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Another Voice: WNY needs to showcase its history of electricity

By Philip Wilcox

A recent visit to Dearborn, Mich., for a wedding at the Henry Ford Museum was breathtaking beyond expectation. Sitting on 12 acres with loads of history and memorabilia, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation began as  Ford’s personal collection of historic objects, which he began collecting as far back as 1906.

The visit helped shape some thoughts – because we don’t have much else – on the need for at least one worthy local expression center in Western New York regarding our history of electricity development.

The first commercially delivered electricity in the world was hydropower from Niagara Falls to light the streetlights of Buffalo, and the Pan-Am Exposition in 1901 was as much a marketing event by local business leaders to draw economic investment to our local development of electricity.
The local works of Nicola Tesla, George Westinghouse and Edward Dean Adams were the talk of the world, and the spread of the technology that started here changed the way we live forever in an incredibly positive way.

The combination of the Erie Canal and the development of electricity made Buffalo a prominent and wealthy city – the City of Light.

That wealth drew the likes of H.H. Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, Frank Lloyd Wright and many others, and their works grace our region to this day. We are starting to showcase our local canal history, but what about something worthy to express our rich local history of electric development?
I was proud to be a part of the effort to relicense the Niagara Power Project, which concluded with settlement funding through the year 2056 – almost 10 times the settlements awarded in the relicensing of the St. Lawrence project.

The funds have been invested in the burgeoning Canal District in Buffalo, paying homage to that magnificent piece of our local history.

One lonely statue of Nicola Tesla sits in Niagara Reservation State Park, and what has been described as one of the most prominent structures in electric development history – part of the Edward Dean Adams hydropower complex – sits hideously deteriorated and neglected on Buffalo Avenue in Niagara Falls.

The Ford family shaped history in Dearborn and how it is expressed, and the museum set a record in 2016, drawing 1.78 million visitors. We must figure out how to get that done here regarding our electric history.

While there were several players in that history, including Tesla, Westinghouse, Adams, Schoellkopf and others – this history is owned by all of us in Buffalo Niagara, and not expressing it appropriately is allowing what would be a major draw to our region to go unrealized.

Through a stand-alone expression center, or incorporation by developers of hotels, a convention center or other Niagara River corridor projects, part of the charm and draw to Buffalo is our magnificent history and architecture, and part of our future should be extolling the prominent historic virtues of what made our region great to begin with, rather than keeping it such a secret.

Philip Wilcox is president of the Niagara Greenspace Consortium.

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