Early Electrification of Buffalo: Developing a Renewable Energy Source
The early Buffalo systems probably all had a common arrangement: a coal fired boiler with a reciprocating steam engine of a couple hundred horsepower maximum, belt connected to a generator that served an area of about a square mile. What other source of energy was available?
The greatest source of renewable energy on the Niagara Frontier is at Niagara Falls. The energy of the falling water has been estimated at six million horsepower. The story of the development of the Hydraulic Canal to provide waterpower for industries at the brink of the Niagara gorge and its purchase by the Schoellkopf interests in 1877 will not be repeated here. Note that the industries used only a portion of the available head of water.
In 1885 the State of New York acquired all the land for about a mile upstream and a quarter-mile downstream from the American Falls plus all the islands for a State park. This removed all the readily available waterpower sites except for the Hydraulic Canal. How could more of this renewable energy be utilized?
In February 1886 Thomas Evershed, a division engineer on the Erie Canal, developed a plan to construct a series of canals from the Niagara River and sell mill sites on both sides of the canals. Water would be drawn from a canal, run through a waterwheel and discharged into a tailrace tunnel that would run into the Niagara Gorge. The profile shows the canals and wheel pits. A total of 238 mills of 500 hp each could be developed.i This would be 119,000 hp or more than the total of all the developed hydropower in eastern New York and New England combined.ii
In June 1886 the Niagara River Hydraulic Tunnel, Power & Sewer Co. was organized to pursue the Evershed plan.iii It was chartered by the State of New York and later authorized to take water from the Niagara River sufficient to produce 200,000 hp.iv The Prospectus stated “It is conceded by leading practical electricians that it would be entirely practicable now to light the City of Buffalo (distance 20 miles) with power furnished by Niagara Falls,… An application has already been received from a manufacturer in Birmingham, England, for an opportunity to test his apparatus for conveying power by means of compressed air.”v Various attempts to finance the project proved futile. In July 1887 a number of enterprising citizens of Buffalo provided a cash prize of $100,000 for a practical method of using Niagara power in Buffalo.vi None of the projects submitted merited the prize.
In 1889 the ‘Tunnel” company, through attorney William Rankine, got the attention of J. P. Morgan and Edward Dean Adams, a New York City attorney and investment banker. Adams consulted the renowned mechanical engineer Dr. Coleman Sellers. Sellers reviewed the Evershed prospectus and informed Adams that the plan was financially feasible.vii In December 1889 a syndicate of financiers organized The Cataract Construction Company with Adams as president. The Cataract company acquired all the stock of the “Tunnel” company and would act as its business and financial agent.viii The Cataract company was designed to represent all the money subscribers to the enterprise and to be the means of their profiting by its contract with the “Tunnel” company for the design and construction of the project. This speculative venture was expected to be slow in developing. The organization of capitalists and engineers became an association of adventurers and pioneers.ix In late 1889 the “Tunnel” company’s name was changed to The Niagara Falls Power Company.x
Difficulties with the Evershed plan soon appeared. The construction of over five miles of tunnel and 238 wheel-pits practically all by rock excavation in hard limestone indicated the economy of fewer wheel-pits and shorter tunnels and inlet-canals.xi Questions arose:xii
1. Was the old plan of placing a mill over or near its own water wheel adaptable to a project of unprecedented magnitude, or could power produced at one place be supplied to several customers?
2. Could power be distributed locally or transmitted a considerable distance by shafts or belts or wire ropes, by compressed air or water pressure, or by electricity?
3. Could Buffalo, with a population of 255,000, compared to 5,000 in Niagara Falls, be reached by any practical method? Edison was asked and replied “No difficulty transferring unlimited power.” He proposed connecting several dc generators in series at Niagara Falls to obtain 6,000 volts, utilizing underground cable across Grand Island and connecting several dc motors in series in Buffalo.xiii Westinghouse advocated compressed air.xiv Compressed air had an advantage in that it could be used in place of steam in many existing steam engines.xv
Consultants were engaged including Clemens Herschel, an hydraulic engineer who had extensive experience on American waterpower projects and Professor Henry Rowland, a physicist from Johns Hopkins University who was to determine if the project was economically feasible. Professor Rowland reported “.. the practical and commercial problem is of a different nature than the scientific one and may be stated thus: at what distance from cheap water-power can such power, transmitted electrically, compete with steam in cost and certainty of operation?”xvi
New methods were called for; power was to be produced on an unprecedented scale. Nothing in existence was adequate to accomplish these results.xvii
In the midst of all this doubt, the Construction company did what any self-respecting organization does; in July 1890 they formed a committee. But what a committee! It was named the International Niagara Commission and consisted of E. Mascart (Professor, College of France), William Unwin (Professor, Central Institute London, England), Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin; University of Glasgow, Scotland), Dr. Coleman Sellers (Professor, Stevens Institute and Franklin Institute, United States), and Theodore Turrettini (President, City of Geneva, Switzerland and a waterpower engineer).xviii
The Commission investigated the state of the art of power transmission in the United States and Europe and also sent out invitations offering a monetary prize for plans for hydraulic development and power transmission and distribution including 50,000 hp to Buffalo.xix Competitors from six countries submitted seventeen proposals. Three were rejected as irregular.xx Of the eight projects presented for power transmission, only four proposed electrical methods. Two advocated direct current and two alternating current; one single phase and one polyphase.xxi Westinghouse refused to submit a proposal remarking “These people are trying to secure $100,000 worth of information by offering prizes, the largest of which is $3,000. When they are ready to do business, we will show them how to do it.”xxii Prizes were awarded in early 1891. No first prize was awarded for a combined project for hydraulic development and distribution. In the opinion of the Commission, no project could be recommended for adoption without considerable modification.xxiii The Commission’s report takes up 53 pages in Volume I of Edward Dean Adams’ book ‘Niagara Power’ and provides interesting reading.xxiv
i. Adams, Niagara Power, 1:116.
ii. Ibid., 141.
iii. Ibid., 120.
iv. Ibid., 119.
v. Ibid., 122.
vi. Ibid., 94.
vii. Jill Jonnes, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World (New York: Random House, 2003), 282-283.
viii. Adams, Niagara Power, 1:233, 292.
ix. Ibid., 292, 297.
x. Ibid., 132.
xi. Ibid., 143.
xii Ibid., 142.
xiii Ibid., 144-147. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:171.
xiv. Adams, Niagara Power, 2: 221.
xv. Ibid., 203.
xvi. Adams, Niagara Power, 1:152-156.
xvii. Ibid., 163.
xviii. Ibid., 173.
xix. Ibid., 395.
xx. Ibid., 187.
xxi. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:219.
xxii. Adams, Niagara Power, 1:363.
xxiii. Ibid., 187.
xxiv. Ibid., 413.