NIAGARA FALLS – The nine-foot bronze statue of Nikola Tesla has sat on Goat Island in Niagara Falls State Park for nearly four decades, a weather-worn monument to a man largely forgotten despite helping to create the electrified world that Niagara Falls symbolizes.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists walk past the statue each year – many of them posing for photos while sitting in its lap – not knowing about the enormous contributions of the creator of the alternating current system that lights our homes.
But now the statue, a gift from the former Yugoslavia, for the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, has the potential to light up a controversy between the city and the state.
Niagara Falls officials want to wrest the statue away from the park.
Locals believe the statue should be moved into the city near the site of the world’s first large-scale alternating current power plant, or at least closer to downtown tourism routes.
Some insist the statue belongs on Goat Island “just as much as the Statue of Liberty would belong in the Florida Everglades.” That’s what local author and historian Paul Gromosiak told city lawmakers last month.
The Niagara Falls City Council last week voted unanimously to support obtaining the statue from the state park.
While there’s no consensus on a new location for the statue, the issue has the potential to spark a public fight between city and state officials.
Area parks officials have yet to speak publicly about the issue. A Buffalo News request to interview Mark W. Thomas, the regional parks director, was declined. And calls to the agency’s press office in Albany were not returned.
But state parks officials last year announced $15 million in further renovation plans in Niagara Falls State Park, including moving the Tesla statue from its current spot on Goat Island near the main parking lot closer to the brink at a point known as Stedman’s Bluff. Plans call for a berm to be built at Stedman’s Bluff, with the statue facing away from the berm. That area provides views of both the Bridal Veil and American falls.
“What we want to create is an isolated area here at Stedman’s Bluff, so when you’re out there, you’ve got plantings behind you; you can really enjoy this...,” Thomas said in a December interview, before renewed calls emerged for moving the statue out of the park.
But Gromosiak, long a proponent of moving the statue, and other locals say the statue belongs inside the city, especially now as Niagara Falls looks to boost its tourist economy by offering visitors more things to see and do.
Gromosiak suggests moving the statue to a site on Buffalo Avenue, near the last remaining building of the alternating current power plant that was the first in the world to send electricity over a long distance.
Jim Hufnagel, of Wilson, also would like to see the statue moved out of the park. He thinks the center of a traffic circle downtown on Rainbow Boulevard would be a good spot.
Hufnagel even started a Facebook group called “Give Tesla’s Statue to the City of Niagara Falls.”
“The statue of Tesla could serve as an anchor, a centerpiece of downtown acting as beacon for the new and burgeoning local heritage tourism industry,” Hufnagel told the Council in mid-March.
Tesla was born in what is now Croatia to Serbian parents, part of the old Yugoslavia, and he later came to the U.S.
The Canadians have also honored Tesla for his achievements, erecting a statue in Queen Victoria Park in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 2006.
Gromosiak, the historian, wants the statue to be given a place of prominence at a former transformer house on Buffalo Avenue, the last standing building of the former Edward Dean Adams Power Plant, which generated the hydroelectricity that lighted the City of Buffalo in 1896 in the first event of its kind on the planet.
The former transformer house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. It is owned by Peter Fontanarosa of Lewiston and was deemed to be in “threatened” condition in 2004 by the National Park Service.
Gromosiak said the city should move the statue to the Buffalo Avenue site, where a museum showcasing the region’s history in hydroelectricity can be built.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster agrees. “Telling the Tesla story in an exciting way,” the mayor said, “could be something that’d be very attractive to visitors coming here.”