A Caterpillar 345C excavator works precariously on the edge of the gorge.
Fifty-seven years ago — June 7, 1956, to be exact — a rumbling behind a wall of the Schoellkopf power plant in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was a prelude to the tumbling of a huge rock wall into the Niagara River gorge.
Some 60 years before the horrific collapse, shafts had been drilled in the limestone behind the wall to serve as conduits for water. The water was sent hurtling downward 220 ft. to strike and turn turbine blades in the power generating plant on the banks of the Niagara River. Over the years, the water had cut its way through the rock, finally buckling the wall, which fell onto the turbines and ended the useful life of Power Plant #2.
Today, some of the riverside debris from that collapse is being moved in the course of leveling a two-acre site for construction of a dry-dock and maintenance yard. It will serve tour boats that ply the river below Niagara Falls. The site is being developed by the Maid of the Mist Corporation, which is spending $32 million to rehabilitate and use the locally historic property.
“We’re taking precautions to spot artifacts for historical preservation. Anything we come across to preserve, we set aside,” said George Churakos, vice president of Mark Cerrone Inc., a Buffalo/Niagara, N.Y., contractor. Cerrone is preparing the site for construction of the dry-dock and maintenance facilities. LPCiminelli of Buffalo, N.Y., is the project’s general contractor.
A Controversial Site
The work site is not run-of-the-mill. The property is sandwiched between Niagara River waters separating Canada and the United States and the vertical gorge wall on the American side. Access to the work area is limited — and historical preservationists prefer to have no one working there at all.
The need for a new winter-time boat storage and maintenance site arose in 2012 after the Maid of the Mist Corporation lost its contract to operate the tour service from the Canadian side of the river. Canada’s Niagara Parks Commission was ordered by that country’s liberal government to open the contract to bidding rather than give Maid of the Mist another 25-year lease on the attraction. The company has operated boats on the river since 1846.
When a U.S. firm subsequently was awarded the contract, effective in 2014, Maid of the Mist found itself without a winter port for its boats. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo led the way in finding an alternative location for the tour company on the U.S. side, which turned out to be the former Schoellkopf plant site. Maid of the Mist is funding the project entirely and Niagara Falls State Park will earn additional revenue from the enterprise.
However, the brokered deal last December was not universally heralded. Preservation groups were appalled that the riverside property of the power plant would be disturbed; the site was hurriedly added to the National Register of Historic Places. A group went to court to halt the project. However, a State Supreme Court justice lifted the court order calling for work stoppage at the site and work proceeded in April.
The rival corporation that will operate from the Canadian side of the river still is considering legally challenging the contract given Maid of the Mist to operate from the American side. It contends that Maid of the Mist’s contract should have been openly bid.
Going to Work
Able to proceed, initial work by Mark Cerrone Inc. happened topside, where the area first was cleared for equipment and a thick gravel pad built as a platform for a supply crane. Quite a lot of excavation occurred near the lip of the gorge to determine the stability of the rock at that level. Scaling of the gorge’s rock face was necessary in several places to remove loosened pieces so that falling rock would not be a hazard to workers below.
To lower equipment and materials to the work area, a Manitowoc 888 Ringer was trucked to the top of the gorge from Independence, Ohio. ALL Crane Rental of Ohio supplied the 600-ton (544 t) platform crane that sits on a 46-ft. (14 m) diameter ring. Configured with a 225-ft. (69 m) boom, the crane was situated within working distance of the top of the gorge and effortlessly lifted and lowered heavy equipment to the work site below.
“We’ve lowered things before, but we’ve never lowered a 100,000-pound excavator,” said Churakos.
The towering Manitowoc unit made the equipment it lifted look rather small. It picked up and repositioned at the bottom of the gorge a Komatsu D155 dozer with a ripper, two Caterpillar 345 excavators, a Kobelco SK250 long reach excavator, a Komatsu PC240 excavator, two Morooka 3000 rubber-tracked trucks, a compactor and several other smaller pieces of equipment. A personnel gondola also was utilized to lower workers to the site until a buck hoist was erected to transport people from level to level.
The work site is less than a mi. from Niagara Falls and the misty coolness generated by the falls sometimes produces marginal conditions. On windy days, the gondola was susceptible to swaying. When it was deemed too risky to lift personnel by crane, construction crew members and supervisors boarded a Maid of the Mist boat for river transport to a landing.
The area being transformed was anything but level and clear. The crumbled limestone and remains of the turbine building are mounded. Trees and shrubs have taken root in some areas. Though the entire ledge is not going to be utilized — the remainder being preserved for hikers and preservationists — the area needing smoothed really needed smoothing.
“We have elevations that drop 15 to 20 feet,” said Churakos. “It is not flat at all, more undulating.” Crevices and boulders litter the area, which is about 60 ft. (18.3 m) above the surface of the river. An estimated 25,000 tons (22,680 t) of limestone and debris are to be moved to create a site suitable for a 30,000 sq. ft. (2,787 sq m) dry-dock area and a 2,500-sq.-ft. (232 sq m) maintenance office.
A 13,000-lb. Indeco hammer mounted on one of the Cat excavators was used to break up rock to fill the crevices. The only blasting on the project occurred during the removal of loose rock from the overshadowing face of the gorge.
Still to Come
The leveled and surfaced portion of the acreage nearest the river will be large enough for two Maid of the Mist vessels plus storage of floating docks. A vertical marine lift will be installed for swinging the boats up and out of the water. The dry-dock portion of the project needs to be completed by November, at which time ice formation becomes a threat to any vessel still in the river.
LPCiminelli crews will construct the maintenance storage-office structure, which will not be completed until 2014. The project also includes installation of a new elevator in an existing shaft that runs from the old Schoellkopf building at the top of the gorge to the lower level.
Churakos said the work site is “once-in-a-lifetime unique. We work in a lot of precarious positions, but this one took months of planning to develop the proper means and methods for construction.”
The safety of the 15 to 20 people working at the river’s edge was a priority concern, along with protection of the heavy equipment. On the minds of Cerrone project supervisors were the possibility of a man or machine slipping over the edge of the gorge top during preliminary work or into the river on the lower side; also of concern were the hazards associated with the general unevenness of the rocky terrain across the work site.
“There are countless safety challenges,” the Cerrone vice president said. “We have all kinds of safety regulations on the project. We review and assess all work tasks daily because safety is our number one priority. With ever-changing terrain and weather conditions, we have to stay prepared.”
By mid-June, the project was deemed to be about 20 percent complete.