Niagara Gazette

Local News

May 26, 2006

The collapse of Schoellkopf

It was the turning point for the City of Niagara Falls, a devastating blow to the area economy and an ironic end to the debate over public versus private power development.

When the Schoellkopf Power Station collapsed into the Niagara Gorge on June 7, 1956, it wiped out in seconds nearly 25 percent of the city’s tax base. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the collapse.

At the time, the Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., which owned the 60-year-old facility, was the largest municipal taxpayer.

The huge generating complex had been capable of producing 450,000 (kw) of power. It was often called the world’s greatest hydroelectric plant.

Shortly after the earth and rock slide, two-thirds of the station was reduced to twisted girders, rock and rubble in the lower Niagara River. Three 70,000-horsepower and three 32,500-horsepower generators went into the river.

The rocks cascading from the cliff crushed six penstocks that carried water from the canal at the top of the gorge to the generator station, which hugged the steep side of the gorge.

When several workers started screaming, “Let’s get out of here!,” nearly everyone dashed the length of the generator floor to the north end. They then climbed through a small door and scrambled along the shoreline toward the Niagara Falls Incinerator Plant where they hiked up a service road to the top.

Chris Nelson, a 25-year-old plant operator, recalled: “All of a sudden I saw a crack open up...and I made tracks, headed down the floor to the north. I thought maybe I could get the elevator up, but it was too late...there were rocks falling behind me, and I was running. The water was chasing me down the floor.”

Ironically, only one person — Richard Draper, Ridge Road, Lewiston — was killed. He and two other workers, Louis Bernstein and Robert Chapman, were caught outside the building at the south end, closer to the Rainbow Bridge.

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