The enormous energy of Niagara Falls has long been recognized as a potential source of power.
Innovative entrepreneurs and industrialists began to harness the water power of the Niagara River in the mid-1800s, and water-powered factories and mills were constructed along the River, Gorge, and canals. In the 1880’s, the emerging technology of hydroelectric generation heralded a transformation in American life. Niagara Falls was the scene of an intense and high-stakes competition in hydroelectric technology involving such names as Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and Kelvin. Entrepreneurs constructed the first large-scale hydroelectric power plants with the capability of generating large scales of electricity. Around 1895, Niagara Falls became the foremost source of hydroelectric power in North America, stimulating the development of innovative heavy industries in Niagara Falls and Buffalo. For the first time, electricity was produced in amounts large enough to power cities. Emerging electrothermic and electrochemical industries requiring amounts of power not before possible were drawn to Niagara Falls, which soon became an industrial center and the cutting edge location for industries that transformed twentieth century life. In the generation of electrical power and the resultant industrial development, Niagara Falls presents a major story of technology and its consequences. The story is rich with personalities, innovation, and high-stakes risk. It includes the first development and installation of large electrical generators, the first long distance transmission of electrical power, and the attraction of cutting edge industries that have shaped human experience in the 20th century.
Power and Industry is the story of the City of Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls was the place where the large-scale generation of electricity was first undertaken with tremendous implications for changes in the American way of life.
The ability to generate and transmit electricity on a large scale was made possible at Niagara Falls through invention, competition, and entrepreneurial brinkmanship undertaken on a world-wide scale. The personalities and events surrounding this landmark technological breakthrough were colorful and audacious. Its implications for human society are still being felt today, and its promising potential as a source to help meet future energy needs is increasingly understood and appreciated.
The availability of large amounts of inexpensive hydroelectric power attracted new industries to Niagara Falls in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. New industrial processes were developed using temperature levels never before possible, resulting in a technological revolution. The electrochemical industry was created out of nothing and had far reaching effects on the production of primary materials and the manufacturing of goods that used those materials.
Utopian visions at the dawn of an era of electricity predicted a gleaming future of plenty. The dream of unlimited power available at Niagara Falls created an exuberant optimism that seemed to be borne out in the cutting-edge technologies, new products, and rapid growth and prosperity of the city. Niagara Falls was becoming an industrial metropolis that spawned utopian visions of the future. Niagara Falls was to be the model city of the twentieth century.
The city’s rapid growth and expanding workforce attracted many new residents to Niagara Falls representing all levels of society and a diverse range of ethnic and racial backgrounds. They brought with them their own cultural traditions and established local ethnic communities that flourished and that remain vibrant today.
By the mid-twentieth century, the electrical revolution nationwide had caught up with Niagara Falls. Through a bi-national agreement, a new vision for regional hydroelectric power generation was established and new power plants were constructed. In the City of Niagara Falls, large scale changes to the city’s urban fabric were undertaken by Robert Moses amid great controversy. These changes did not halt the city’s industrial decline, as industries began moving to other locations. Niagara Falls’ position was no longer unique.
Niagara’s industrial prosperity had unintended consequences. New technological and industrial processes led to the production of unusable byproducts and industrial waste on a massive scale. Workers were exposed to extreme health hazards through lack of knowledge and recognition of the need to take necessary precautions. Waste products were disposed of in an expedient manner dangerous to public health. The publicity created by local activists at Love Canal contributed to the birth of the environmental movement and a national response to address problems related to industrial hazards.
Thanks to Nikola Tesla, Niagara Falls was the first city in the world to have commercial alternating current generation of electricity which allowed Buffalo to be the first city in the world to receive electric power from a long distance and the first city to have electric street lights. Tesla, through his invention of the induction motor and related polyphase system was the first person to develop a system for the generation, transmission and utilization of electric power which became the foundation for the whole modern electric power industry.
The Niagara River, as is the entire Great Lakes Basin of which the river is an integral part, is a legacy of the last Ice Age. 18,000 years ago southern Ontario was covered by ice sheets 2-3 kilometers thick.