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July 29 - Aug 06, 2014

Are New Maid of the Mist Docks
Just Tragedy Waiting to Happen?

By James Hufnagel

July 29, 2014

A minor fault, The "Niagara Falls-Ransomville", identified shortly after the Schoellkopf Power Plant Disaster of 1956, may put the new Maid of the Mist boatyard at risk.


The expulsion of James Glynn and his Maid of the Mist boat ride from Canada was an act of man, but it may be an act of God that ends his monopolistic, two-fisted grasp of the enterprise on the U. S. side of Niagara Falls.

That's because a growing body of evidence indicates that the rock walls of the Niagara Gorge directly above his recently-constructed Maid of the Mist storage area are exceedingly unstable and may, at any time, collapse on the new boatyard and maintenance facility, subjecting it to the same fate as the Schoellkopf Power Station that occupied the site 60 years ago.

After losing his Canadian franchise and winter headquarters, due to alleged corrupt influence on Ontario's Niagara Parks Commission covered in depth by this newspaper, Maid owner Glynn was forced to construct a new, $32 million boatyard at the Schoellkopf site virtually overnight in order to keep his business semi-intact. Hornblower, the worldwide tour boat company that outbid Glynn and took over his Canadian concession, has a standing offer to New York State exceeding what Glynn pays by $100 million.

Thus far, the Cuomo administration has ignored Hornblower's lucrative offer in favor of a no-bid arrangement with the wealthy and influential Glynn. State Parks and NYPA bypassed regulatory formalities, waived SEQRA and canceled an application for National Historic Landmark designation, and the Glynn boatyard was rushed to completion in a matter of months.

Federal and State regulations were circumvented by the Cuomo administration in its rush to save Glynn's bacon.


Schoellkopf history

Before the construction started, it may have been advisable for Maid of the Mist, or at least their insurance underwriters, to review some of the history surrounding the Schoellkopf site which has been twice demolished, first by nature and then by bulldozers and backhoes to make way for Glynn's family business.

"Schoellkopf Disaster Traced to Quake," headlined the Niagara Falls Gazette on March 21, 1962, and it didn't bode well for the long-term viability of Glynn's precarious foothold on the Niagara River at the base of the gorge. "The Schoellkopf power plant disaster and the damaged concrete lining of the Schoellkopf tunnel discovered Tuesday... were traced by a noted seismologist to an earthquake here in 1946."

Prof. Austin McTigue, chairman of the Canisius College physics department from 1940-1959, attributed the cataclysmic rockslide that demolished the Schoellkopf, the hydropower generating plant that produced many thousands of kilowatts of electricity, powered local industry and comprised 25 percent of the city's tax base, to a 1946 quake that took place along the Ransomville-Niagara Falls earthquake fault, which traces a zigzag path between the two Western New York communities.

"Blast-like Tremor Felt Throughout Area; Report Rock Slide at Cataract. Chimneys, Plaster Cracked; Fruit Jars Knocked from Walls; Earth Movement Recorded on Canisius Seismograph," read the Gazette account of the event, "Telephone switchboards, radio stations and police stations were flooded with calls."

In 1962 Professor McTigue identified a small fault, exposed by the '46 quake, passing directly through the rock layers supporting the Schoellkopf plant. "By studying the face of the gorge from the Canadian side," he said, "this fault can now be clearly seen." It was theorized that an accumulation of water, freezing and thawing, undermined the rock strata even more, ultimately causing the tragic rock slide.

It's no accident that the University of Buffalo's Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) was located at the north UB campus a few years back, winning out over research universities in quake-prone California.

Vigilant Guard magazine, a publication of the New York National Guard, did a story on the Center in 2009, focusing on the probability of a catastrophic earthquake rocking Western New York. It found that the risk level for Niagara County is one of the highest in the nation. "A 5.9 magnitude earthquake in this area is not an unrealistic scenario," one researcher warned.

The Schoellkopf Power Plant before and after the disaster of 1956. Now the site of the Maid of the Mist winter boatyard (Above). (Below) Niagara Falls Gazette front page Fri. June 3, 1956 .


History of disaster

Rockslides, some caused by tremors, are not uncommon in the Niagara Gorge, to the extent that the Niagara County Dept. of Emergency Services devotes a whole section of its February, 2008 Hazard Mitigation Plan to potential occurrences there.

Starting with a July 1, 1917 disaster in the Niagara Gorge, in which an avalanche toppled a train into the river killing 12, rockslides have caused fatalities in the gorge on other occasions, including one at Cave of the Winds that killed three tourists.

While State Parks Western Region, under the leadership of director Mark Thomas, has a near obsession with "interpretive" signage, somehow we doubt you'll encounter any mention of the natural processes that culminated in the Cave of the Winds tragedy.

According to the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, a strong March 27, 1962 quake centered at Niagara Falls (amazingly, one week after the McTigue story), possibly originating at the gorge fault, was "felt by, awakened and frightened many. Hundreds of persons telephoned the police and fire departments inquiring about the tremor. Beds, chairs displaced; houses shook; dishes rattled. Intensity (damage) at Sandy Beach (Grand Island) where houses shook; felt at Cambria, Lewiston, North Tonawanda, Pekin and Tonawanda. Also felt at Saint Catherines..."

Are we due for another quake of the magnitude of the '46 and '62 seismic events, and could it trigger another catastrophic rockslide in the Niagara Gorge, resulting in the complete destruction of the Maid of the Mist? In retrospect, it appears the 30-year extension arbitrarily granted Maid by Gov. Cuomo may be excessively optimistic. Regret to say, we're overdue for another such tectonic event, by some years.

A high-level State Parks source—who wishes to remain anonymous— has told us that numerous cracks resulting from shifting and eroding rock layers are in evidence in and around the Schoellkopf and Gorge Discovery Center building. These cracks, in addition to small "sinkholes" which appear now and then due to progressive collapsing of tunnels below, need to be filled in as a matter of routine maintenance.

It's interesting that the entire area between the Discovery Center and gorge rim has been fenced off for years, probably because of the danger of tourists falling off in a rockslide and tumbling, fatally, into the gorge below.







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