First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara Falls Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The electric power plant at Niagara Falls in upstate New York was a milestone in the development of the electric power industry. The first hydroelectric plant in the United States, it not only powered industry but also lit up and electrified urban areas and, later, small towns and rural areas. It eventually inspired the worldwide adoption of alternating current.

Summary of Event

In the 1880’s, Thomas Alva Edison was the undisputed master of electrical inventions. Called the Wizard of Menlo Park after the location of his New Jersey research and development laboratory, his inventions included motors, generators, and a lighting Lighting;electric system designed to run on direct current (DC). He had made major improvements in Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph and in Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. Edison’s most famous innovations were the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb, and he eventually obtained more than one thousand patents. Niagara Falls;hydroelectric plant New York State;Niagara Falls Electricity;generation of Hydroelectricity Edison, Thomas Alva [p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and electrical generation[Electrical generation] Tesla, Nikola Westinghouse, George [kw]First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara Falls (Nov. 16, 1896) [kw]U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara Falls, First (Nov. 16, 1896) [kw]Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara Falls, First U.S. (Nov. 16, 1896) [kw]Plant Opens at Niagara Falls, First U.S. Hydroelectric (Nov. 16, 1896) [kw]Opens at Niagara Falls, First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant (Nov. 16, 1896) [kw]Niagara Falls, First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at (Nov. 16, 1896) [kw]Falls, First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara (Nov. 16, 1896) Niagara Falls;hydroelectric plant New York State;Niagara Falls Electricity;generation of Hydroelectricity Edison, Thomas Alva [p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and electrical generation[Electrical generation] Tesla, Nikola Westinghouse, George [g]United States;Nov. 16, 1896: First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara Falls[6190] [c]Engineering;Nov. 16, 1896: First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara Falls[6190] [c]Science and technology;Nov. 16, 1896: First U.S. Hydroelectric Plant Opens at Niagara Falls[6190] Westinghouse, George

In 1888, a competing electrical system using alternating current (AC) was introduced by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation Westinghouse Electric Corporation . George Westinghouse had purchased the patents for AC motors and generators from a young Serbian immigrant, Nikola Tesla, who had arrived in the United States in 1884. Tesla was a high school student when he had seen his teacher demonstrate a DC electric motor. A large amount of sparking showed where the current entered the central coil of the motor as it made intermittent contact during each rotation. Following that demonstration, Tesla conceived the idea that alternating current, whose direction of flow would change in synchronism with the rotation of the armature, could eliminate the sparking. It remained an idea in his head until several years later when he built a working model and eventually obtained a U.S. patent.

Niagara Falls in 1913, viewed from the Canadian side of the border.

(Library of Congress)

Westinghouse was interested in Tesla’s AC motor because he was already in the business of manufacturing transformers. The transformer is a rather simple device with two coils of wire of different sizes wound around an iron core. It is used to increase or decrease an AC voltage. Westinghouse visualized an electric power distribution system in which transmission lines would carry electricity efficiently at a high voltage that could be stepped down by transformers to a safe level for users. He was enthusiastic about the advantages of AC, whereas Edison was committed to DC. Newspapers during the early 1890’s wrote about the “battle of the currents,” as the two industrialists competed for contracts.

In the 1880’s, the mining industry in Colorado was using steam engines Steam engines;and tunnels[Tunnels] for tunneling and rock crushing. If a mine was located above timberline, however, fuel for the engine had to be laboriously carried up by donkeys. Westinghouse made a proposal to mine owners for a cheaper system that would use electric motors. The electricity would be generated by a hydroelectric plant at a low elevation and brought up to the mine by high-voltage transmission lines. Transformers would convert the AC voltage down to a safe level for electric motors to drive the mining equipment. Westinghouse obtained a contract at Telluride, Colorado, where such an electrical system was installed in 1891. Technical problems had to be solved to erect wooden power poles in rocky ground and then to fasten bare copper cables to them with insulators that had to withstand 5,000 volts. Westinghouse lost money on this enterprise, but he demonstrated that an AC system could operate with reliability.

Edison scored a triumph for DC in 1892 when his company built the Pearl Street power plant in New York City. The plant used a steam engine Steam engines;and electrical generators[Electrical generators] to turn an electric generator from which insulated copper wires, buried underground, carried the current to subscribers in the nearby financial district. It worked well but had one major limitation: The area that could be electrified was restricted to less than one mile from the central station. Beyond that distance, there was too much loss of power from the large currents in the copper wires.

In 1892, Chicago World’s Fair (1893)[Chicago Worlds Fair (1893)] Chicago was preparing to be the host city for the Columbian Exposition, set to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Americas. To bring in visitors, the exposition was to be lit up after dark by thousands of electric lights. Both Edison and Westinghouse bid on the contract to install and maintain the lighting Lighting;electric system. Westinghouse submitted the low bid for a generator and distribution system to light up more than 100,000 bulbs. The exposition and its display of electric lights were a great success, attracting more than fourteen million visitors.

During the late 1880’s, several New York businessmen had expressed interest in a project to harness the tremendous energy of Niagara Falls. The original plan was to divert some of the water above the falls into a canal, along whose banks more than two hundred water wheels would be installed for sawmills and other industrial applications. The diverted water would be returned to the river through a tunnel below the town of Niagara.

Excavation for the intake canal and the return flow tunnel began in 1890, but a major change of plans soon followed. Engineers in Switzerland Switzerland;hydroelectric power had just completed a hydroelectric plant whose output was transmitted at high voltage over several miles of copper wire with little loss of power. After inspecting this plant, the American engineers made the momentous decision to change from water wheels to electricity. The Westinghouse Corporation won the construction contract based on its expertise at the Telluride mine, the Chicago Exposition, and other lighting Lighting;electric installations, and construction began on the Niagara power plant late in 1893.

The plant’s design consisted of ten turbines located 140 feet below the level of the falls, fed by a downward stream of water going through long chutes from the intake canal. Each turbine was connected to an AC generator, producing a total output that would be greater than all the electric power systems then operating in the United States. It was an ambitious plan requiring turbines and generators larger than had ever been built before. The output of the Tesla generators at the falls was connected to transformers that converted the generators to a high voltage with low current for efficient cross-country transmission to the city of Buffalo, twenty-five miles away. In Buffalo, transformers reconverted the power back to a safe low voltage with high current to operate lighting Lighting;electric for streets, homes, businesses, and industrial motors. The Niagara power plant was constructed in stages as the demand for electricity developed.

Tesla’s AC electric motor and generator, which he had envisioned as a student and later patented, was completed by Westinghouse, and the first electricity reached Buffalo at midnight on November 16, 1896. A dedicatory dinner was held in Buffalo on January 12, 1897. Tesla, during his dinner address, described his vision of electricity’s future and its potential benefits.


After the success of the Niagara Falls power plant, the use of electricity increased rapidly. To be profitable, commercial power plants first catered to large industrial users and municipalities rather than to residential customers. For example, because aluminum metal can be extracted from its ore only by electrolysis, and not by smelting, a refinery was built by the Aluminum Company of America at Niagara, marking the start of large-scale electrochemical industry. At the municipal level, cities could now power their trolleys, or streetcars, by overhead electric lines, replacing the outmoded trolleys pulled by horses.

During the early twentieth century, thousands of smaller communities built their own power plants. A typical installation consisted of a coal-fired boiler that produced high-pressure steam to turn the blades of a turbine connected to the shaft of a generator. The plant’s output was distributed within the town limits for businesses, homes, and streetlights. Home appliances such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners became popular to reduce the drudgery of housework. There were no power lines to serve farmers, however, and no interconnections between neighboring towns.

By 1934, about one-third of American homes were connected to electricity, but it was unequally distributed. In Chicago, almost everyone had electricity, but in rural areas less than 10 percent had access. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was formed to bring the benefits of electricity to people in the countryside. Also, individual power plants gradually were connected into larger grids to improve reliability in case of a local power failure. The steam engine Steam engines;and electrical generators[Electrical generators] initiated the first industrial revolution, but electrification brought about a second industrial revolution whose impact on modern society continues.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baldwin, Neil. Edison: Inventing the Century. New York: Hyperion, 1995. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Critically acclaimed comprehensive biography, providing information on Edison’s personal life and career. Baldwin argues that Edison embodied the American potential for technological change; his book describes the cultural context of Edison’s inventions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coltman, John W. “The Transformer.” Scientific American (January, 1988): 86-95. A well-written article on transformers and their importance for AC electric power distribution systems, with helpful diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Thomas P. Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Discusses the role of Westinghouse in developing AC for use in electrical utilities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, Inez, and Wanetta Draper. Lightning in His Hand: The Life Story of Nikola Tesla. Denver, Colo.: Sage Books, 1964. A biography of Tesla’s life and scientific accomplishments, with many fascinating anecdotes and sixteen pages of photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House, 2003. The best book available on the AC versus DC controversy, describing confrontations between Westinghouse and Edison to establish the superiority of their respective systems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moran, Richard. Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Tells the story of Edison’s campaign to discredit alternating current technology by frightening the public with the potential hazards of electrocution.

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