NORTH TONAWANDA – Sitting between Niagara Falls and Buffalo, the City of North Tonawanda happened to be in the right place at the right time –an “accident of location at the dawn of the age of electricity.”
A remnant of that era – the Niagara Falls Power Transfer Station – is at the corner of Robinson Street and Twin City Memorial Highway. The facility, still owned and used by National Grid, will be preserved after its recent designation as a historic local landmark.
Also known as the North Tonawanda Transformer Building, it is considered “hugely historic to the history of the world,” as one of the first remnants of the history of electricity, Niagara Falls and Nikola Tesla, who pioneered the alternating current electrical system of generators, motors and transformers still in use today. The technology also led to the incorporation of North Tonawanda as a city, said North Tonawanda City Engineer Dale W. Marshall, who is a preservationist.
“Electrifying the country was brand new in the 1880s. Tesla partnered with Westinghouse to build the electrical generation of the Falls,” said Marshall, referring to the first hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls. “One of General Electric’s first major projects was to build transmission lines from the Falls to Buffalo. No one else had electricity.”
He said that, 200 years ago, all development occurred along a swath of land a mile in from the waterways. In North Tonawanda, it was Division Street, which used to be called Mile Divide Road. More recently, a portion was widened and renamed Twin City Memorial Highway – and considered a natural spot to get electricity to the greatest amount of people.
“We’re halfway out on the mile line, so we got power, and it’s no coincidence that in 1897 North Tonawanda was incorporated as a city,” Marshakll said. “That’s the year that system went into place in 1896. We got power, and then you see all the growth in North Tonawanda.”
According to the North Tonawanda History Museum, the transfer station is displayed in photos at the Edison-Ford Museum in Fort Myers, Fla., in an exhibit celebrating the history of electricity.
Marshall said that at one time, National Grid had sought to raze the building but was denied a permit. Since then, National Grid has sought to preserve the building, currently in use as a transfer station.
Rae Proefrock, co-chairwoman of the North Tonawanda Historic Preservation Commission, said people drive by the old transfer station and don’t grasp its significance.
“When you see iconic buildings, you know you are home,” Proefrock said of historic designations, who noted Marshall did a lot of research into the history of the building and transfer of power from Niagara Falls to Buffalo.
She also added that the historic designation guarantees the building will not be demolished.
“If you knocked that building down ... people would have wondered what was there. Then they would have said, ‘You knocked that down?’ ” said Marshall. “If you go inside, it says ‘patent pending 1896’ and it says ‘General Electric.’ They weren’t a big company at that time.”
Proefrock said National Grid was involved in getting the building designated a historical landmark and said she was glad the utility returned to using it as a transfer station.
“It’s always better preserved when the owner is there and using it,” said Proefrock, who noted state legislation allows for the designation without owner approval.
She said during a hearing on the historical designation, people reflected on their own connections to the old transfer station.
“One lady said, ‘I am very pleased. My father worked there while I was growing up, and I used to go there after school and sit outside having lunch and then go home.’ It was so nice for someone to actually speak to their personal history with the building,” Proefrock said.
In the grand scheme, she said, historical designations enhance civic awareness of the historic nature of the community and the need to save and preserve such buildings.
“Saving these iconic buildings preserves the character of a community,” Proefrock said. “(The North Tonawanda Transformer Building/Niagara Falls Transfer Station) is in a location where so many people drive past ... but they didn’t know its exciting history.”