Thursday, June 30, 2022

Travel Close to Home # 13: Walking Through the Air

A few days ago, I discovered a unique new walking spot in Southern Ontario which had never before come to my attention. And I discovered it in a very odd way. I was driving south from London, past the western outskirts of the city of St. Thomas -- "the Railway City" -- and I knew that I would pass under a railway trestle over the river valley through which the road was running. Then I came up to the trestle -- and I noticed something very odd about its appearance.

Let's face it -- one does not normally see sizable trees and a giant weathervane standing on a railway trestle!

As I would discover, what I was seeing was the St. Thomas Elevated Park. I can guess that it might have been inspired by the success of the Highline in New York City, but this park reaches heights (thanks to the depth of the valley) that the Highline can only dream of.

To reach the park when coming south from Highway 401 and London, along either Sunset Drive or Wellington Road, exit along Talbot Street from the roundabout in the valley. 
You can't miss the exit, largely because of this distinctive and eye-catching sculpture by Scott McKay in the middle of the circle.

At various times, as many as 26 different railway companies have served St. Thomas. It's no wonder that the municipality brands itself as "The Railway City!"

Driving up the long hill out of the valley, you will turn right at the top onto Stanley Street, and then -- after one full block -- right again onto Centre Street. On the right hand side, 2 blocks along, is the gravel parking lot. Follow the gravel walking trail out of the lot and you will quickly find yourself on the dead-level and ruler-straight railway right of way. This was the route of the Canada Southern Railway (later owned by Michigan Central) which ran from Niagara Falls to Windsor, and -- at one time -- even briefly hosted an Amtrak train using the route as a shortcut from Buffalo to Detroit.
It takes about 5 minutes to walk from the parking area along to the bridge proper. Here's how it appears as you approach it.

The trestle was wide enough for two tracks to cross at once, so there's ample room for the path -- whether boardwalk or concrete -- to veer from side to side, with numerous park benches interspersed among a diverse collection of intriguing public sculptures.

In the last picture of that group, you can see a strip of unpaved gravel cutting across the concrete paved walkway. The gravel is on top of the expansion joint, a necessary feature of any steel bridge as the metal of the bridge's supporting structure will expand and contract with changes of temperature. If the walkway were paved right across the joint, the paving would quickly crack and break up as the bridge flexed.

At the midpoint of the bridge is this intriguing piece.

After painfully transcribing with the help of the internet, I came up with the line of letters which you see above as my reading of the Morse Code dots and dashes on the plain metal strip, from top to bottom. Each of the plain metal strips has a string of dots and dashes, but unless it's some kind of coded message I would assume it's purely a random assortment of letters. However, it does remind us of the "good olde daze" when railway companies transmitted messages up and down the line by Morse Code dots and dashes sent along the trackside telegraph wires.
Not far away stands a historic relic: a masonry milepost from the old railway line. The letters "N.F." strongly suggest to me that this was Mile 117 on the Niagara Falls Subdivision. Unlike major highways, the mileposts on a railway in North America begin numbering from zero again each time the line enters a new subdivision of the system.

As you reach the western end of the bridge, the Elevated Park comes to an end but the railway trail keeps going and going and going.... It's part of the Trans-Canada Trail system and, although I don't know for sure, I wouldn't be surprised if the trail sticks with the old railbed all the way to Windsor.

The meandering walkway across the trestle allows for lovely views on both sides of the river valley below.

Several of the artworks, as you undoubtedly noticed, were commissioned by such service clubs as Kinsmen, Kiwanis, and Rotary. As the dedication signs at the eastern entrance to the bridge make clear, this entire project was one hundred percent funded by private donations from organizations and individuals in the community. But note also the laconic statement: "Canada's First Elevated Park."

Quite an achievement, in this day and age when so many "experts" lament the demise of community spirit and volunteerism. Congratulations to the people of St. Thomas for joining forces and creating such a fascinating community public space!
My entire walk from the parking lot to the far end of the bridge and return took about 25 minutes, which included stops for pictures and to admire the views.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Niagara Falls Experiences That Many People Miss

The world-famous resort area of Niagara Falls has a kind of split personality. On the one hand, there's the Niagara Falls everyone knows, the one you always see in tourism ads -- this one.

In this "well known" Niagara Falls you can include such things as the Journey Behind the Falls on the Canadian side of the river, the scenic cruises up to the foot of the falls, the Cave of the Winds tour on the American side of the river, and -- almost as well known -- the Whirlpool Aero Car ride across the fearsome Niagara whirlpool.

Along with these, you can also throw in such delights as the perennial haunted-house sideshow on Clifton Hill, the enormous indoor waterpark, the giant Sky Wheel, the Skylon Tower, the Zipline across from the Falls, and more.

This blog post, though, is devoted to some of the Niagara experiences that many people miss.

To explain those, it's necessary to introduce you to the Niagara Parks Commission. This body was founded by the Ontario government in the 1880s, and given stewardship over the shorelands all along the Canadian side of the river, except for the communities of Fort Erie, Chippawa, Niagara Falls, Queenston, and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Parks Commission was handed a very clear mandate: the Commission must be self-sustaining, and the parks must be free of entry charges. 

This was done because the river's edge had previously been dominated by avaricious private entrepreneurs who charged exorbitant fees simply to get through their premises (which ran the gamut of what the law now calls "disorderly houses") and get a look at the Falls.

Ever since the 1880s, then, the Parks Commission has existed without relying on general tax dollars, hence the sometimes hefty charges for the facilities within the parks. But the basic premise remains the same, and anyone can still enter the parks free of charge. I like to do it by just walking down the hill from my favourite hotel and then continuing along the edge of the river.
The backbone of the park system is the Niagara River Parkway, a two-lane road, toll-free, stretching all the way from Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake. It gives access to all the parklands and attractions in the Niagara Parks Commission's portfolio. So, all the sites I am visiting here are located along the Parkway.
To start with, the newest visitor attraction which just opened this year, was the first hydro-electric power station built on the Canadian side of the river. The current visitor attraction is the generator hall, which is located at the south end of the large parking lot closest to the Horseshoe Falls. 

The exhibits give fascinating insights into the history of electric power, the technology involved in running a hydro power plant, and the personalities of key people involved in developing this resource. The building itself has been aptly described as a "cathedral of power," and from these photos it's easy to see why.

In all, there are eleven of these huge blue generator units, installed at intervals during the plant's working life (which began in the early 1900s and continued up to the 1990s). The generators are driven by turbines installed deep below the ground, which are spun by the force of the falling water. As the water is drawn out of the river, it's fed through pipes called penstocks to drop down to the turbines. Here, a section of a penstock shows the size. Counting the part hidden under the level floor, I'm guessing the diameter of the penstocks at 10 feet or 3 metres.

One of the displays shows this historic photo of the generator hall taken in 1913 when the plant was still almost new.

When the plant was in operation, it was both very loud and very warm -- those huge generators gave off a certain amount of both noise and heat! Today, thanks to the stone walls, it's pleasantly quiet and cool inside. As for the noise, this artifact certainly illustrates how loud it could get. I didn't see a display board to explain this, but I would assume that the communication link was to the turbine hall far below.

You can tour the plant on your own, or take a guided tour. In the evenings, there's a sound-and-light show inside the plant as well.

My next stop was about a 15-minute drive north, past the Falls and the city of Niagara Falls ON, past the Whirlpool, past the Whirlpool Golf Course and the still-new Whirlpool Adventure Course (that would be a great activity stop for younger and more flexible persons!). Here, the Parks Commission maintains a sizable Botanical Garden which is an ever-changing delight through the year. The parks throughout the system are full of flower beds and flower planters, and the displays are constantly being changed, season by season. This Garden is the headquarters of the team responsible for that massive operation.

I wandered through part of the Gardens, enjoying some of the sights: a unique dwarf tree...,

... a brilliant bed of flowers...,

...and a carefully twisted tree, which looked rather lonely, standing by itself.

It looked so lonely that I thought it needed some company.

The real delight for me was a bed in the rock garden of these attractive flowering plants.

The second picture captures more accurately the silvery-white tone of many of the leaves, no doubt the reason for the plant's distinctive name: "Snow-in-Summer."

The Botanical Garden is also the site of a really fascinating experience: the Butterfly Conservatory.   

The large glass roof houses a complete tropical jungle which is home to an ever-shifting array of multiple species of butterflies. The first stop on entering is a small theatre which shows a short but informative video about the operation of the Conservatory. From there, you enter the warm, humid tropical air of the greenhouse.

This display case holds hundreds of pupae (cocoons). The hanging trays have been loaded in from the workshop side of the building. When the pupae hatch out, this side will be opened to release the adult butterflies into the greenhouse.

There are butterflies everywhere. The trick is getting any of them to sit still long enough. And here I thought only human photo models were difficult that way! But I got a few lucky breaks.

The tricky lighting washed out the colour of the last one. It's actually a much deeper, richer, imperial blue than the photo suggests.

Barely a kilometre (if that) upstream from the Falls, a tilting section of the rock formation allowed some of the river's flow to drain over the south bank, forming a small collection of islands separated by multiple channels, all contained in a bay on the side of the river. This is the Dufferin Islands Natural Area, a park which has (in the past) been improved in accordance with then-current ideas of controlling nature, and is now being slowly restored back to a more natural condition.

Important: if you've been to Dufferin Islands before, note that the driveway around the bay is now one-way only, going counter-clockwise (it used to be clockwise some years back). All along that driveway, you can park anywhere along the outer edge -- being sure to pay one of the ticket machines, of course, or display your parking pass. Then you can walk peacefully in a quiet environment far removed from the crowds by the Falls or the relentless loudspeakers advertising haunted houses on Clifton Hill.

Sadly, human idiocy has had its way here too, and large numbers of Canada geese have made this park their permanent home. Goose poop abounds. I hope the foolish people who fed them so much have begun to realize that this was a mistake, but I doubt they would.

Backtracking from Dufferin Islands towards the falls, another often-overlooked attraction is the Floral Showhouse, located just southeast of the hydro plant.

There are two parking lots here, and several flowering trees were putting on a seasonal show in the east parking lot.
The outdoor part of the attraction is a cute little miniature village, laced with small gardens. 

The tall greenhouse holds the entrance, gift shop, and a small permanent display garden. Behind it is the Showhouse proper, divided into two halves. The central entrance hall welcomes you with a sculptural fountain.

One half of the Showhouse contained a display of assorted cacti and other succulents. The other side was holding a true "Oh, wow!" show -- a seasonal display devoted to diverse varieties of hydrangeas. This show had just opened twenty minutes before I got there.

 In this picture, I've included my foot in its Size 11 shoe just to give an impression of the size of these rich blue flowers.


[1] Getting Around 

The first key choice is right here. Every parking lot along the Parkway charges a parking fee for the Parks Commission. The biggest lot, right by the Horseshoe Falls, is the most expensive ($30 flat rate during my visit). If you live close by (as I do -- 90 minutes away) and expect to come twice a year or more, you should order an all-year parking pass ($40) from the Niagara Parks website (the link follows at the end). Once you arrive, you should also make use of the WEGO bus system, which serves the many attractions along the Niagara Parkway from Queenston Heights to the Rapidsview parking area south of the Falls, and also runs two routes serving major tourist hotel areas up in the city.

If you're only coming in for the day, and you have the pass, you may just skip the buses (which also have a fee) and drive from point to point, as I did on this trip -- especially in the spring and fall seasons. In the summer, the much heavier traffic makes the WEGO system by far the more sensible choice.
During busy times, the parking lot by the Horseshoe Falls will fill completely, and the overflow parking at the Rapidsview lot, about 2 km farther south, comes into play.  When this lot is open, special shuttles operate frequently to and from Table Rock, which is the hub of the entire WEGO bus system.

Staying in a hotel? WEGO bus passes are often available right there, and in some of the more deluxe properties they may already be included in your compulsory amenity fee or room rate. In that case, leave the car right where it is and use the bus service (you're already paying for the hotel's parking and the bus pass, so why not?).

[2] Admission Fees 

The vast majority of attractions on the Niagara Parks Commission properties charge admission fees. To simplify matters, if you are a pre-planner, you can buy advance tickets for all of these attractions on the Parks Commission website. You will then receive, by email, a voucher with bar codes for all the tickets you have purchased. Show this on your phone or in hard copy at any Niagara Parks Welcome Centre and the agent at the desk will print out the actual tickets for you. For many attractions, you can reserve specific times for shows, tours, etc. Trust me, this one-stop advance shopping will save much time during your visit.
There are several packages which group together multiple attractions for a single advantageous price. None of these packages includes absolutely everything -- and none of the three included the specific group of attractions I wished to visit. Sigh.

Note that some attractions may not open all days, or at the same times every day. All the information is on the website for you to check. The example in my case was the Floral Showhouse which opened its newest show on the last day of my visit.

[3] Off Season 

If you possibly can, you should arrange to visit in months like May or September/October. The weather will still be pleasant, most activities are still available, and the lineups will be far, far shorter. The case got summarily explained by a friend who went in the first week of July a few years back, and had to wait in line for half an hour to get a coffee and snack at Tim Hortons in the Table Rock Centre.

One thing you should certainly do, at least once, is to come in winter for the Festival of Lights. The trees and shrubs in Queen Victoria Park are decorated with thousands upon thousands of brilliantly coloured seasonal lights, from the Rainbow Bridge to the Falls and the Dufferin Islands, and other free-standing set pieces are placed throughout the parks as well. It's an eye-popping spectacle, to put it mildly.
[4] Table Rock Centre 
The central focal point, right by the brink of the Horseshoe Falls. Table Rock Centre contains the largest Welcome Centre -- ignore the signs saying that it's on the upper floor, it's on the ground level now. This is the location of the Journey Behind the Falls. Also here can be found a huge gift shop, a sit-down restaurant with a fantastic view of the Falls...,

..., several take-out food outlets, washrooms, the central terminal and ticket booth for the WEGO buses, and a footbridge across the Parkway to the main parking lot. At the far end of the footbridge is the Incline Railway up to the big hotels and casino in the Fallsview tourist district.

[5] Information Source 

You can find out all you need to know about the Canadian Niagara Parks Commission and all its many activities, attractions, shows, events, restaurants, golf courses, you name it, right at this link: