New York Power Authority

Recreational, Environmental & Historical Enhancement

Great Gorge Railway Trail Stone Stairway

Summary

NYPA’s Great Gorge Railway Trail Stone Stairway is a new recreational feature built as part of the Niagara Power Project relicensing which connects the existing hiking trails at the top and bottom of the Niagara Gorge to form a hiking loop, thereby enhancing the gorge’s appeal to everyday users. The gorge is a unique and spectacular scenic area but is greatly underused by the tourist public due to challenges from the steep, rugged terrain and a lack of easy, family-friendly access. To deal with the complex underlying geology and steep slope while maintaining the natural character of the gorge setting, NYPA partnered with New York State Parks to install this dry-laid stone stairway set into the surface contours of the slope. The result is an exceptionally beautiful, unobtrusive, easy-to-hike stairway and path that enhances its natural surroundings.

Background

The New York Power Authority’s (NYPA’s) 2,400 MW Niagara Power Project, which was completed in 1961 at Niagara Falls and Lewiston, New York, is the largest producer of electric power used in New York State.  The original license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for construction of the Niagara Power Project expired in late 2007, however, in 1999, NYPA initiated a collaborative relicensing process for this project. Over 100 stakeholders were involved in the Niagara Power Project relicensing, including NYPA, state and federal resource agencies, private-sector power consumers, Native American tribes, non-governmental organizations, local officials, and other interested parties.  Together, NYPA and the other stakeholders identified a wide range of ecological, recreational and economic issues to be addressed.

Recreational improvements figured prominently in this collaborative relicensing process.  Some of the agreed-upon improvements were to be built by NYPA, and some were to be built by the New York State of Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) with funding from NYPA.  Among the latter group was the development and installation by NYSOPRHP of several projects in and along the Niagara River Gorge.

Of these Niagara Gorge projects, the most eagerly anticipated was the installation of a new connecting link in the City of Niagara Falls between two existing hiking trails at and below Whirlpool Street:  1) the rim trail that runs along the top of the gorge, and 2) the trail that gradually descends from the top of the gorge and then runs alongside the Niagara River.  The lower trail is known as the Great Gorge Railway Trail for its historic, early twentieth century use as the alignment for a railway that ran scenic tours into and through the gorge.  The railway was converted into a hiking trail following its demise in 1935.

While the rim trail and the Great Gorge Railway Trail both begin near a common parking area at the top of the gorge, users wishing to enjoy both the scenic vistas afforded by the rim trail and the contemplative experience of a walk through a unique natural setting alongside the swiftly moving Niagara river could not do so without doubling back along both trails.  It was therefore agreed during relicensing that a connection between the two trails would be highly desirable, as it would offer an attractive additional recreational opportunity to the many people who come to see the mighty Niagara Falls, but who often spend little additional time in the area.

NYPA recognized the value of this trail connection to the community and, through its relicensing settlement agreement with NYSOPRHP, committed to fund its design and installation.  Following license issuance, however, progress on several recreational projects began to lag due to significant state budget cuts to NYSOPRHP.  In order to ensure the fulfillment of its relicensing commitments, NYPA therefore initiated a collaborative partnership arrangement with NYSOPRHP that permitted NYPA to take primary responsibility for the projects’ design and installation while involving NYSOPRHP in all aspects. This is but one example of how the collaborative process used by NYPA to achieve a successful relicensing in 2007 continues on through the post-license implementation phase.

Challenge

The basic goal of the Great Gorge Railway Trail Stairway project was a challenge in and of itself:  to link two nearly parallel existing trails across a vertical separation of approximately 200 feet that consisted of a very steep, rocky and heavily vegetated slope.  Under most circumstances, this could be accomplished by various conventional means, and it was thought at first that the obstacles to be overcome were fairly obvious and manageable through careful selection of the installation routing and by diligent engineering.  In fact, the original concept for the project envisioned a set of engineered metal stairway sections which would be supported on foundations anchored to stable subsurface materials and linked by short trail segments.

Upon detailed investigation of potential locations, however, it was learned that slope stability was a wider concern than first realized, and that suitable foundations would need to extend to significant depths at every possible location.  The process of taking geotechnical borings alone proved to be highly formidable, with the effort hampered by serious safety concerns and ultimately stopped after being judged too risky.

A further challenge was ensuring that any new installation in the Niagara Gorge would maintain or enhance the gorge’s unique, attractive natural setting.  Given the newly realized need for deeper and more substantial foundations, NYPA and NYSOPRHP saw that the footprint of an engineered metal structure and the need for heavy equipment access for installation would run counter to this important criterion.

Finally, the new connection needed to appeal to a broad population of users, and not be aimed only at skilled and well-equipped hikers and climbers.  It needed to be attractive and unintimidating to most casual visitors to the Niagara Falls area, including children.  This translated into a need for more modest slopes and more landings than might otherwise have been the case, thereby enlarging the footprint of the project and further challenging the criteria for minimal intrusiveness and least disturbance.

Innovation

Given the particular challenges presented above, NYPA and NYSOPRHP took a step back from their first assumptions about what type of connection ought to be installed, and undertook a wider examination of modern trail and stairway installations, particularly on significant slopes, to determine what techniques and materials were most successful in current or recent use.  This led to the reconsideration of stone as a potential building material.  While there were examples of stone stairways built many decades earlier at two other locations in the Niagara Gorge, their severely deteriorated condition and the apparent flaws in their initial construction had caused this form of stairway to be discounted initially.  This wider examination also led to realization that there were professional trail-building firms that specialized in the application of these materials and associated techniques to particularly challenging situations.  Ultimately, identification and inspection of several modern stone stair and trail installations led to the specification of dry-laid stone as the method of choice for the Niagara Gorge.  Thus, a significant “outside the box” innovation on this project was something of a paradox – looking not to ever more sophisticated technological solutions, but toward methods from the past informed by modern experience and improved tools.

In parallel with the investigation of materials and techniques, NYPA and NYSOPRHP also recognized that their typical contracting sequence of developing a detailed design, followed by bidding of such a design to conventional construction firms, could limit the range of expertise that might respond to a request for proposal.  It was therefore decided to use an atypical integrated design/build approach for this particular project to attract innovative thinking for design and implementation.  (Conventional design and construction firms were not precluded from bidding, however.)  This approach, while somewhat more routine for private firms seeking design and construction services, was innovative within the less flexible realm of procurement practices for state government agencies.

Results

The specification of dry-laid stone as the primary material for the installation and the use of a design/build contracting approach led to the selection of a partnership of small professional trail designers and builders to implement the project.  The partnering firms, who put together the lowest bid, were Peter S. Jensen, LLC; Tahawus Trails, LLC; and Timber and Stone, LLC (referred to below as “the Jensen Team”).  The results of their work are, in a word, stunning, and stakeholders agree, as indicated in the quotes section below.

Their subtly elegant installation can be broadly viewed as having two main segments:  1) a gradually descending horizontal/diagonal run from the trailhead at the top, which brings hikers about one third of the way down the slope, and, 2) an essentially vertical run from there which ends at the Great Gorge Railway Trail.  The horizontal/diagonal run is a smoothed, widened and stabilized version of what once served as an unfriendly and dangerous access path to an abandoned and sealed stormwater outfall situated within the side of the stone gorge cliff.  Above this run is the stone cliff face, while below it is a rugged and wooded slope.  Incorporating a series of gently sloping stone dust trail segments, several sets of hand-hewn stone stair treads, and small barrier stones (known as “gargoyles”) set along the downslope side, the horizontal/diagonal run is now a pleasant and easy walk that takes the hiker alongside the exposed cliff’s geological features and beneath a canopy of tall trees.  Right from the trailhead, one feels completely removed from the urban/suburban setting found above the rim.  Careful design of this section reduced path slopes so that they are now gradual enough for casual users, and incorporated drainage features to address chronic runoff erosion problems that had led to dangerous conditions in the past.

The mostly vertical run, a highlight of the project, incorporates a series of winding stone stairs with short landings and turnouts in between.  Barrier rails made of black locust wood are anchored for fall protection on the downslope edges of many portions of this run.  The run makes maximum use of the terrain’s natural features, winding at one point between two huge boulders, using them as both structural anchors for the stairs and as natural fall protection barriers.

The above description makes this achievement sound deceptively simple, however, the result is anything but.  The overall aesthetic effect is a sense that this stairway has always been there, as several observers have remarked.  If one looks closely, one notices not only how the beautiful stonework under one’s feet and the black locust railings blend in with their surroundings, but also how the intricately carved and stacked stone crib walls supporting much of the installation have been carefully placed and worked into the slope.  One may also discern how the thoughtful choice of routing exploits the natural features of the terrain.

What is no longer obvious in the completed project, however, is the ingeniously productive, but delicately careful and intense effort that it took in the field to achieve this installation.  The dedicated professional and expert designers and craftsmen employed by the Jensen Team cleared only brush and a handful of tree limbs from the path of this trail and stair, and felled only one tree – alongside the path – that was about to fall over anyway.  Each of the 244 stone stair treads (approximately 900-lbs. per tread) was hand-hewn at the quarry to its approximate dimensions and then shipped to Niagara Falls.  Stones were then delivered to staging locations within the gorge using a single stand-behind compact motorized carrier – no heavy construction equipment was involved.  Even more noteworthy, each stone was finally delivered from its staging area to its installation point by hand-rigging methods using a combination (known as “high lines”) of overhead cables, winches and slings, or by lowering them down temporary wooden chutes, and then hand-cut to their final shape.  Achieving such a large and challenging installation with these non-intrusive methods, and with no safety incidents whatsoever, was nothing short of remarkable. Further, the Jensen Team achieved this result within the scheduled time frame of less than a year from start of design to its opening to the public, and maintained costs within the project budget – all while simultaneously executing a similar feat, but on a smaller scale, on two other nearby fishing access stairs for NYPA and NYSOPRHP.

Stakeholder Quotes

“Of the many bold and breathtaking views offered all across New York State, there may be none more beautiful than the Niagara River Gorge.  NYPA’s investment and installation of the stone stairs and walkways into the gorge allow this treasure to become even more accessible to those looking for an experience of a lifetime.  The improvements to the trails at Whirlpool were not only long overdue but sorely needed.  NYPA’s interest and willingness to accept and guide this project has added a priceless value to this already amazing resource,” said Rose Harvey, Commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

“I’ve been hiking and fishing the Niagara Gorge the better part of my life.  I’ve taken my children and grandchildren, as well as leading several hikes a year for the Adirondack Mountain Club, of which I’ve been a member for twenty years.  How fortunate I am that I live within miles of this easy and accessible treasure.

I just recently joined a hike being led by the State Parks Department and had the opportunity to use the newly installed trail/stairway that’s just south of the Whirlpool Bridge.  I was in complete awe of the great job that was done.  I’m a lifelong woodworker and a real stickler for detail.  It was really impressive to see how the hand railings were incorporated and attached to the rocks, and how perfectly the stone steps were leveled and secured – truly a work of art!

I’ve always encouraged people to use this trail because of the great view from the bottom.  To see two waterfalls framed by the Rainbow Bridge at the end of the Gorge – just awesome!  Now that the trail to the top has been improved, it’ll make a great loop hike.  I understand improvements have been made north of the Queenston Bridge, I plan to check those out in the next week or two.”  – Mike Promowicz, member, Adirondack Mountain Club Niagara Frontier Chapter.