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Thrill of a century, Aero Car over Niagara rapids turns 100

Gliding over the Niagara whirlpool rapids – while looking down from 200 feet above the swirling turbulence below, and then out toward a wondrous landscape – must have been a first-class thrill ride for the folks who first took the journey back in 1916.

It is no less true 100 years later, as the Whirlpool Aero Car today celebrates a century of continuous operation across the border in Niagara Falls, Ont.

The aerial cable car is – with some updates – pretty much the same today as when it first opened for business on Aug. 8, 1916. It was an open car made of wood then. Later, the wood was replaced by steel, and a roof was added.

“Things have been updated over the years, as you’d expect. But, essentially, the ride is the same as it was first devised to be 100 years ago,” said Sherman Zavitz, historian for the Niagara Parks Commission.

“Well, they gave it a coat of paint for the 100th anniversary,” he added.

The commission has operated the multi-cable aerial tramway since it was purchased from its Spanish owners in late 1969. For years, it was known as the Spanish Aero Car, in deference not only to the Niagara Spanish Aero Car Co. that originally owned the tramway, but also for its Spanish designer, Leonardo Torres Quevedo.

Quevedo’s great-grandson, Carlos Torres Quevedo, is scheduled to speak at today’s 100th anniversary commemoration, along with Carlos Gómez-Múgica Sanz, Spain’s ambassador to Canada, and Niagara Falls, Ont., Mayor Jim Diodatti. The fanfare also includes an official plaque unveiling.

Leonardo Torres Quevedo, who was born in 1852 in Cantabria, Spain, enjoyed a reputation as a stellar engineer over his 50-year career. He also designed the first dirigible for the Spanish Army, as well as a number of analog counting machines, which were forerunners of modern digital computers.

But it was his contributions to the engineering and design of aerial cableways that endures.

In 1887, he constructed his first cableway, which was just 656 feet across and, according to Internet lore, was pulled by a pair of cows, with one log seat that became the basis for his first patent. Quevedo improved on his concept with the invention of an aerial cable car that was supported by multiple cables.

“He actually had devised the first cable cars – or cableway, as they called it originally – in the world for the transportation of people, and that had been in Switzerland in 1907,” Zavitz said.

Nine years later, Quevedo designed the Whirlpool Aero Car so that it is suspended on six interlocking steel cables, each about an inch in diameter. A 50 horsepower electric motor powers the tramway, which moves at about 5 mph. In the event of a power failure, it also has a rescue car, which holds four passengers and an operator.

So far, the rescue car has only been used for training purposes, said Mickey Kiss, who operated the aero car at Colt’s Point, Ont., on Saturday.

“Well, some pretty interesting facts is that this aero car has actually never had to have a full rescue using that rescue cart since our opening of operations here 100 years ago on August 8, 1916,” Kiss said.

Paul Winfield of North Yorkshire, England, avoided looking down into the raging waters below as he boarded the aero car with his wife, Shani, and their sons, Sebastian, 13, and Elliott, 8.

“I don’t like heights,” Winfield said. “If you notice, I’m not looking over the edge,” he added, with nervous laughter.

His wife seemed to take a bit of glee in his discomfort.

“It’s our first proper day,” Shani Winfield said of the family’s visit to Ontario. “Yeah, I think it’s an amazing way to get it started. I like to see him turn green.”

Meanwhile, Ron Martineau of Toronto – on his honeymoon with his bride, Erin – was enthralled by the rapids below and the lush green vistas beyond the dangerous waters.

“It didn’t seem daunting or scary,” he said, after disembarking from the ride.

“It was really cool to see the whirlpool from right on top. You’ve got a really good view of the rapids and all that,” he added.

Photographer and writer George Bailey, who did marketing for the Whirlpool Aero Car for 30 years until he retired 19 years ago, described the 10-minute ride as physically very smooth, but packed with exciting visuals.

Sightseers aboard the Spanish Aero Car can see Whirlpool State Park on the U.S. side of the falls, as well as the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant in Lewiston, not to mention the 60 acres of turgid whirlpool rapids below, hikers on nature trails and fishermen on both sides of the Niagara River.

According to Bailey, the way to experience the best views while riding the aero car is to avoid the seats on either side of the car.

“If you get in the middle, you can look around and up and down and see everything at all times. But if you get in on one side, you’re stuck for half the ride looking up the river,” Bailey said.

Both he and Zavitz are veritable fonts of obscure trivia about the Whirlpool Aero Car. Both men shared a legend about how the tramway, many decades ago, was used to scam foreign nationals seeking to illegally immigrate to the United States. Although the car crosses the border about 500 feet from where it launches at Colt’s Point, Ont., and does briefly run through U.S. territory for about 200 feet, it goes to Thompson’s Point, Ont.

“In the early years, many people who, perhaps, weren’t too familiar with the geography, thought that it crossed from Canada to the United States. It doesn’t. It crosses between two Ontario points,” said Zavitz.

The unwitting hopefuls were each charged $5 by unscrupulous aero car operators in those days, who advised their marks to disembark when the aero car got to Thompson’s Point and then run to the right, he said.

“But if you run to the right, you’re still in Canada. Some would run left and they’d wind up all the way back around the whirlpool, to the point where they first got on the car at Colt’s Point,” Bailey said.

That little scam operation fell by the wayside when the aero car no longer allowed passengers to leave at Thompson’s Point.

“You can only get on and off at Colt’s Point,” Zavitz said. “And they planted a Canadian flag at Thompson’s Point so people would realize it was still Canadian soil.”

How well documented this all is remains open to question.

“That is a bit of our folklore around here. Whether it actually happened, or not, I can’t say with absolute certainty,” Zavitz said.

Meanwhile, Bailey also knows a lot about the rapids that rage below the aero car.

“One-fifth of the world’s surface water comes down that corridor creating the rapids, a Class 6 rapids, and then if you look downriver — it’s above the whirlpool again — you see towards the Robert Moses Power Plant. It’s a great ride and, like I say, it’s a safe ride,” he said.

“Interesting thing, too, is that car has never experienced any tragedy. It has a 100 percent safety record,” Bailey added.

And though it operates on six cables, it doesn’t need them all.

“One, supposedly, could hold the cable car up,” he said.

Despite Leonardo Torres Quevedo’s astounding feat of engineering, 100 years ago the public was skeptical.

“But after it had been operating for a period of time, people began to realize it was perfectly safe,” said Zavitz. “You wouldn’t want an accident over the whirlpool.”

Quevedo was joined by a number of officers of the Niagara Spanish Aero Car Co., on the very first test journey of the Spanish Aero Car across the rapids on Feb. 10, 1916, according to Canadian newspaper reports at the time.

“The officials were highly pleased with the initial trip, which was made in four and a half minutes but it is planned to permit it to occupy six minutes by running at half speed part of the time,” one Southern Ontario newspaper reported.

“Every part of the machinery work (sic) perfectly and the officials report a magnificent view of the wonderful surrounding scenery. It is the second cableway of its kind in the world and the only one in America. Work started July 12, 1915 and will be ready for regular traffic within a few weeks. The cost of the project was nearly $60,000, of which more than half was taken up by engineering construction work,” the report continued.

Six months later, the aero car had its maiden voyage with passengers from the general public. Prior to that it had been tested with a load of 10 tons and “passed all government inspections which have been of a severe nature,” the press of the day reported.

One hundred years later, the Whirlpool Aero Car endures as a tourist attraction, even with the introduction of new ways to experience the falls and the rapids, including a half-mile zip line in Niagara Falls, Ont., that runs adjacent to the Niagara River. That relatively Spartan ride offers its game patrons a helmet and tantalizing views of both the American and Canadian falls.

The Whirlpool Aero Car, meanwhile, keeps bringing patrons like 69-year-old Anna Marie back to the fold.

“I rode this 50 years ago. I was 19,” said the Topeka, Kan., resident, as she stood at the overlook near the ride with her husband.

“I … don’t remember riding in the actual car because I was nervous … but I do remember all the swirls,” she said of whirlpool below.

Zavitz, like many, is impressed by the ride’s endurance.

“I think just the fact that it has endured for a century and it’s as popular today as it was originally, is certainly an achievement,” he said.

News staff reporter Jack Howland contributed to this report. email: hmcneil@buffnews.com and jhowland@buffnews.com

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