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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.
G. K. Gilbert, Niagara Falls and Their History, 1895
Elie Enleve Dans Un Char De Feu
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.
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.
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.
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 .