NFPL News

Column written by Cathy Roy, Local History Librarian, originally published in Niagara this Week on Thursday, August 11.

As many people are still opting for staycations this year, we are indeed fortunate to have so many interesting options available right in our own backyard. One such tourist attraction, once known as the Spanish Aero Car, is celebrating its 106th anniversary this week. If it has been around for this long, they must be doing something right.

The whirlpool area initially became a tourist destination in 1897 when an observation post was constructed on Thompson’s Point, located on the north side of the whirlpool. The opposite southern point was known as Colt’s Point and both were named after early landowners. In 1913, a group of visiting Spaniards toured this area and saw the potential for a new tourist attraction. Soon, an agreement was made with the Niagara Parks Commission and the Niagara Spanish Aero Car Company was born. This new aerial tramway was to be based on a similar attraction that the group had recently completed in Spain. The system was designed and supervised by Leonardo Torres Quevedo, a well-known and brilliant Spanish engineer. Work began the following year but progress was slow due to delayed government approval and the onset of the First World War.

Designed to carry 40 passengers, the actual aero car was built in Bilbao, Spain and then brought across the ocean. The track cable terminals were 1,770 feet apart at an elevation of 250 feet above the whirlpool. The aero car used six one-inch cables anchored at both terminals. Tension was maintained by a 10-ton counterweight located at the Thompson Point station. Most of the machinery chambers were placed below ground, so that the natural beauty of the area would be maintained.

Built at a cost of $120,000, the Spanish Aero Car officially opened on Aug. 8, 1916 and many dignitaries were on hand. Newspaper accounts of the time state that Mrs. J. Enoch Thompson (wife of the Spanish Consul at Toronto) christened the cableway with a bottle of champagne. This was met with “enthusiastic cheers” from the invited crowd who then enjoyed an “excellent program” provided by the Citizens’ Band. Torres Quevedo himself was also present.

Safety concerns were addressed and the crowd was informed that there was no cause for alarm, as the cableway has withstood “the most severe” government testing. I am sure that they were further reassured by the fact that only one of the six cables was sufficient to support the weight of the entire car loaded to capacity. The guests were then treated to a ride in the new cable car that carried four flags on opening day. The Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the French flag as well as the Spanish flag could all be seen crossing back and forth across the whirlpool.

Through the years, the Aero Car has undergone a few changes. In 1967, a new carriage was constructed and the Niagara Parks Commission also built a new gift shop, refreshment stand and washroom facilities. In 1984, the Aero Car was completely renovated to bring it up to modern standards, which included the addition of a second rescue shuttle car. The attraction has been accident free since its inception and it remains just as popular today. If you would like to see more photos of what is now known as the Whirlpool Aero Car, please visit our online historic images databases at historicniagara.ca.

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