Foundations of Construction: Building a generating station amid boulders, flood plains, cliffs    

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Kakabeka Falls image
One of OPG’s earliest hydroelectric plants, Kakabeka Falls Generating Station under construction on the Kaministiquia River in 1906, west of Fort William (now Thunder Bay). Credit: Henry Joseph Woodside/Library and Archives Canada/PA-016678

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

The revolution was on. No, not battles for territory or rights. It was the power revolution, launching in the late-1800s with the production of hydroelectric energy. Communities were installing electric street lights, and light bulbs were gradually replacing home kerosene lamps and candles. Before the large Niagara Falls power development, a hydroelectric generating station was proposed in 1896 to serve northwestern Ontario. Ten years later, Kakabeka Falls Generating Station was producing electricity to power flour mills, businesses, and homes.

American businessman E.S. Jenison submitted a proposal in 1896 to the Ontario government to construct a generating plant on the Kaministiquia River. His plan was to provide electricity to Fort William and Port Arthur residents (now Thunder Bay). Jenison’s suggestion sparked interest—producing electricity was in the early stages of development and the need for power was soaring. A logistical problem emerged immediately.

“Power from the station would have to be transmitted a distance of approximately 32 km (20 miles), a significant challenge in those early days when alternating current was just passing out of the experimental stage,” said Roma Kopechanski in “100 Years of Kakabeka Falls Generating Station 1906-2006” by Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

Government approval hinged on the company completing exact specifications within a three-year timeline. The firm would “construct works sufficient to produce 5,000 horsepower (hp) and will install and maintain electric machinery sufficient to create and distribute at least 1,000 hp (about 745 kW) of energy to supply the customers.” The penalty for failing to follow stipulations was forfeiture of lands and rights regarding the project.

More machinery was to be acquired, to “create and supply 25 percent more electrical power than there may be demand for at all times thereafter,” with the extra power to be sent to other cities as deemed by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council. Flow standards at Kakabeka Falls were required to be maintained at “at least 113 cubic meters of water per minute at all times,” noted Roma Kopechanski in “Kakabeka Falls: A Century of Reliable Operation,” Hydro Hall of Fame.

The application approved, the project’s scope was enacted by Ontario Legislature. Jenison then sold his rights to three Canadians, H. Holt, C.R. Hosmer, and F.W. Thompson. The men established the Kaministiquia Power Company to operate the station.

The endeavour was arduous. Known as “Niagara of the North,” Kakabeka Falls had a waterfall of 40 metres. Kaministiquia River at the vicinity of the Falls “is characterized by steep shale cliffs and open flood plains with large boulders providing instream cover,” according to “Lakehead Watershed Characterization Report,” Lakehead Region Conservation Authority, March 2008. The project engineers were up to the challenge.

Infrastructure had to be organized before the generating station construction could get underway A railroad siding with a temporary station was attached to the Canadian Northern Railway, nearly a kilometre from the location. A narrow-gauge railway was built to facilitate the movement of equipment and materials to the site.

In 1905, over 600 men were hired for construction; set on mass concrete on rock, the reinforced concrete superstructure rose rapidly. Installing “two 7,000 hp (5.3 MW) units with potential for another 21,000 hp 9 (16 MW) to be installed in the future when demand increases warranted,” said Kopacheski. German manufacturer J.M. Voith provided the turbine sets, and generators were manufactured by Canadian General Electric Company. “At its total rated output of 24.6 MW, the station uses water at a rate of about 60 cubic meters per second (cms).”

About the same time, “three aqueducts, each 3 metres in diameter, were constructed to carry the water from Ecarte Rapids above the Falls to the surge chamber,” noted Kopacheski, “and then through four penstocks to the generating station below.” The water is discharged back into the Kaministiquia River. Excess water bypasses the generating station at the main dam 2 kms upstream from the Falls.

On Oct.  4, 1906, Kakabeka Falls Generating Station went online, the two-unit plant and primary installations producing power for energy-hungry customers at Fort William.

In 1911, the facility prepared for expansion. A third generating unit was added and the powerhouse enlarged. In 1914, a 9 MW unit was installed along with a third aqueduct to handle the water flow.

Kaministiquia Power Company was sold in 1949 to the government’s Hydroelectric Power Commission of Ontario. (Undergoing several name changes, the provincial firm is now Ontario Power Generation, known commonly as OPG.)

Upgraded over the decades, Kakabeka Falls Generating Station is slated for redevelopment starting in 2025 with installation of “two new modern turbine generating units capable of generating approximately 27 MW of clean electricity,” stated OPG. Older equipment will be removed, and penstocks and surge tank will be replaced.

One of OPS’s oldest operating plants, the 117-year-old Kakabeka Falls Generating Station produces clean energy, working toward meeting modern net-zero emissions goals.

© 2024 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History

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