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The Canadian Niagara Power Company, formed in 1892, has been generating electric power continuously since 1905. With turbines and generators that were once the largest in the world, the company's generating station upstream from Niagara Falls endures as a monument to the fact that natural beauty and industry can co-exist successfully.
Profusely illustrated with historical photographs and illustrations, this tells the story of the impact of electricity on a region and the lives of those who kept the lights on through two world wars, record-breaking storms, and a century of political and economic challenges.
This book is about the harnessing of epic natural power for small towns and small-town life. Chapters cover the many aspects of running not just a generating plant but a full-service electric utility. The company once had three dietitians on staff to provide advice on cooking with electricity for a healthy lifestyle. Linemen have evolved from pole-hopping daredevils to safety-conscious professionals. Above all, it deals honestly with the strains of a company struggling to find its way as its industry changed radically.
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Norman R. Ball is the director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values at the University of Waterloo. The author of several books, his previous titles include Building Canada: A History of Public Works. He lives in Toronto.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When the Ontario Legislature gave a group of canny far-sighted American investors monopoly rights to generate hydroelectric power on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, there were smiles all round. The investors, led by William Birch Rankine, Francis Lynde Stetson, and Albert D. Shaw, had bought water rights to go along with their access to funds and their confidence in the future of large-scale hydroelectric power. Both political parties in the legislature were so happy they pushed the necessary bill through without debate, lest the "lunatic" Americans change their minds. There was another reason for broad smiles $50,000, the amount the newly formed Canadian Niagara Power Company had paid in advance to the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park for two years of water rights rental. The Park Commissioners desperately needed the money, because both political parties had vowed the government would never give even one cent to the parks for upkeep and operations, a vow from which they never wavered.
The company's promise of hydroelectric power took a little longer to fulfil than expected. Canadian Niagara was supposed to be generating power by November 1, 1898, but it took until 1905 before the generators were turned on. In the interval, Canadian Niagara had lost its monopoly rights and two other companies were moving ahead to generate power on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Both of these companies soon sold out to the Hydro-Flectric Power Commission of Ontario, later Ontario Hydro, but Canadian Niagara remained a small bastion of private power in a beautiful park on the Niagara River.
What in 1905 had been the world's largest-capacity turbines and generators were soon surpassed, and today there are single generators with more output than the eleven in the Rankine Generating Station. Nonetheless, the company has supplied power to both sides of the Niagara River for a century
In the early years, it was difficult to foresee Canadian demand for all of the power generated at Niagara Falls, Ontario. Most of it went to New York State, notably Niagara Falls and Buffalo. However, the company eventually expanded its Canadian customer service area from Niagara Falls, Ontario, to Fort Erie, Bridgeburg, Amigari, Ridgeway, Stevensville, Crystal Beach, and Point Abino. And throughout Canadian Niagara's history, it has always provided power cheaper than its neighbouring competitors.
The Canadian Niagara Power generating station, now called the William Birch Rankine Generating Station, quickly became an important tourist attraction. More important, Canadian Niagara helped attract industry to the region. And through services such as an appliance showroom and sales centre, cooking classes, full-time staff nutritionists, and time-payment plans, the company ushered part of the Niagara Frontier into the electrical age. The Service Centre and Showroom, opened in 1927, was Fort Erie's most distinctive commercial building and a source of considerable municipal pride.
It takes many skills and jobs to run a company that generates electricity and maintains a complete system to deliver power to individual customers, along with metering, billing, and service, in spite of occasional lightning, snow, or ice storms. As a company that offered good wages and steady work, Canadian Niagara soon became a preferred employer in the area. Today second- and third-generation employees are not unusual.
Naturally the jobs have changed over time. The First and the Second World Wars, the Depression of the 1930s, the postwar boom, and the effects of industry restructuring and automation have changed the company, as they have all North American electrical utilities. But today, Canadian Niagara, now FortisOntario, is clearly established as part of the new electrical utility industry for the 21St century.
Despite the many changes, there are constants in the company's history. First, there is a strong commitment to employees, shown in the tradition of on-the-job training and company-encouraged education, along with a preference for promoting from within the ranks of current employees and an unwillingness to lay off employees when times are bad. Second, there is a high level of community involvement, including donating parkland, sponsoring sporting and cultural events, financial contributions for local educational institutions, and support for employee events. Above all, there is an intense feeling of employee loyalty and a sense of family -- a word that comes up repeatedly when employees, past and present, talk about working for Canadian Niagara.
The loyalty and sense of family works two ways. On the one hand, the company benefits from employees' loyalty and commitment and the desire to serve the communities that they live in. One employee explained that when they are in the midst of cleaning up and getting power back on after a fierce winter storm, they are doing it for their parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and neighbours, for the people on their sports teams or the members of their church or service club. On the other hand, the sense of family means that more is expected of the company. When the company fails to measure up to employees' expectations, the judgments are harsher and the sense of disappointment felt more keenly than it might be if Canadian Niagara were just another company
Canadian Niagara Power Company is an unusual company In trying to capture both the essence and some of the details of its history I have written a story that has many strands, but is not, I hope, too fragmented. The Canadian Niagara Power Company Story is partly a history of technology partly a social and corporate history, and partly the story of adapting to change. I had to leave out more than I was able to fit in stories, details, background, connections. So this book is just an introduction to the company with its buildings, technology distribution network, employees, and customers, each of which merits its own book.
Norman R. Ball
Toronto, 16 August 2005
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