One hundred twenty years ago today in the brand-new Ellicott Square Building, 400 of Buffalo’s elite gathered to fete an extraordinary event – the transmission of electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo.
“Electric Buffalo’s” Banquet – Predictions of its Great Future” read the front-page headline in the Buffalo Courier about the gala celebration.
Two months earlier, Nikola Tesla had figured out how to use alternating current to transmit hydroelectric power from the cataracts of Niagara Falls to the City of Buffalo.
Now, Buffalo’s upper class, investors from New York City and engineers from around the world had come to Buffalo to celebrate the incredible feat. The Courier article called the power transmission “the most important event in Buffalo’s history – an event without parallel in the history of the world. The era of the Greater Buffalo or Electric Buffalo has been entered upon.”
It was a momentous occasion for Buffalo and the world – one that Dana Saylor, the creative force behind the popular City of Night events at Silo City of previous summers – wants modern Buffalonians to know about and appreciate.
“It was the ceremonial turning point for Buffalo,” said Saylor, a self-described “nerdy researcher” who is organizing a festival this September in celebration of Nikola Tesla, the genius inventor behind the ground-breaking technology that would be the become the basis of today’s power transmission systems.
She and Martin McGee, a documentary filmmaker, are planning to travel throughout the Buffalo-Niagara region today to mark Tesla’s local legacy.
They will chronicle their stops using Facebook Live. The highlight will be a live “interview” with an actor portraying Tesla at 3:30 p.m.
“We’re going to talk about the significance of the event,” Saylor said. “It’s sort of a celebratory day.”
The gala 120 years ago was a moment of tremendous pride for Buffalo.
The Ellicott Square Building had just opened, Saylor said, and the Ellicott Club, which no longer exists, was at the top of the elegant building.
“It was very hip. You were in the ‘it crowd’ if you got to go to this gala. It would have been exclusive, opulent, celebratory,” she said.
The crowd was made up of Buffalo’s upper class as well as wealthy investors from New York City and they were treated to a first-class dinner party. Guests wore top hats, cigars were smoked and a 10-course meal included oysters, deviled lobster and a dessert called “electric sorbet.”
The guests were all well-aware of the historical implications of the technology feat that had just taken place.
Dressed in a tuxedo, Tesla gave a toast: “... I wish to congratulate you Buffalonians, I will say friends, on the wonderful expectations and possibilities open to you. At some time not distant your city will be on the border of the great cataract, which is one of the wonders of the Nation.”
The article noted his words were met with great applause, at which point he “fell back relieved and made a rush for the door to catch his train.”
Melissa Brown, executive director of the Buffalo History Museum, said the successful transmission of power laid the groundwork for today’s power grid.
“There had been nothing even remotely like that,” she said.
And the Buffalo-Niagara region played a critical role in the story. “It was the literal power center,” she said.
She compared Tesla’s technological breakthrough to the advent of the internet. She recalled how people didn’t know what to make of the “world wide web” at first. “How will it effect us? Will it even take hold.”
“I remember driving and seeing all the power lines and I thought: ‘My God. This infrastructure, this whole thing, is all the result of that development.’”
Tesla’s name isn’t as ubiquitous as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, she said, although he’s gotten some recent recognition, particularly after Elon Musk named his line of fully-electric cars after the inventor.
People should know Tesla’s name, Brown said, and events like today’s commemoration and the upcoming festival in the fall are ways to make sure he isn’t forgotten.
“I think we have a long way to go to repay a debt to Nikola Tesla that still hasn’t been completely satisfied,” she said. “He needs to be remembered. What he did was really astounding. Every single one of our lives has been affected by him – the whole system of electricity.”
The details of the festival, set to take place Sept. 20 to 23, are still coming together. But tentative plans so far include regional tours of Tesla sites, a recreation of the Jan. 12 “Power Banquet” and nighttime party at LaSalle Park and at the Col. Ward Pumping Station.
“I think of the festival as ‘City of Night’ plus science,” Brown said.