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Early Electrification of Buffalo: Electricity Distribution Within Buffalo

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Second 11,000-V Line Added
Second 11,000-V Line Added
During 1897 the Cataract Power & Conduit Company started a project to increase the distribution of Niagara power within the City of Buffalo. The Niagara Falls Power Company placed a second circuit on the Niagara – Buffalo pole line shown here near Riverside Park in North Buffalo.
A small terminal house was built on the bank of the Erie Canal near the foot of Brace Street. The terminal house contained lightning arresters and single blade switches for changing connections of overhead and underground lines.
Proliferation of Telegraph, Telephone and Electric Wires in a City Downtown Area
Proliferation of Telegraph, Telephone and Electric Wires in a City Downtown Area


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. It also limited the voltage to 5,000 V. 
Typical Conduit Line (3" Diameter Clay Tiles (left arrow), Concrete Encasement (right arrow))
Typical Conduit Line (3" Diameter Clay Tiles (left arrow), Concrete Encasement (right arrow))
Therefore additions to the Cataract Power 11,000-V transmission system had to be placed in underground conduit lines.



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. The conduit line on Niagara Street consisted of 25 tiles arranged in five rows of five.
Conduit lines were also installed to Cataract Power Stations 2 at South Park and Indiana and 3 at Wilkeson and Mohawk.


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. Ozone breakdown of the insulation at the cable terminations was a problem until a compound filled ‘pothead’ was developed.


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.”


By 1900 the Buffalo load was growing faster.
A third circuit was built on a new wood pole line as shown here with a two-horsepower line crew wagon. It had 500,000-cmil stranded aluminum conductors with longer spans and insulators with larger diameter wood pins. The original pole line had been designed for ½ inch ice on the conductors but experience had shown ice did not adhere to conductors carrying current. Ice formation on conductors is an important consideration today.


The voltage on the Niagara – Buffalo lines was raised to 22,000 V by reconnecting the transformer windings at Niagara.
Terminal House A
Terminal House A
Terminal House A was built in North Buffalo on Niagara Street at Ontario for the installation of 22,000-V to 11,000-V oil-insulated, water-cooled transformers.
Terminal House A Schematic
Terminal House A Schematic
This schematic of Terminal House A shows the three lines from Niagara, the transformers and outgoing cables to Cataract Power and trolley company substations.
2,200-V Four Pole Oil Switch
2,200-V Four Pole Oil Switch
Improved air-break switches and lightning arresters and the use of recently developed oil switches such as this 2200-V four-pole oil switch at Niagara was a big step forward.
Time Overcurrent Relay
Time Overcurrent Relay
Time overcurrent relays like the one shown here and reverse current relays enabled short-circuited elements to be removed from service without shutting down the whole system. Note the clockwork mechanism; a key was used to wind the spring and the amount of time delay was set by varying the pitch of the two blade air paddle. Modern relays are all electronic.



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.

Buffalo General Electric
Buffalo General Electric


11,000-V Cable System In Buffalo (all 3 conductor #3/0 AWG Cables) (Cataract Power Stations in Green, Buffalo Railway Stations in Red)
11,000-V Cable System In Buffalo (all 3 conductor #3/0 AWG Cables) (Cataract Power Stations in Green, Buffalo Railway Stations in Red)

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
Storage Batteries

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. With continuity of service assured, Buffalo General Electric abandoned its steam plant.

Pan American Exposition
Pan American Exposition


Pan American Exposition At Night
Pan American Exposition At Night
A major user of electricity from May to November 1901 was the Pan American Exposition. The map shows the route of the transmission lines from Niagara Falls and the location of the Exhibition in Buffalo but does not show how 11,000 V was transmitted from Terminal House A to the Electricity Building on the Exhibition grounds for the 5,000-hp electrical load. 200,000 eight-candlepower incandescent lamps were used. Three water rheostats were used to bring the exterior lamps up to full glow in 80 seconds to create the Pan-Am’s most spectacular visual effect.



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