When Nikola Tesla was a young man growing up in Croatia, as the legend goes, he saw a picture of Niagara Falls and declared at that moment that he would harness the power of all that cascading water.
In the last years of the 19th century, Tesla did just that. The world's first major hydroelectric power plant opened at the edge the Niagara River in 1895, successfully transmitting power 20 miles away to Buffalo.
In a speech he delivered at the power plant's dedication, Tesla said its construction "signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering."
He was not exaggerating.
While Tesla's achievement at Niagara Falls is recognized by historians and engineers the world over, his local reputation leaves something to be desired. And that's why local Tesla fans Dana Saylor and Martin McGee are on a mission to raise the profile of Tesla and his achievements -- and to draw international attention to the importance of Western New York as the cradle of the electric revolution.
Their first effort is "Tesla Fest: Electric Circus," an arts festival planned for Sept. 22 in the Lakeward Spirits Event Center.
It will feature "a Victorian-inspired night of creativity and innovation," complete with circus performers, a live video project by Buffalo artist Projex, art installations and a Tesla impersonator who is the spitting image of the Serbian-American inventor.
Festivalgoers will also be able to make their hair stand on end with a Van de Graff on loan from the Buffalo Museum of Science and walk into a virtual reality recreation of the original turbine room in the Niagara Falls power plant.
The festival, modeled after art parties like Hallwalls' "Artists and Models" or Squeaky Wheel's "Peepshow," is an attempt to build momentum for a planned Tesla sculpture in downtown Buffalo and a hoped-for museum dedicated to Tesla in Niagara Falls on the side of the abandoned Adams Power Plant Tranformer House in Niagara Falls.
Statues of Tesla already exist on Goat Island in Niagara Falls and along the waterfront promenade in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Saylor, a local artist and researcher who helped to create the popular City of Night festivals at Silo City and the Old First Ward, discovered Tesla's importance to Western New York history during a trip to the Niagara Falls library in 2009.
"I didn't understand the enormity, not only of the power project, but the breadth of its reach in world events," Saylor said. "I started to understand that this man and his ideas, the funds that came from the power project group, the natural wonder of Niagara Falls -- it was this confluence of factors that changed the world."
Aside from amping up Tesla's esteem among Western New Yorkers, Saylor and McGee are hopeful that their efforts might catch the eye of potential funders who could help create a Tesla museum in the last remaining building from the original power plant in the Falls. One target: Tech magnate Elon Musk and his Tesla Corporation, which produces highly sought-after electric cars.
"We see a natural connect between Tesla and what this event is trying to do writ large," Saylor said. "We've had some conversations with the Tesla Corporation, but what we would love to see is them putting down stakes and saying, 'We are going to make a mark in Niagara Falls.'"
"Tesla Fest: Electric Circus," an event to celebrate the legacy of inventor Nikola Tesla, runs from 8 p.m. to midnight on Sept. 22 in Lakeward Spirits Event Center, 65 Vandalia St. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. A VIP event runs from 6 to 8 p.m., with tickets priced at $50 each or $75 per couple. Call 480-7396 or visit teslafest.org.