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The colorful side of the falls

You can't take a boat ride into the roar and spray of Niagara Falls in the winter, but this time of year offers a different spectacle: nighttime illumination of the falls in a changing array of colors -- red, white, blue, purple, orange, amber and green.

In spring and summer, the colored lights shine for just three hours, but with less daylight in winter, curtains of color wash over the falls each night for up to seven hours.

Crowds gather along the sidewalk and railing on Niagara Parkway to see the show as mist rises from the falls and basin in front of them; others watch from the windows of hotels and restaurants on the Canadian side.

The display starts with patriotic themes -- red, white and blue for the American Falls, red and white for the horseshoe-shaped Canadian Falls -- and frequently includes colors to honor a cause. When Niagara Falls hosted the first wedding following New York's legalization of same-sex marriage in July, Mayor Paul Dyster arranged for a rainbow of colors, the symbol of gay pride. On Nov. 16, the falls were lit by white light for 15-minute stretches for lung cancer awareness.

The light beams emanate from a bank of 18 spotlights, each 30 inches in diameter, sitting atop a raised stone bunker across the road. For more than 50 years, Peter Gordon, 80, has been manning the light show, splitting the week with "the rookie," Dick Mann, 78, who has been at it just under 30 years. Both are from Ontario.

"I never get tired of it," Gordon, 80, said one night in November, the start of his busy season.

The best views come on crisp winter nights, Gordon said, when the mist is transformed to sparkling ice crystals that catch the soft colors.

For the past year, Gordon and Mann have used a relatively new technology to control the lights -- computerized touch screens. But the history of Niagara's illumination goes back more than 150 years. The falls were lit for the first time at 10 p.m. Sept. 14, 1860, when 200 lights like those used to signal for help at sea were put in place for a visit from the Prince of Wales. Electricity was first used in 1879. An Illumination Tower, still used today, was built in 1899.

Colors appeared in 1907 when gelatin films were included in a 36-light system near the base of the gorge designed by General Electric Co. of Schenectady. Workers, including Peter Gordon's father, were paid $3 a night to change the gels when a foreman shouted cues.

The Niagara Falls Illumination Board, a cross-border body established in 1925, has kept the lights on most nights since with a few exceptions. They were turned off during World War II, for example, to conserve power.

The control room where Gordon and Mann work 75 feet above street level has a musty old feel with stone walls, well-worn wooden floors, cobwebby beams overhead and a couple of bare bulbs above a bank of humming generators. "This place is a dump, really," said Gordon, laughing.

But then there's that million-dollar view. After changing the lights' colors on the touchscreen, the controller can see the result 15 seconds later by looking out the windows or stepping through a door to a platform outside where the lights are mounted.

On the face of the waterfalls, colors fade to white as the next colored gel covers the spotlight and a new hue spills with the water over the falls. With each color change, it's as if someone has dumped dye into the river above as it careens over the edge to the rocks below.

The 4,000-watt spotlights burn with a combined brilliance of 8.2 billion candles, about what NASA used to light the runway for night space shuttle landings. Gordon staggers the lights to avoid repeating color combinations, changing them as often as every five minutes to keep things fresh for tourists milling across the street below.

As midnight nears, Gordon goes back to the patriotic colors that began the night, leaving them on for 15 minutes. The colors retract and the water rushes white for the last few minutes, and the falls fade to black.

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