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State won’t share details about gorge site for Maid of the Mist docks

NIAGARA FALLS – State officials in Albany have refused to release information about how a nationally recognized historic site in the Niagara Gorge is being handled as a new boat dock and storage facility is built nearby for the Maid of the Mist.

The city’s Historic Preservation Commission has been denied access to documents about plans for the remains of the Schoellkopf Power Station by officials from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. They instead were urged by state officials to let things play out.

“They said, ‘Just trust us. We’re doing the right thing,’ ” said James C. Bragg, City Hall’s historic preservation specialist and secretary to the commission.

The site is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit, and state officials indicated they did not want documentation floating around, Bragg said.

The former Schoellkopf Power Station collapsed into the Niagara Gorge in 1956, leading to the construction of the Niagara Power Project.

It was the first site where power was generated for the City of Niagara Falls. The site of plant’s power station No. 3, on a parcel just north of the Rainbow Bridge, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February.

The reception from officials with the New York Power Authority, the owner of the land where the former power plant and the new boat facility sit, has been a little warmer.

Power Authority officials are planning to take the commission down to the site, now blocked off to the public because of the $32 million construction project. They are also planning to make a presentation about the project at the authority’s Witmer Road offices, possibly later this month.

Still, the request for information appeared to have left many state officials feeling like they had their feathers ruffled.

“NYPA’s superiors were not too happy we were digging around,” Bragg said.

The Power Authority did provide a heavily redacted copy of a document dated August 2008 it submitted to federal regulators. Many of the pages are completely blacked out in the document, called a “Historic Properties Management Plan” for the Niagara Power Project lands.

Bragg said he was told the redactions were made because the document contained sensitive information related to the Seneca and Tuscarora nations.

The document “looks like something from Iran-Contra,” he said, referring to the 1980s scandal.

What the commission specifically asked for was documents related to what was at the site before construction began, how the state planned to manage those historical resources during construction and how the site would be interpreted after construction is complete.

Power Authority spokeswoman Connie M. Cullen said work at the site “will remove overgrowth and prepare the minimum amount of area needed for new construction.” Also as part of the project, an interpretive program will be created for visitors “with a history of the power station and other related historic events in the area.”

The construction work will be conducted “in a manner consistent with” the “Historic Properties Management Plan.”

Cullen, who confirmed plans for a site visit and information session for the commission, also supplied the address for a web page that she said contained information about the site’s historical resources before construction.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s communications office in Buffalo was contacted to comment but did not.

The Maid of the Mist Corp. needs to build a storage facility for its boats on the American side of the falls because the Canadian government last year awarded the rights for its tours beginning next year to Hornblower Cruises of California.

A group called the Niagara Preservation Coalition sought a court order this spring to halt construction at the site, but a judge rejected that request and removed a temporary ban that had been enacted.