Part I:
Generating Electricty

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Part I: Generating Electricity

The Splendor of the Falls

To Native Americans and early explorers, the power of Niagara Falls was both awesome and fearsome. Many entrepreneurs dreamed of harnessing its powerful waters to run mills serving the needs of the local community. During the 19 th century, engineering schemes for generating electric power abounded.

The Great Cataract is the embodiment of power. In every second, unceasingly, 7,000 tons of water leap from a cliff one hundred and sixty feet high, and the continuous blow they strike makes the earth tremble.

G. K. Gilbert, Niagara Falls and Their History, 1895

Elie Enleve Dans Un Char De Feu
"Elijah Lifted on a Chariot of Fire"
Engraving by Sebastien LeClerc
c. 1700

Collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society


"Six Million Wild Horses"
Artist unknown
c. 1924

Courtesy of Niagara Mohawk, a National Grid Company




These images, while created centuries apart, evoke the sheer magnitude of Niagara’s energy. The Cataract's full power potential is 6 to 9 million horsepower, enough to drive the nation's entire manufacturing output for the year 1890.

Powerful Profiles

Many individuals struggled to harness Niagara's full potential. Early waterwheels used only a small part of the available energy and required mills to locate at the water’s edge. By the late 19 th century, new electrical technology promised that factories could tap much more energy and be located away from the river. However, before the promise could be realized, inventors had to create a system for transmitting power safely and efficiently. Inventors and investors were all rewarded when electricity reached the burgeoning Buffalo market.

Let's meet some of the players that forged a "powerful" impact on our lives.

  Augustus Porter
  Photograph of an engraving

  Collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

In 1805, Augustus and Peter B. Porter, with Benjamin Barton and Joseph Anim purchased land and water rights along the Niagara River from New York State. Their company, Porter, Barton & Company portaged goods by land from Lake Erie to Lewiston on the Niagara River, then shipped them east on Lake Ontario.

The Porters envisioned a great manufacturing community, originally called Manchester, at the Falls on the American side. They financed a millrace to divert water from the American rapids to provide power.

When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it made the portage obsolete and plans to develop Niagara Falls suffered.

Horace Day
Photograph of an engraving

During the 1860s, Day formed the Niagara Falls Canal Company to complete Porter's plans for a Hydraulic Canal. For seventeen years Day struggled to finish his canal and numerous mill sites. Unfortunately he sold only one mill site. Financially ruined, Day saw his life's work sold to a group of Buffalo businessmen led by Jacob Schoellkopf for $76,000, a mere fraction of the $1.5 million investment.


Jacob Schoellkopf
  Photograph of an engraving

As president of Buffalo's Board of Trade and a prominent businessman, Schoellkopf was keenly interested in electric power and its economic potential. He formed the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Manufacturing Company in 1877 and purchased Day's canal. The company built an electric generating station in 1881 to supply commercial electric power to the City of Niagara Falls. Still, most factories continued to rely on waterpower.


Charles B. Gaskill
Photograph (of an engraving)
c. 1870s

A Pennsylvania land agent, Gaskill built a successful flour mill on Day's canal.

Schoellkopf's success in developing millsites led Gaskill to believe that there would be a growing demand for power. He formed the Niagara River Hydraulic Tunnel, Power, and Sewer Company in 1886 to meet the demand. His company hired engineer, Thomas Evershed, to create a plan to develop power.


Thomas Evershed

Evershed, a Rochesterian, planned to use the mechanical power of waterwheels and turbines rather than generating electricity. He proposed twelve canals to direct water from the upper Niagara River to remove power production from the River's bank, thus conserving Niagara's beauty. The canals would feed 238 waterwheel pits. Water would plunge into the pit, rotate the turbine, and be redirected through a huge underground tunnel into the gorge below the Falls.

Evershed's plan was too expensive. Instead, Edward Dean Adams and others decided to develop hydro-electric power. New plans called for a central generating station and a shortened version of Evershed's tunnel. In 1889, developers organized the Niagara Falls Power Company and the Cataract Construction Company to carry out the new plan.


Edward Dean Adams

As president of the Cataract Construction Company, Adams directed plans to construct a central generating plant and to solve the problem of transmitting electricity over long distances. The venture gained the support of well-known investors including J.P.Morgan and John Jacob Astor whose interest in Niagara was spurred by their involvement in the preservation movement. The Adams Station, designed by McKim, Mead, and White, first produced power on August 26, 1895.

The International Niagara Commission

Adams and the Cataract Construction Company began constructing a central power station before the problem of long distance transmission of electricity was solved. The Cataract Construction Company sponsored the International Niagara Commission which met in London in June 1890. The commissioners offered a monetary prize for a solution to the problem.

William Cawthorne Unwin, Professor of Engineering, Central Institution of the City and Guilds of London

Coleman Sellers, Professor of Engineering, Steven's Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey

Eleuthere-Elie-Nicolas Mascart, Professor au College de France

Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), President of the Commission

Theodore Turrettini, President de la Ville de Geneva


Although seventeen plans were submitted, the Commission deemed that no one plan merited the grand prize. Seven entries proposed electrical systems. Which of the following concepts, do you think were also submitted?

Draw your mouse over any of the concepts below

Prominent Buffalonians were also concerned with controlling Niagara's power and more specifically with how Buffalo could obtain nationwide industrial supremacy. In 1887, the Buffalo Businessmen's Association raised subscriptions and offered a $100,000 dollar prize for a plan to bring Niagara's limitless power to their city. A twenty-three mile, underground hydraulic tunnel between Buffalo and the Falls was but one of the many wild concepts submitted. By 1890, however the Cataract Construction Company gained the title role of harnessing Niagara and squelched Buffalo subscribers' dreams of profit .


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