Located in Niagara Falls, New York on the American side of the Niagara Falls waterfall, the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center is a multipurpose museum highlighting the geology, industry, and local history of the Niagara River region. The museum center commemorates the site of the historic Schoellkopf Power Station facility and also serves as a trailhead for a number of the park’s hiking trails.
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The Discovery Center is located at the site of the former Schoellkopf Power Station, one of the United States’ first hydroelectric power plants. In 1877, Jacob F. Schoellkopf purchased a plot of land on the Niagara Gorge, located 1,600 feet downriver from the current location of the Niagara Falls International Rainbow Bridge, for the purposes of operating a hydraulic canal for harnessing the Falls’ natural energy. During its tenure, first under the umbrella of the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company and later as part of the Niagara Falls Power Company, the plant was the largest and widely considered to be the greatest hydroelectric power plant of its kind in operation.
The Schoellkopf Power Station complex included three main plant sections, as well as offices and other facilities located at the top of the Niagara Gorge. In June 1956, the second plant, located immediately in front of Schoellkopf's original facility, experienced structural damage from water seeping into its back walls, and as a result, the majority of the facility collapsed into the Niagara River on June 7, in one of the most catastrophic plant failures of its kind on record. More than two-thirds of the facility was destroyed, including six generators, resulting in a total of $100 million in losses. While one of the facilities, Station 3A, remained in limited operation until 1961, the majority of the plant’s remaining structure was razed immediately following the collapse. The disaster is credited with the 1957 passage of the Niagara Redevelopment Act, which transferred management of similar plants to government authority rather than private ownership.
Today, the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center operates above the remains of Station 3A. As part of Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest state park in the United States, the museum operates in conjunction with many American side Falls attractions, including the famous Maid of the Mist tour boats, which shares use of the former power plant area as an off-season storage yard. Visitors may explore the Center as an individual attraction or as part of the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass series, which offers access to a number of American-side attractions, including the Cave of the Winds, the Niagara Adventure Theatre, and the Aquarium of Niagara.
The Discovery Center building sits at the top of Niagara Gorge, above the power plant remains. The Center features a number of exhibits, including a 180-degree multi-screen theater, chronicling the natural history of the area and detailing how the Niagara River’s current carved the Gorge and Falls over the course of its 12,000-year flow. The area’s geological history is preserved with exhibits on the ancient rock layers of the gorge, with a climbing wall incorporating natural fossil and mineral specimens, and a local history exhibit commemorates the Great Gorge Route, a famous trolley route operated by the International Railway and Niagara Gorge Railroad during the early part of the 20th century. As of 2013, visitors can also ride an elevator shaft outside the facility down to tour the ruins of the Schoellkopf Station.
The Discovery Center facility is also home to the Niagara Gorge Trailhead Center, which serves as a trailhead for a number of hiking and biking trails throughout the park. It offers convenient access to the Robert Moses Parkway Trail, a multi-use pedestrian and biking trail that provides access between Whirlpool and Devil’s Hole State Parks and the Robert Moses Power Plant. Additionally, four guided hikes are offered throughout the park’s operating season for an additional fee, which runs from mid-May through October. Two easier hikes are recommended for beginners, the hourlong all-ages Great Gorge Scenic Overlook Hike and the two-hour Upper Great Gorge Hike, which allows visitors to explore the Great Gorge Railway Trail. The moderate-level Devil's Hole Rapids and Giant Rock is a 2.5-hour roundtrip suited for ages eight and up, and the challenging Whirlpool Rapids Adventure Hike offers experienced hikers a three-hour adventure complete with boulder hopping. All hike participants must be equipped with appropriate footwear, as conditions on the trails are continuously changing due to weather and natural erosion. Visitors may also embark on self-guided tours starting from the Center, although they must stay on marked trails at all times and avoid entering the water.
332 Prospect St, Niagara Falls, NY 14303, Phone: 716-278-1796