A custom energy-efficient LED lighting system that produces a rainbow of colors nightly at Niagara Falls State Park is a far cry from the simple technology used at the start of the Civil War when the falls were illuminated for the first time in honor of a visiting English prince.
The evening of Sept. 14, 1860, the falls were lit up for a short time using so-called Bengal lights, which were a centuries-old type of chemical flare that burned with bluish light. While it worked for the prince’s visit, this short-term and cumbersome method of lighting the falls was not to be used again.
A few years later, a new technology developed during the recently concluded Civil War came to the world-famous falls. Spotlights used then were powered by heating up piles of calcium quicklime until it glowed brightly, which is the origin of the phrase of putting something “in the limelight.” Union forces had used such spotlights during the war to illuminate Confederate positions at night.
The emerging technology of electric lights arrived at the falls in 1879 to herald the arrival of an official couple from the government of Canada. More than two decades then passed before Walter D’Arcy Ryan, an innovative lighting engineer with Schenectady-based General Electric Co., designed a massive new searchlight system in 1907 that used colored gelatin films changed by hand to project different colors onto the face of the falls.
For 30 nights in a row in 1907, Ryan used 44 searchlights with colored filters, and powered with steam engines, to illuminate the entirety of Niagara Falls for the first time. Following this acclaimed success, he was named head of GE’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratory, the world’s first institution for research into lighting, created the following year in Schenectady.
According to the New York Tribune of Sept. 5, 1907, Niagara Falls looked far more dramatic lit up at night such that “words fail to describe the magnificence of the spectacle”. Another observer wrote: “It was a riot of glorious beauty, so new, so strange, so marvelous – so like some unearthly and unexplained magic that it held the spectator startled, then spellbound, speechless and delighted.”
Ryan’s system was incredibly powerful for its day, producing more than 1 billion candela (a measurement of luminous intensity). That was the equivalent to more 8.3 million standard 110-watt lightbulbs!
By then, the illumination of the falls was proving to be an increasingly popular attraction, and in 1925 a joint U.S.-Canadian group was formed to manage and operate lighting – the Niagara Falls Illumination Board. The five-member board saw to it that new, even more powerful electric lights were installed for a ceremony that year. Lights were upgraded again in 1958, 1974, and 1997.
Today, visitors to Niagara Falls State Park are witnessing the work of an array of energy efficient LED lights that was installed in 2016. This $4 million custom system produces any color desired and has twice as much illumination as the previous lights, producing an enormous 8 billion candela. (For the lighting techies, that is more than eight times more powerful that the turn-of-the-century GE system, equivalent to the illumination from 66.6 million standard 110-watt lightbulbs!)
The array contains 12,600 LED lights, evenly divided among red, blue, green, and white. Red, blue, and green are the primary colors of light in physics and adjusting the ratios of each produces the full palette of colors. When all three colors are equally combined, that produces white light. The system at Niagara is powerful enough to span the 1,900 feet needed to reach the both the American and Horseshoe Falls.
Click this slideshow below to see aspects of the LED array, including a close-up of the lights, their appearance once grouped, and use in action.
This unique custom system was designed by a consortium of companies including ECCO Electric Ltd., Salex Inc., Mulvey & Banani Lighting Inc., Sceneworks, and Stanley Electric. To test whether the LEDs could cast beams of light the distance needed, the crew successfully tested mockup systems across a lake in Ontario and along an abandoned aircraft runway!
The lights are operated via computer but can also be operated by two staff members who watch guard over the lights each night. They can even be programmed to perform shows such as “Inspired by Nature” which features colors and movements inspired by nature, including the sunrise, aurora borealis, rainbows and sunset.
Today the world-famous falls are lit up every night of the year in an ever-changing light show, the colors chosen to reflect a wide variety of causes, events, and people, all of which reviewed and approved by the board.
On June 15th, 2021, for example, the falls were illuminated in the official New York State colors of blue and gold in celebration of reaching 70 percent of New York adults receiving their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
In 2016, when Queen Elizabeth turned 90 on April 21, the falls were colored purple in her honor. It did cause a bit of unintended confusion. The musician formerly known as Prince, who was closely associated with purple, died the same day so many people mistakenly thought the lighting was for him!
Other recent illumination highlights might be less well-known, including highlighting of the Republic of Bashkortostan, Wrongful Conviction Day, and Dress Purple Day, Bullying Prevention Month, Latvian Independence Day, and Dysautonomia awareness.
The falls have been illuminated blue to mark playoff appearances of the NFL Buffalo Bills, purple and gold to mark the tragic death of NBA star Kobe Bryant, a combination of red, white, and gold to honor the Canada’s gold-medal Olympic women’s soccer team, and blue and green for the Canadian professional basketball team Niagara River Lions.
The falls also have been lighted green for St. Patrick’s Day, rainbow colors for Pride Month, blue to mark the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and red to welcome Chinese New Year.
One night a year, March 26, the falls go dark for an hour in honor of Earth Hour, a global initiative aimed at drawing attending to ongoing human-induced climate change. Click on the slideshow below to see some of Niagara Fall’s amazing colors!
With the ability to shine light through mist and flood both the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls with every color under the sky, the nightly illumination is the highlight of any visit to Niagara.
Hours of illumination vary by seasonal timing of nightfall, starting between 4:30 and 8:30 p.m., and wrapping up from 1 to 2 a.m. With the earlier nightfall in winter, the falls are illuminated earlier in the evening. When the falls freeze in the winter, creating massive ice formations, the lights take on another beautiful dimension.
The Illumination Board is an example of international cooperation between the U.S. and Canada, with its membership consisting of New York State Parks, Niagara Parks (Canada), the New York Power Authority, Ontario Hydro (Canada) and the cities of Niagara Falls in both the U.S. and Canada, which pay annual dues to cover the expenses associated with this special attraction.
The group is also charged with fulfilling requests for lighting for charitable organizations, special causes, global events, and other special occasions. As the Falls is such a global icon, hundreds of requests are received each year.
Under board rules, requests cannot be considered for commercial purposes, personal occasions like birthdays or marriage proposals, religious or political events, and institutions, such as hospitals and schools.
Be sure to include an overnight on your next visit to Niagara Falls to catch the illumination. Pro tip: The best viewing from the American side is from Terrapin Point or Prospect Point.
Check out the schedule of lightings and learn more about the nightly illumination here.
Post by Angela Berti, Marketing and Public Affairs Coordinator, Niagara Region, NYS Parks
Watch this Youtube video below by Mulvey & Banani Lighting to learn more about how the Niagara Falls are illuminated…
Learn more about the color of light from the American Museum of Natural History.