Falls and 5 at the American Falls. In addition, two lights were focused Goat Island and 2 on the Upper Rapids. The new lights emitted a total of 84 million candlepower, and included white lights and 15 possible color combinations of white, red, amber, green, and blue.

The Illuminations Today
In recent decades the Illumination Board has consisted of representatives from both cities of Niagara Falls, the New York state park system, Ontario Power Generation and Canada’s Niagara Parks Commission. An Illumination Tower was subsequently built, and the incandescent lights were replaced by xenon ones. In 1970 3 xenon lights were installed on the lower river bank to illuminate the Bridal Veil or Luna Falls. Eighteen xenon spotlights were put into use in 1974, each one 30 inches (76cm) in diameter and generating 250,000,000 candlepower. In 1979, three additional xenon lights were positioned just south of the Canadian Niagara Power plant to and shine on the plume of mist from the Falls. Unfortunately, they also shined into the windows of many hotel rooms overlooking the falls, and their use had to be discontinued. A battery of three lights was installed to shine directly on the American Falls from the Canadian shore, the satellite locations being operated by remote control.

By the mid 1990’s, the lights were again in need of overhaul. Complaints had been received that the current lights were too weak and ineffective to properly illuminate the Falls. In 1995 lighting consultant Linus MacDonald, lighting engineer for CTV station CFTO in Toronto, redesigned the illuminations. He retrofitted the existing aluminum light projection shells and installed 4,000 watt lamp bulbs because he felt that his goal was illuminating the Falls and not simply lighting them, and that higher-wattage bulbs would have a harsher effect and could obscure some of the nighttime ambiance and color. MacDonald’s illumination configuration is best viewed from a distance rather than close-up, and the center of the Horseshoe Falls is not illuminated because of the waterborne mist that rises from the its base.

The rising mist forms an impenetrable wall that reflects the light and does not allow it to penetrate to the waterfalls behind it. In 1997 a new 21- light system was installed that produces 60 to 70 percent more illumination, approximately 8.2 billion candlepower. These bulbs, made by the lamp manufacturer OSRAM GmbH in Germany, last for 1,100 hours or about one tourist season, and cost about $1,400 each, They nevertheless produce twice as much light as the previous lighting installations and consume 10 per cent less power. The last 11 of the old lights were replaced in 1998, and have since been used for spare parts.

Light shows have occurred virtually every night except for 1940 to 1950, augmented during the summer by fireworks and also with fireworks during the Niagara Falls, Ontario Winter Light Festival. This also represents Canada’s longest-running fireworks display. The illuminations were interrupted in January, 1938 when an ice storm shut down the Ontario Power generating station, and were turned off for several days in August, 2003 in the aftermath of a major power failure involving much of North America. Otherwise, the Falls are illuminated every night from the onset of darkness (5 p.m. in January, 9 p.m.

In July and August and times in between in other months) until 11 p.m. weekdays and midnight on weekends (1 a.m. on New Year’s Eve). Fireworks begin at 10 p.m. on Fridays, Sundays and holidays from May until September. This may be the best free entertainment in North America: there is no charge for fireworks or illuminations, even though it costs about $85 an hour to light the Falls, more with fireworks.