Detour Ahead - Lake Erie Ride Part 4
Robert Moses was a prick: He threw thousands of mostly poor people out of their homes, either paying below market prices for their property or seizing it outright; he worked with crooked politicians and gangsters; he stole reservation land from Native Americans and threw them off their property; he bulldozed historic buildings; and his manipulation of local governments was tantamount to fraud.
Moses was never elected to anything, yet he succeeded in expanding the governmental power of eminent domain to a level never before achieved in order to complete his grand designs. Moses was quoted as saying, “Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize,” as well as, “I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.”
Lest I give the impression he was hated only by the poor, he was instrumental in the destruction of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, an historic landmark that many of the City’s well-heeled tea and martini cultural set tried to save. But in the end Moses’s projects made loads of money for rich opponents, and there’s nothing like cognitive dissonance to shut the rich up.
Robert Moses, who died in 1981 at the age of 92, was known as “The Master Builder,” and everybody who lives in the Great Lakes Region has in some way been touched by what he built. Moses, working through government authorities, was responsible for the construction of almost all the notable freeways, parkways, and bridges in New York City, as well as the United Nations complex. But his biggest projects were the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the Niagara Power Project, both of which have a profound effect on Great Lakes Region economies and lives. Moses was once asked how he got the hundreds of villages, towns, and cities along the 744 mile long St Lawrence River to agree to the Seaway and he said he attended all the meetings and took the minutes because it was a boring job that nobody wanted — Moses would later rewrite and publish the minutes to support what he wanted to achieve.
On July 7, 1956 I was with my Father in the backyard of our Niagara Falls home; we were planting tomatoes in a soft spring sun. My mother came out of the house and said that the power was off. Dad first checked the breaker box, then called neighbors and discovered everybody’s power was gone. I was thirteen then, and remember thinking it strange since the only time we lost power was during a storm. No power, no radio, no TV, no nothing, so we waited until the Niagara Falls Gazette was delivered to find out the cause of this power outage. Since I was our neighborhood Gazette delivery boy, I was the first to know.
The Niagara Falls area, in both the US and Canada, has always been a generator of massive amounts of hydroelectric power (currently, it provides a quarter of all electricity used by New York State and the Province of Ontario). On the US side of the US/Canadian border, clinging to the side of the lower Niagara River gorge less than a mile from the Falls, the Schoellkoph Power Plant provided our area with cheap, abundant, non-polluting, power, until on that July 7 it slid into the Niagara River. The Gazette said the disaster was completely unexpected. Electric cables had already been strung between the US and Canada, and within hours we were getting Canadian electricity. The fact of the matter was that for years powerful interests wanted to build a new US power plant, but the cost and politics of such a massive undertaking kept the project at bay. The surprise disaster made way for The Master Builder.
Robert Moses formed the Niagara Power Authority and used it to destroy half our neighborhood of lower class working families, condemn and seize industrial and agricultural land as well as over a thousand acres of Tuscarora Indian Reservation land (the Tuscaroras had to take the Power Authority all the way to the US Supreme Court in order to get a fair price for their land). People in our neighborhood were given the choice of having their homes moved to a new location about ten miles away, or watching their houses condemned and torn down. Our home was near the construction, but we didn’t have to move.
Niagara Power project construction began in 1957 and would be completed in 1961 at a cost of almost one billion dollars (eight billion 2014 dollars). Two massive tunnels were dug through our neighborhood, each sixty feet deep and forty feet wide, to carry 32,500 cubic feet of water per second from the upper Niagara River to a 22 billion gallon reservoir built on the Tuscarora land. The water then would go through two gigantic generating stations before being returned to the lower Niagara River. By international treaty, Canada is allowed to take 56,500 cubic feet of water per second from the upper river, and the US is allowed 32, 500. An average total of 104,240 cubic feet of water per second goes through the upper river, so when all the tunnel gates are open only 15,240 cubic feet of water per second (14.6%) actually goes over the falls. The diversion is done at night so tourists don’t see a dry falls.
Moses brought 10,000 workers into Niagara Falls and made it a frontier gold rush boom town. For three years there wasn’t a hotel, motel, Bed and Breakfast, or boarding house room to be found (tourists could still get rooms at grossly inflated prices on the Canadian side); so many out of wedlock babies were born to Niagara women that it became common to refer to a child as a Power Authority baby (Father Baker’s Orphanage near Buffalo, NY, was filled to capacity). The construction crews worked 24/7 during the day and under thousands of spotlights at night, blasting and moving 12 million cubic yards of rock. The construction lights made our neighborhood the land of the midnight sun, and the dynamite explosions shook our homes.
Life is full of unsolvable problems and we usually face them with resignation or small rebellions. Traveling from one place to another often was chaotic: streets, bridges, and railways disappeared and reappeared to accommodate the construction. Detours with workers in hard hats, using flags and flashlights to guide traffic, would spring into being one moment and evaporate the next. You never knew how long it would take you to make even the most routine trip.
As the construction progressed we kids got older and got our driver’s licenses. Certainly out of a desire for excitement, but with a nod toward English Luddites, four of us got a hold of a bunch of hard hats, safety vests, and long-nosed flashlights, which were ubiquitous in the area and could be found lost or abandoned in most bars, brothels, restaurants, and even movie theaters. We selected a location near the main power plant construction site (now named the Robert Moses Power Plant, naturally) and nearby Niagara University, where busy Hyde Park Boulevard meets Lewiston Road and The Robert Moses Parkway (sigh) — where the only entrance/exit to the large Niagara University main parking lot is located. We arrived in two cars to facilitate a multi-directional getaway and, donning hard hats and vests, and equipped with the flashlights, set up at night in the middle of the intersection.
Our goal was to divert 100 vehicles into the parking lot. Everything went as planned as personal cars, dump trucks, and semi-tractor trailers took our direction and entered the parking lot. The power plant construction behind us advanced full-tilt under potent arc lights that bathed us in their surreal creepy yellow glow, but we could still see the white headlights of the diverted vehicles swinging wildly back and forth trying to find an exit. The staggering sense of power we felt made us hysterical and at the same time was addictive and paralyzing: we didn’t want the want the delirium to end. We exaggerated the slow-motion ballet movement of our arms and legs like swimmers in an aqua show. We passed our 100 vehicle goal and nobody made a move to leave. Then a Niagara Falls Police Department cruiser came toward me down Hyde Park Boulevard.
I turned in panic to Vinnie, the guy designated to keep watch in all directions while we other three directed traffic, and he said, “Send the stugots in.” The cop lowered his window and asked me if we needed any help. I said no sir but thanks anyway, and he followed my direction into the lot. As soon as the cop was out of sight we broke for our cars and sped off in different directions.
A few miles down Lewiston Road, back toward the falls, is the whirlpool where the lower Niagara River makes a sharp dogleg right turn and creates a wide and nasty pocket of swift clockwise rotating water. A path of rough-hewn stone step starts at the top of the gorge and descend in switchbacks to the whirlpool where my Dad and I used to go to spear sturgeon. Halfway along the path is a large cave whose dripping walls are covered with the remnants of adolescent symbols and obscenities. If you go far enough into the damp cave, you might still find a pile of hard hats and safety vests. We kept the flashlights.