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Early Electrification Of Buffalo: Niagara Falls Hydraulic Development - Adams Station

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‘Fast tracking’ a building where the foundation is completed before the design of the upper floors is complete is a common current practice. This principle was applied to construction of the Adams Station.  Because a tailrace tunnel was common to any project, a contract was awarded in September 1890. Construction of the 1-1/4 mile long tunnel
Tailrace Tunnel
Tailrace Tunnel
commenced in October 1890 and was completed in December 1892. A horseshoe shape 21 feet high and 18.8 feet wide
Tunnel Cross Section
Tunnel Cross Section
was selected. During construction through the weak Rochester shale strata, it became necessary to line the tunnel using a total of sixteen million bricks in four courses set in Portland cement. A profile of the tunnel shows the extent of the shale.

By July 1891 plans had reached the following stage:i 

1. Hydraulic system consisting of a single inlet canal, the shortest possible tailrace tunnel, and a central station for power development. The turbine units should be large and mounted at the bottom of the wheel pit. Their complementary machines, whether pumps, compressors or generators should be mounted on the top of the same rotating shaft so as to constitute a unit of power.
Tailrace Tunnel Profile (showing stratification of rock)
Tailrace Tunnel Profile (showing stratification of rock)

2. Local distribution of power by direct current of electricity.

3. Transmission of power to Buffalo by compressed air.

Inlet Canal (in red)
Inlet Canal (in red)

The inlet canal was started in August 1891 and completed in October 1892.
The 20 feet wide and 182 feet deep stone masonry wheel pit was started in late 1891 and completed in January 1894.ii

The state of the art of electric power transmission in the early 1890’s was as follows:iii

1. 1890 - Willamette Falls to Portland, Oregon - 4,000 volts ac single-phase 12 miles for lighting.

2. 1891 - Telluride, Colorado - 3,000 volts ac single-phase three miles supplying a 100-hp synchronous motor for operating an ore crushing plant.

3. 1891 - Lauffen to Frankfurt, Germany - Experimental 30,000 volt three-phase line 108 miles for 300 hp for the Frankfort Exposition. Overall efficiency 77 percent.

In early autumn of 1891 it became evident that alternating current could be safely and economically controlled for the transmission of power more than five times the distance from Niagara to Buffalo. From this period, all serious attention was concentrated upon electrical installations; generators, transformers, transmission lines, motors, and power and light distribution.iv

In December 1891 an invitation to submit proposals for generation of electrical energy for local lighting and power purposes was sent to three United States and three Swiss electrical equipment designers and manufacturers. The invitation did not mention direct current, alternating current or voltage. It took a year until all proposals were received.v

Prof. George Forbes - London
Prof. George Forbes - London

In 1892 Professor George Forbes, an electrical engineer from England, was hired as a consultant. He had submitted the polyphase alternating current electrical proposal to the International Niagara Commission Horsepower and speed were determined by consultation with the hydraulic turbine and electrical equipment manufacturers.vii The contemplation of the use of electricity from hydraulic units of 5000 hp in a plant, which would ultimately aggregate 100,000 hp, required imagination, optimism and confidence. 100,000 hp approximated the output of all the electric lighting stations in the United States.viii

In July 1892 a contract was awarded to Faesch & Piccard of Geneva, Switzerland for complete working drawings of a 5000-hp 250-revolutions-per-minute hydraulic turbine including the governor.ix The turbines far exceeded in power and speed any then in existence.x Transportation costs and import duties made domestic manufacture economical.xi In November 1892 a contract was awarded to I. P. Morris of Philadelphia for two turbines. A third was added in 1893.xii The turbines were double runner Fourneyron type with outward discharge directly into the wheel
Fourneyron Turbine Runners (shaft installed vertically)
Fourneyron Turbine Runners (shaft installed vertically)
pit. There were no draft tubes. Water pressure on the top runner supported a large portion of the weight of the revolving parts of the units, the remainder being carried by a collar thrust bearing.xiii The
Turbine Cross Section
Turbine Cross Section
mechanical governors, which were made in Switzerland by Faesch & Piccard, regulated the flow of water by raising or lowering a circular collar placed outside the turbine discharge.xiv The variation in speed would not exceed two percent normally or four percent with a 25 percent variation in load.xv This speed variation would be totally unacceptable today.
Powerhouse No.1 (designed by McKim Mead and White)
Powerhouse No.1 (designed by McKim Mead and White)


The New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was engaged to design the limestone powerhouse.


i. Adams, Niagara Power, 1:164, 2:106.

ii. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:38, 48.

iii. Ibid., 174, 179. “Engineering the Electric Century: Transmission by ac gives impetus to hydro,” Electrical World, September 15, 1973: 72.

iv. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:106, 222.

v. Ibid., 223. 

vi. Ibid., 356.

vii. Ibid., 85.

viii. Ibid., 181.

ix. Ibid., 433.

x. Ibid., 85.

xi. Ibid., 104.

xii. Ibid., 113.

xiii. Ibid., 439.

xiv. Ibid., 107.

xv. Ibid., 113.