William J. Blackley and the First Electric Railroad in Western New York
The Buffalo Morning Express proudly proclaimed in its Friday August 12, 1898 edition, “Within a few days electric cars will commence making regular trips between Buffalo and Lockport. The operation of this road will be an event of more than usual interest because of the fact that in its construction the track of the Erie branch has been tamed into an electric line, (being what is believed to the first such change in the state.) Thus it becomes the pioneer of the electric roads to supplant steam in the operation of a line of railway in an important and well-populated section of country. Another notable feature of the road will be that it will be operated by electric power generated by the immense 5,000-horse power dynamos of the Niagara Falls Power Company at Niagara Falls.”
The idea of an electric railroad in Western New York began in 1891, two years before George Westinghouse would be awarded the contract to build the first generators at Niagara Falls. The world was quickly becoming electrified, and thanks to the AC generators from Nikola Tesla, the distance obstacle was removed and current could travel long distances. William J. Blackley--who the Express called the Lockport “hustler”--led a group of Western New York capitalists to finance the venture, primarily to tap into the large population base in Buffalo and deliver customers to vacation at the resort he built and ran at Olcott Beach on Lake Ontario, the Olcott Beach Hotel. Buffalo near the turn of the century was a prime source for wealthy vacationers, having the most millionaires per capita of any city in the country.
Blackley and his backers would face considerable resistance in the beginning, with cities and towns along the way placing roadblocks and conditions on the proposed rail service. However once the Niagara Falls power project was completed and the city of Buffalo received the first juice in 1896 other Western New York towns became envious of the Queen City. The electric railroad would not only deliver people but would bring Niagara Falls power to the cities along the line. To guarantee this cheap hydroelectric power, Blackley and his group purchased one of the generators at the falls. The new electric railroad promised not only smoke-free quiet trains, they traveled at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour—which was blazingly fast in those times. Older DC current railroads would use a third rail to deliver the power while this new AC line received power from overhead lines.
It would be nearly half a century before electric locomotives would replace the venerable steam iron horses of the 1800’s and 1900’s. And Buffalo can lay claim to having New York’s first operating electric line to carry passengers and freight to surrounding cities. And for great great grandfather William J. Blackley, this electric railway delivered customers to his elegant Olcott Beach resort from the rich city of Buffalo around the turn of the century.
One of the many buildings constructed by William J. Blackley