Early Electrification of Buffalo: Niagara to Buffalo Transmission Lines


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In the late 19th century about 400 steam boilers rated 33,500 hp were installed in Buffalo. With coal at about $2 per ton, the price for electric power to be competitive could be estimated.i
Potential customers included the street railway companies that had earlier converted from horse cars to electric trolleys like the one shown here in front of Buffalo Street Railway Company’s Stable No. 2.

On January 14, 1896, after much difficulty, the City of Buffalo granted an electricity distribution franchise to the Niagara Falls Power Company; municipal ownership had been rejected.
In June the franchise was assigned to the newly incorporated Cataract Power and Conduit Company, which was jointly organized by Niagara Falls Power and Buffalo General Electric for the purpose of the sale and distribution of electricity in Buffalo at wholesale.ii Transmission franchises were secured from the various municipalities between Niagara Falls and Buffalo.iii

Proposals for equipment to transmit 10,000 electrical horsepower from Niagara Falls to Buffalo were received from Westinghouse and General Electric. General Electric was awarded the contract for the design and construction of the transformer station in Niagara Falls, the transmission line to Buffalo and the transformer station in Buffalo, including the rotary converters to provide direct current for trolley service.
Air Blast Transformers
Air Blast Transformers
iv Two single-phase air-cooled or ‘air blast’ 930-kW transformers were installed at Niagara.
They were Scott connected from 2-phase 4-wire 2200-V to 3-phase 3-wire 11,000-V.v The ‘Tee’ connection of the two high voltage windings gives three phase.

The 22-mile transmission line consisted of cedar wood poles with 12 foot pine crossarms supporting three 350,000-cmil, 19 strand, bare copper conductors.
Crossarm Configuration - showing insulators in place
Crossarm Configuration - showing insulators in place
The arrangement on the crossarms was originally 18 inch horizontal spacing but was changed to 36 inch triangular spacing to deter vandals who threw short pieces of wire across two or more conductors causing short Insulators proved to be a big problem. The first ones were dry process porcelain, which passed a 40,000 V dry test but were porous. About 40,000 of these insulators were rejected because they failed a 20,000 V wet test.
Helmet-type Insulator (passed 40,000-V wet test)
Helmet-type Insulator (passed 40,000-V wet test)
These were soon replaced with wet process porcelain insulators, which passed a 40,000 V wet test.
Buffalo Railway Company
Buffalo Railway Company

At the Buffalo end, the last 4000 feet was underground cable to the generating station of the Buffalo Railway Company on Niagara Street at Prospect Avenue where three 250-kW 11,000-V to 375-V transformers connected in delta supplied two rotary converters for street railway purposes. The rotary converters operated in parallel with the trolley company's steam engine driven 550-volt dc generators.viii Service was inaugurated November 15, 1896. Overall efficiency was 79.6%.ix

In 1896, protecting devices for transmission lines were conspicuous by their complete absence. The oil switch had not yet been conceived and there was no method known which could interrupt a short circuit on a line with the capacity at Niagara without shutting down the entire system.
At Niagara lead fuses were used on the 2200-V side of the transformers and aluminum fuses on the 11,000-V side. At Buffalo 11,000-V aluminum fuses were used on the line side of the transformers and air circuit breakers on the load side of the rotary converters. The fuses proved to be totally inadequate and were removed. The only alternative was to shut down the entire system by causing the generator field circuit breakers to trip with a persistent short circuit. Air break switches were used for synchronizing and disconnecting but were useless to interrupt short circuits.x Years ago an employee related to me how he been told that when a Niagara Falls operator opened an air break switch, another man stood by with a pail of sand to quench the arc.xi Lightning was a problem. Initially the pole line had a ground wire made of iron barbed wire above the phase conductors. After ground wire breaks caused outages, the ground wire was removed. Early lightning arresters failed to interrupt the arc.

The system looked like this in 1897. The local Niagara Falls load was supplied 2200 V by two-phase four-wire or single phase two-wire and consisted of a mixture of ac and dc applications plus motors and lighting. The Buffalo electric trolley load was less than 2,000 hp.xiii

Niagara Falls customers
objected to having their electricity interrupted for faults on the Buffalo line.xiv Continuity of service requires some means be used to disconnect defective portions of the transmission system. As the Niagara Falls load grew more units were added and it became possible to sectionalize the 2200-V bus at Niagara to supply the Buffalo load from separate generators.xv

This is Part 6 of a series.

Next: Electricity Distribution Within Buffalo


i. Adams, Niagara Power, 1:340.

ii. Ibid., 1:339-340. Niagara Mohawk Story, 79.

iii. Adams, Niagara Power, 1:337.

iv. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:248.

v. Ibid., 289. Stillwell, “Electric Transmission,” 497.

vi. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:287.

vii. Ibid., 274-275.

viii. Ibid., 275. Stillwell, “Electric Transmission,” 497.

ix. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:276.

x. Ibid., 283-285. Stillwell, “Electric Transmission,” 497.

xi. Related to the author by Alex Graham, an NMP employee, ca. 1954.

xii. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:278.

xiii. Ibid., 251. Stillwell, “Electric Transmission,” 497.

xiv. Adams, Niagara Power, 2:284.

xv. Ibid., 284.