Setting Sail at Niagara Falls: Ferguson Electric and Maid of the Mist collaborate and innovate

Maid of the Mist’s new all-electric vessels—the James V. Glynn and the Nikola Tesla—provide viewers with unobstructed views of both sides of Niagara Falls. Photos courtesy of Maid of the Mist and New York Power Authority
Published On
Jun 15, 2021

Have you ever felt the spray of Niagara Falls aboard a Maid of the Mist boat? If so, you shared the experience with millions of visitors to one of America’s longest-running tourist attractions.

Getting close wasn’t always easy. The first bridge across the falls was built in 1848.

“If you wanted to make a trip before that—one that would provide an up-close view of Niagara Falls at that time—you had to take a steamboat ferry to get across the river,” said Christopher M. Glynn, Maid of the Mist president. “The Niagara Falls sightseeing company vessels that my family now owns was started in 1885 and has remained in business in New York since then. My father bought the business in 1971.”

Today, the company’s new all-electric, zero-emission vessels, the James V. Glynn and the Nikola Tesla, provide guests with an unparalleled experience as they are ferried to and from the base of Niagara Falls.

In 1846, Maid of the Mist, then a twin-stack sidewheel steamboat, entered the waters near Niagara Falls to transport people, mail, luggage and cargo across the Niagara River. By 1885, single-stack steamers ventured closer to Horseshoe Falls, the Canadian part of the three Niagara Falls, than any previous boats. The steel version of the steamboat, powered by twin diesel engines, was introduced in 1955.

At that time, Maid of the Mist was the only company that offered the popular excursion to the falls, operating from the Canadian side of the Niagara River. No sightseeing boats navigated from the American side. In 2013, for the first time, the contract for sightseeing vessels operating from the Canadian side was put out for bid. The project was unexpectedly granted to a different company.

Maid of the Mist excursions begin, each year, after the ice has cleared the lower Niagara River and flushes out to Lake Ontario, typically in April or May. After the season ends on the first weekend in November, the vessels are stored in dry dock to protect them from the region’s severe winter weather.

However, with the company now unable to operate from or store their boats on the Canadian side of the Niagara River, Maid of the Mist faced the cessation of operations. While moving all operations to the American side seems like an obvious solution, setting up storage, maintenance and water tours there presented the company with challenges.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stepped in with a deal to make the vacant Schoellkopf Power Station on the American side of the Niagara River available for development. Operations were moved after a $32 million private investment by the company to build a facility for maintenance, overnight docking during the season and storage in the off-season.

“We are located in the oldest state park in the United States,” Glynn said. “The state is our landlord, but we receive no public money, though we do get strong moral support from the state of New York. It is a symbiotic relationship, good for them, good for us.”

Glynn, who had worked previously with Donald Freedman, project manager for Ferguson Electric Construction Co. Inc., Buffalo, N.Y., contacted Freedman about the project with an idea and a question. What about designing all-electric vessels to be the future Maid of the Mist tour boats? It had never been done before—Freedman was intrigued and supportive.

“I appreciated Don’s skills and leadership and talent in overseeing construction of an electric boat,” Glynn said. “I needed expertise, but I also needed someone on our team in whom I could have confidence, could run things by, along with being a general contractor and electrical contractor.”

The team guiding the project included Glynn, Freedman, a marine manager and a financial adviser who together came up with a game plan for a design-build project to create new sightseeing vessels to replace the old diesel boats and a dry dock facility.

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Maid of the Mist’s all-electric vessels had to adhere to U.S. Coast Guard regulations and the National Electrical Code.

“Everything was designed with ice damage in mind,” Freedman said. “We engaged a naval architect who created rough drawings, which we checked to make sure all the equipment fit and that weights were distributed the way they needed to be distributed. We also worked with the architect regarding cable runs, pathways, fire and smoke detection and suppression provisions, and plans were drawn up for installation of power, controls, steering, battery charging, propulsion and all other systems.”

“Because the vessels would be on the water, we had to adhere to U.S. Coast Guard regulations in addition to the National Electrical Code . We had to train and certify our IBEW electricians for this specialty,” Freedman said.

Certain specifications were developed precisely for the project. These specs included passenger count limits, viewing angles, the ability to face the water at the base of the falls and ways to control the vessels so they could be maneuvered to the base of Horseshoe Falls, hold that pattern for five minutes, and then turn around while millions of gallons of water are going over the falls.

“It can get dicey, but the boats handle beautifully and were designed specifically to do exactly the excursion. They have no other purpose,” Freedman said.

Ferguson Electric was also involved in putting out a worldwide request for proposals for integrators, propulsion and designers to ensure the project was done correctly.

“I participated in the interviewing and reviewing of the proposals, which was all done initially in secrecy” under a nondisclosure agreement, Freedman said.

The result? The marine and ports division of ABB, Cary, N.C., was selected to provide all the propulsion, controls, steering and charging on what was to be an 18-month project.

According to Freedman, “The hardest part was the learning curve, working with internationally based engineers and designers and integrating the Coast Guard regulations into our plans.”

“Everything, drawings, parts and pieces looked different to us from our usual plans and specs for building construction, and were labeled differently, so we had a lot of training when ABB’s techs were in town,” Freedman said. “Early on, we had to make provisions based upon good engineering predictions that we worked out because there was still a great deal of concept only. The project took just under 20,000 man-hours to build the two vessels on-site. One part of the project called for bringing the charging power down from the top of the gorge in two different locations, and in three different configurations—rapid charging (between excursions, a 7-minute duration), overnight charging and winter charging and power.”

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The lithium-ion batteries recharge in 7 minutes while the vessels are docked between tours.

ABB personnel provided drawings for the integration and power equipment onboard in standard international nomenclature, much of which was unfamiliar to the U.S. workers. Drawings, parts and pieces are labeled differently than they are in American construction, a reality that called for training when the ABB team visited. The language barrier was also a hurdle to collaboration. Many follow-up phone calls ensued throughout, often at inconvenient times to accommodate the time differences of those living in different parts of the world.

“My role and Ferguson’s role included various design services and assisting Maid of the Mist with constructibility reviews throughout the process,” Freedman said. “From conception, Ferguson Electric did everything that was electrical, along with design and installation of three different methods of charging the boats: rapid rate, night charge and winter charge. We brought power from New York State Parks’ medium-voltage distribution system down to the bottom of the gorge. A similar setup was done at the winter site for overnight storage to prevent the lithium-ion batteries from freezing. We did all the power and control cabling onboard the vessels at both the passenger loading site and the winter storage site,” he said.

Sections of the vessels were built in Wisconsin, trucked to Niagara Falls, then lowered by crane to the Maid of the Mist’s dry dock and maintenance facility where they were welded together. The vessels were outfitted with equipment, wired, placed into the Niagara River, and put through exhaustive trials and testing.

“It was probably one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever done,” Freedman said. “Certainly challenging, not necessarily because it was a completely different mindset given the space constraints and utilizing shipboard cables instead of conduits and wire.”

“Fortunately, as a team, we were able to succeed in every challenge, which included tolerating the temperatures ranging from 10°F–20°F in the winter, an environment in which the wire was difficult to bend,” he said.

Access to the site had to be coordinated so they didn’t bring the crane down for every little thing.

Freedman said the schedule was difficult and working conditions inside the vessels were very tight. Spaces inside the hold sections were small, not enabling a bunch of people to be working there.

“We had to work with naval architects to place each piece of equipment to distribute the weight for a marine vessel and then work with them for cable routes and weights of cables to make sure everything was in the right space,” he said.

The result? Two new vessels using lithium-ion battery power that operate silently and with little vibration. Now, passengers can experience the full sound of the falls without competition from the boat engine. The new boats also have improved maneuverability.

“Unlike most electric vessels, ours are 100% electric and use forward bow thrusters to further enhance the steering capabilities so that the vessels can be maneuvered sideways and docked more easily,” Glynn said.

A new icon is also painted on the new vessels: an electricity symbol inside of a water droplet surrounded by a turbine.

As for the ride itself, Freedman said, “If you’re in one of the boats, you’ll be leaving the dock passing the American Bridal Veil Falls and go into the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. If you’re on the port or left side, you’ll see the United States. If you’re on the starboard or right side, you’ll be viewing the Canadian side of the falls. Either way, when you head back to the dock it is reversed, so you will see everything. With the way the boats are designed, the sights are unobstructed and are amazing.”

maid of the mist 3

Freedman, married and a father of three, added, “As a family, we go on the tour regularly. It’s a great ride.”

“American Ship Review” and “Marine News” both named the new all-electric, emission-free Maid of the Mist vessels as 2020 Boat of the Year.

“It’s been part of my life and my father’s life,” Glynn said. “We appreciate and value the business and my dad has always treated it as if it was a heritage, a legacy thing for the business, almost custodial because of its great history.”

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