by Roger Kaza
Today, ghosts of Niagara. The University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Not long ago, while traveling near the Canadian border, I chanced upon a curious building. It was shaped like an ancient funerary temple on the banks of the Nile: a long stone façade punctuated by evenly spaced columns and bays. It also had that forlorn look so common to aging turn-of-the-century structures: classical elegance plus blown-out windows. My building might even have been an eyesore except for the colossal eye-magnet just a few hundred yards away. Did I mention it sat at the foot of Niagara Falls? The mystery building turned out to be the Ontario Power Company Generating Station, built in 1904, and it has a back-story as interesting as its appearance.
Niagara Falls had long attracted two camps of enthusiasts. There were the romantic nature-lovers smitten with the falls' grandeur; and there were those utilitarians who saw in tumbling water a mammoth goldmine of pure kinetic energy. A handful of attempts had tried to capture the falls' power, but by the late 19th century its potential had barely been tapped. Some new currents were in the air, though, pun intended. In 1890, two entrepreneurs from the Western frontier, Paul and Lucien Nunn, built the world's first alternating current power plant, in of all places, Telluride, Colorado.
That same year, a commission chaired by the eminent British physicist, Lord Kelvin, solicited proposals worldwide for harnessing Niagara Falls. But none were chosen. Instead, Kelvin assigned the task to industrialist George Westinghouse and the Serbian-born electrical genius, Nikola Tesla. They would design a system using Tesla's innovation, alternating current, which the brothers Nunn had already proven in Colorado. Thomas Edison was furious; he favored direct current, which is simpler in theory but loses power very rapidly over long distances. Tesla got the contract over Edison, who was once his boss. The skeptics muttered, but when the lights went on in Buffalo on November 16, 1896, everyone knew that AC power was here to stay.
The utilitarians now boasted that Niagara was finally "doing an honest day's work." But the nature-lovers weren't about to roll over. Led by parks guru Frederick Law Olmsted, they established Niagara Falls, New York, as America's very first state park. Canada also created a commission to oversee its side of the falls. But that group was underfunded. Ironically, the easiest way to raise cash was to sell water rights to the highest bidder...for more hydroelectric projects. Re-enter the Nunn brothers, who by now were the go-to guys for water projects all throughout the West. The two were hired by the "Ontario Power Company" — an American company, actually — to engineer a power plant, and a generating station, my mystery building. The plant operated for almost a century. In 1999 it was decommissioned to make room for a casino — its massive tunnels sealed, its turbines removed. Now it sits in the perpetual mist of the world's most famous waterfall, a ghost from the wee hours of our electric age.
I'm Roger Kaza, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Mists of Niagara. Photo by Amelia Jane Kaza.
The links in the above article all connect to previous related Engines episodes.
The Ontario Power Company Generating Station was designed by renowned Buffalo architect Edward Green.
Lucien Nunn was the founder of the two-year, tuition-free, all-male Deep Springs College, where students combine academic studies with rigorous ranch chores.
A PBS look at the inventor Nikola Tesla.
Photo of Ontario Power Company Generating Station courtesy Niagara Frontier.