The nighttime illumination of Niagara Falls is a tradition nearly as old as the attraction itself.

Now, thanks to a just-unveiled LED lighting upgrade that replaces a 20-year-old halogen system, the trio of world-famous cataracts straddling the border of Ontario and New York have officially entered the 21st century.

Up until the 1883, the year landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and others formed the preservation-minded Niagara Falls Association, much of the land surrounding the falls was privately owned and largely inaccessible to the general public. When major parks surrounding the falls were established in 1885 (New York’s Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest continually operating state park in the country) and 1888 (Ontario’s Queen Victoria Park), the falls emerged as the world-class tourist destination that they are today. A slew of bi-national sightseeing diversions aiming to showcase the falls’ natural beauty followed in quick succession.

While a modest handful of experimental and one-off stabs at illuminating Niagara Falls took place during the late 19th century and early 20th century (visiting royalty was usually the impetus for these rare and much-touted light shows), the lighting of the falls didn’t become an awe-inspiring nightly staple until 1925 with the foundation of the Niagara Falls Illumination Board, an organization that today is made up of members representing the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario; the Niagara Tourism & Convention Corporation of Niagara Falls, New York; the Niagara Falls Parks Commission; Niagara Falls State Park; and Ontario Power Generation.

The Niagara Falls Review described the inaugural nightly lighting, a highly anticipated event, held on May 25, 1925, that attracted an estimated 30,000 spectators: “The scene was one of almost indescribable grandeur. The falls almost seemed to glow into life under the artistry of the directors of the giant searchlights. The greatest natural spectacle on earth was illuminated and new beauties were caught with the ever changing colours and focus of the lights.”

Those original 24 carbon arc spotlights, each measuring 36-inches in diameter, lit both American Falls and Horseshoe Falls each and every night (with a couple of exceptions, including during World War II) all the way through 1958 when 20 new carbon arc spotlights were installed. In 1974, a bigger and brighter — and at the time, very much state-of-the-art — halogen xenon gas spotlight system debuted and was fully upgraded in 1997.

And now, in typically grand Niagara Falls fashion — read: fireworks, live entertainment and throngs of rubbernecking tourists — LEDs have arrived on the scene at long last.

New LED lighting system at Niagara Falls Like the incandescent lighting systems that came before it, the LED upgrade at Niagara Falls is located at the Illumination Tower, a 1906 structure at Queen Victoria Place, Ontario. (Photo: Niagara Falls Illumination Board)

As noted by the Niagara Falls Illumination Board, the LED enhancement — price tag: $4 million or about $3.1 million USD — will reduce related energy costs by as much as 60 percent (the new lights consume 52 killowatts of energy compared to the 126 kW used by the halogens) while illuminating the falls with a vastly larger spectrum of colors that are noticeably richer and more robust. As for the intensity and quality of the kaleidoscopic light itself, the LED luminaires shine anywhere from three to 14 times brighter than their incandescent predecessors depending on the color being projected. Compared to the previous bulbs, which sported a 1,900-hour lifespan, the LEDs will shine bright for up to 25 years.

Some further technical nuts and bolts on the new system for all the lighting geeks out there:

The new lighting system will consist of 1400 individual luminaires broken into 350 zones of control across both falls. Each individual control zone is equipped with separate Red, Green, Blue and White LED luminaires (RGBW). When used together these separate colored RGBW luminaires will mix on the falls to create endless color combinations. The use of White LED’s in the color mixing scheme will allow one to move between deeply saturated colors to subtle hues of color to allow for more natural looking effects.

Over 185,000 feet of conductors will connect the 1400 individual luminaires to five 10 feet tall racks of individually addressed controllable drivers. The remote mounted drivers are indoors and easily accessible reducing the need for servicing drivers that would otherwise be internal to the luminaires out in the field.

The LED upgrade was designed and carried out by the Niagara Falls Illumination Enhancement Team, a consortium of mostly Canadian companies selected by the Niagara Falls Illumination Board. They include Canadian electrical construction firm ECCO Electric Limited; Salex, a leading architectural lighting firm headquartered in Toronto; Mulvey and Banani Lighting, a subsidiary of the Canadian electrical engineering giant; and Scenework, a supply company for the performance industry based in Guelph, Ontario. As for the LEDs themselves, they were manufactured by the American arm of Japanese lighting behemoth, Stanley Electric.

New LED lighting system at Niagara Falls The LED illumination enhancements at Niagara Falls don't just look brighter and more focused: the long-overdue upgrade will also slash lighting-related energy usage by 60 percent. (Photo: Old Falls Street, USA)

Like the original carbon arc and xenon spotlights, the low-maintenance LED system is located at the Ontario Power Company’s old spillway building — or Illumination Tower, as the structure, located directly adjacent to Queen Victoria Place, is popularly called. The area at the foot of the iconic Illumination Tower has long served as a popular al fresco concert and special event venue — it’s here that a celebration and official unveiling ceremony for the new lighting scheme was held.

“The newly enhanced nightly illumination of Niagara Falls will capture the imagination of the millions of visitors who come to witness the sheer power and beauty that is Niagara,” notes Niagara Falls Illumination Board Chairman Mark Thomas in a press statement. “We are very fortunate to have community stakeholders on both sides of the border who have supported our vision and this project from the very start. These enhancements will help us to create an overall guest experience that will continue to shine a positive light on Niagara for people from throughout the world.”

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.