18 November 2019 | Reading 11 mins.

Turning off the Falls

Jenny Christensson
Independent contemporary art curator

Jenny Christensson, Independent contemporary art curator

The drive to tame the wild waters of Niagara Falls has had devastating unintended consequences on the environment and society – all in the name of progress and the quest for more green dollars. This is the story of innovation, energy, greed, waste, power, nature and our role as humans in trying to control absolutely everything, as told by collaborators Alan Gignoux and Jenny Christensson as part of their project Human Accumulations.

At midnight on 16 November 1896, Edgar Boardman Jewett, Mayor of Buffalo, pulled a power switch and in doing so, made history. Electricity produced by turbines at Niagara Falls at the Westinghouse power generation plant was successfully transmitted some 20 miles downriver using Nikola Tesla’s then ground-breaking alternating current technology. The modern era of electricity had begun.

Jewett and his entourage, nervous that the transmission would fail, scheduled that epochal moment for the middle of the night and left it unadvertised to avoid a potential public relations disaster. They need not have worried. As Tesla himself had confidently proclaimed, the principles behind his discovery were “as firmly established as the air itself.”

To be fair, the mayor had some reason to be worried. The development of hydro-electric power at Niagara Falls was peppered with ambitious, but ultimately failed, projects.

Power generation at Niagara Falls began in 1758 when the French colonists introduced saw mills using Niagara water above the crest. Approximately one hundred years later advances in technology encouraged entrepreneurs to seek a means by which the immense power of the Falls could be used to generate electrical power. By 1885, the strip of land running alongside the river just above the American Falls, as well as Goat Island, had been appropriated by the State of New York and declared a preservation area, forcing engineers to find a means by which the power of the Falls could be harnessed without access to the water at the riverbank. In 1886, Thomas Evershed, the divisional engineer of the New York State canal system, devised a solution that involved boring a tunnel to carry water from a point above the Falls to a discharge point far below.

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