Early Electrification of Buffalo: Electricity Distribution Within Buffalo
Environmental and safety concerns about the proliferation of overhead telegraph, telephone and electric wires caused the City of Buffalo to pass an 1892 ordinance that not only prohibited the installation of additional poles on city streets but also required the removal of existing poles.ii It also limited the voltage to 5,000 V.
Conduit lines consisting of concrete encased three inch inside diameter glazed clay tiles were installed under city streets from the terminal house to four trolley company stations.iii The conduit line on Niagara Street consisted of 25 tiles arranged in five rows of five.iv
Although oil-impregnated, laminated paper-insulated, lead-covered cable had been invented in 1890, the power company was doubtful. They had Dr. Habershaw of the India Rubber & Gutta Percha Company develop a three-conductor, 11,000-V cable with #3/0 American Wire Gauge stranded-copper conductors, rubber insulation and a lead cover.v Ozone breakdown of the insulation at the cable terminations was a problem until a compound filled ‘pothead’ was developed.vi
The Buffalo load grew slowly. Quoting from Adams ‘Niagara Power’ book, “It was recognized that the old-time manufacturer hesitated to give up his personal supervision of his own supply of power, however crudely and efficiently applied, and to take in its place a comparatively delicate piece of machinery he did not understand, that was activated by a wire, the operation of which was startling to hear, dazzling to see, and dangerous to touch.”vii
By 1900 the Buffalo load was growing faster.
The voltage on the Niagara – Buffalo lines was raised to 22,000 V by reconnecting the transformer windings at Niagara.
Four 11,000-V, #3/0-AWG copper conductor rubber-insulated cables and one paper-insulated cable connected Terminal House A to the Cataract Power stations and the trolley company’s stations. Oil sectionalizing switches were installed on the cables about every mile to aid in cable failure location. At Stations 1, 2 and 3, Cataract Power owned transformation from 11,000 V to 2200 V which was distributed underground and overhead to customers for use in malt houses, grain elevators, machine shops, dry docks, bakeries, tanneries, etc.
11,000 V was also transformed to 360 V which was used in an adjacent building by Buffalo General Electric for motor generator sets and rotary converters for four different kinds of service:
1. Constant current dc for street arc lighting.
2. 62 ½ Hz (two-phase four-wire) for incandescent and arc lighting. Three phase machines were first used in 1914.
3. Three wire 110/220 V dc for the downtown district Edison System.
4. 500 V dc for power to motors and elevators. (500 V had previously been supplied by steam engine driven generators).
Years ago a retiree told me that each station had two operators on duty: the Cataract Power operator worked an 8 hour shift, and the Buffalo General Electric operator worked a 12 hour shift.
Storage batteries were installed at some trolley company and Buffalo General Electric stations to help carry peak dc loads and provide backup for equipment outages.ix With continuity of service assured, Buffalo General Electric abandoned its steam plant.x
i. Stillwell, “Electric Transmission,” 517.
ii. Related to the author by Jack Pfohl, NMP Electric Planner, ca. 1953.
iii. Harold W. Buck, “The Buffalo High-Tension Cable Distribution System,” Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 18, (1901): 836.
iv. Author’s recollection from personal observation during work as NMP Underground Engineer.
v. Editorial Staff of the Edison Electric Institute Transmission and Distribution Committee. Underground Systems Reference Book (New York, NY: Edison Electric Institute,1957), xviii.
vi. Henry Gordon Stott, “The Distribution and Conversion of Received Currents,” Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 18, (1901): 136.
vii. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:7.
viii. Ibid., 287. Stott, “Distribution and Conversion,” 125-152. Stillwell, “Electric Transmission,” 517-522.
ix. Stott, “Distribution and Conversion,” 141-152. Buck, “Buffalo High-Tension,” 835-841. Charles Brand, “History of the 60 Cycle System” (Buffalo General Electric Company, Buffalo, NY, 1922, photocopy).
x. Niagara Mohawk Story, 75.
xi. Buck, “Buffalo High-Tension,” 836. Daniel E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992), 41-47. Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes, Images of America: Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. (Charleston, CS: Arcadia Publishing, 1998), 47-60.
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