The many controversies that surrounded Robert Moses during his long career as New York’s “Master Builder” were sharpened by his long battle with Jane Jacobs and by Robert Caro’s 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974).
But his least contentious achievements are also the most unknown: the construction of the New York Power Authority’s hydroelectric plants along the St. Lawrence and Niagara Rivers.
By the time Governor Dewey appointed him to the Power Authority in 1954, Moses had more experience in large-scale construction projects than anyone alive. That fact alone gave him the most indispensable talent for construction of the St. Lawrence project: his proven ability to sell the bonds that would finance the huge facility. It is difficult to imagine any builder other than Moses who could have successfully attracted $335 million in long-term financing solely through the sale of bonds, without the use of any taxpayer dollars or state credit.
The magnitude of the entire project on the St. Lawrence is difficult to grasp. In all, 22,000 workers from the United States and Canada worked on the combined power dam and seaway project, more than half of whom were brought in from other regions. “This is better than the circus,” said one construction worker. Digging for the seaway produced vast quantities of excavated material ― more than 27 million cubic yards ― that had to be relocated on the US shore.
Although overall the safety record for the project was good, relative to its scale, nonetheless 42 deaths on the site were reported and, historian Daniel Macfarlane reports in Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway (2014), “scores of people were seriously injured, and accidents such as cables mangling or severing legs led some workers to call it ‘Cripple Creek.’” The men kept working through adverse weather, even in January 1957 when the temperature sank to -57°F. Shortages of specific supplies caused some delays, as did several strikes. Even six months before completion, it was uncertain whether the demanding schedule would be met.
On June 27, 1959, Vice President Richard M. Nixon joined Queen Elizabeth II in formally dedicating the power project as a symbol of international cooperation. The Queen unveiled a monument at the power dam, attesting to “the common purpose of two nations whose frontiers are the frontiers of friendship, whose ways are the ways of freedom, and whose works are the works of peace.” Full power ― 1,600 megawatts equally divided between New York and Ontario ― was delivered on July 20, 1959, fully two years ahead of the original schedule, exactly as Moses had avowed.
Midway through the St. Lawrence construction, the future of New York’s power generation was transformed by a catastrophic event three hundred miles to the west. As later reported by the Niagara Gazette, “When the Schoellkopf Power Station collapsed into the Niagara Gorge on June 7, 1956, it wiped out in seconds nearly 25 percent of the city’s tax base,” delivering “a devastating blow to the area economy and an ironic end to the debate over public versus private power development,” given that tens of thousands of jobs in the region were eliminated in an instant. More than 60 percent of the station was reduced to “twisted girders, rock and rubble in the lower Niagara River. Three 70,000-horsepower and three 32,500-horsepower generators went into the river.”
Less than three months later Moses launched the construction of a much larger replacement plant for the Power Authority, which would ultimately cost $737 million, more than double the cost of the St. Lawrence project. He proclaimed that, with crews working around the clock, power would flow from Niagara in less than three years, which gives some idea of the urgent need for power. The Power Authority employed an army of 11,700 workers, temporarily swelling the population of Niagara Falls to a record 102,000 in the 1960 national census.
The sheer scale of the project often left the workers dumbstruck. For example, the two trenches for the conduits, each five miles long, that diverted the river to the forebay, “were over one hundred feet deep and sixty feet wide,” wrote one worker later, “and blasted from solid rock for the entire length.” After the trenches were blasted, the cement lining was poured their full, five-mile length in forty-foot sections along the leveled walls and floor, even as huge rocks and small boulders periodically fell from high above, to warning shouts of “Headache!” Then cement finishers, like Joe Sardina, went to work “down in the hole,” after which the entire conduit was covered. “Once the section was finished,” Joe said, “it was awesome to stand at the bottom and look up at the arched ceiling over sixty feet above.” The conduit “seemed to extend to infinity,” he added, “as if it were an enormous cathedral chamber of technological achievement. Visualizing this titanic chamber flooded with cascading Niagara River water defied comprehension.”
As a world renowned tourist site, Niagara Falls received very serious aesthetic consideration. An average of more than 200,000 cubic-feet of water per second (or 1.5 million gallons a second) flows from Lake Erie into the Niagara River, where 50,000 to 75,000 cu. ft./sec would be diverted 2.5 miles above the Falls into tunnels leading to the power plant. That is 600,000 gallons of water per second rushing through the twin conduits, 46 feet wide, running four miles to the project’s forebay, where it would enter the thirteen turbines through 460-foot-long penstocks, 28.5 feet in diameter, and then discharge into the Niagara River. The turbines were rated at 200,000 horsepower each, with a total output of 1,800 megawatts (since then raised to 2,675 MW).
To create the reservoir for the adjacent Lewiston pumped-storage reservoir, residents who had lived on the same land for many hundreds of years would have to be displaced: this time it was 175 members of the Tuscarora tribe and their thirty-seven homes. Moses planned to flood 1,383 acres ― one fifth of their land ― in Lewiston. According to Ginger Strand’s history, Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies (2008), Moses’s initial offer to the tribe was just $1,000 per acre, while at the same time he was offering adjacent Niagara University $50,000 per acre. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court – which ruled in favor of the power plant.
Within three years, 12 million cubic yards of rock were excavated. The massive main structure was 1,840 feet long, 580 feet wide and 384 feet high. Eight temporary bridges were built to accommodate the rerouted traffic on both roads and railways. A church was moved and seventy-four houses were relocated at the rate of two a day to a new residential development three miles away.
The Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant of the New York Power Authority was opened on January 28, 1961, and the federal government that for decades had obstructed the project more often than supporting it, became its proudest godfather. An event at Niagara University on Feb. 10, 1961, gathered some 4,500 guests for formal celebration of first power. Three former presidents ― Eisenhower, Truman, and Hoover ― recorded messages that were broadcast during the event. The voice of President Kennedy, still in his first month in office, heralded the project as “an outstanding engineering achievement” and an “example to the world of North American efficiency and determination.” President Eisenhower was more eloquent. “The achievement,” he said, “reflects enlightened international, national and state leadership and cooperation. The mighty power of the Niagara has been harnessed for the public good, and the beauty of historic Niagara Falls has been preserved for all time.” Then Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, with Robert Moses at his side, symbolically flipped a switch and launched the first power from Niagara’s monumental new facility.
Photos from above: Robert Moses portrait; St Lawrence River; and Niagara Power Dam Construction courtesy Natural Power Gallery.