Amazing! Unbelievable! Extraordinary!
These words could easily be used in describing two mega projects once proposed for Niagara. Conceived by innovative, idealistic visionaries, had either one of the projects achieved reality, the appearance and the future of Niagara Falls would have been profoundly affected.
During the summer of 1887, the City of Buffalo offered $100,000 to anyone who could come up with a practical method of utilizing the Niagara River’s water power.
Leonard Henkle, an entrepreneur and inventor from Rochester, New York, leaped at the opportunity. He set his mind to the challenge, carefully developing an elaborate plan, the details of which were made public in 1895.
His idea was to construct a large, lavish building that would stretch across the entire width of the Niagara River close to the crest of the falls. Named the Great Dynamic Palace and International Hall, it would be a half mile in length and more than 50 storeys high. Most of the building was to be used for commercial and manufacturing interests. However, the top floor – the International Hall – was to be a special place. Accommodating some
10,000 people, it would be something like a United Nations where, as Henkle explained:
“Nations of the world would be welcomed to assemble…to be taught to cease the conflicts of war and love one another. The social distinctions between poverty and wealth would then be destroyed.”
Responding to Buffalo’s challenge, Henkle planned to use all of the water owing beneath his grandiose building for generating electricity, con dent there would be enough power produced to supply the needs of every community in the United States and Canada. The powerhouse would be in the lowest part of the building and would have “122 pairs of twin turbine wheels.”
Revenue from the sale of electricity would be used to nance two other projects. Henkle first planned to build a large fleet of steamships which would sail out of the St. Lawrence River “to every major port in the world.”
The second project would involve the construction of two transcontinental railways: one extending from British Columbia to the St. Lawrence River and the second from California to Maine. The two lines would cross at Niagara Falls, using a tunnel through the Great Dynamic Palace and International Hall.
While Leonard Henkle’s ideas undoubtedly raised a few eyebrows, especially here in Niagara Falls, his plan paled in comparison to a much different, even more elaborate vision for Niagara’s future revealed a year earlier by another late 19th century “thinker.” However, this other individual is little remembered today for his Niagara connection but rather for his invention – an invention he first saw in an entirely separate vision.
On a summer morning during 1895, a 40-year-old travelling salesman with a well-lathered face picked up his straight razor, looked into a mirror and began to shave. He quickly stopped, however, when he realized the razor was too dull to do a proper job. It was even beyond stropping.
The frustrated shaver was King Camp Gillette, a man who had always dreamed of inventing something that would be needed by a large percentage of the population and would have to be purchased again and again.
As he stared at his straight razor that fateful morning, a picture of what we know today as the safety razor came into his mind. He later wrote, “I saw it all in a moment and stood there in a trance of joy.” This vision depicted a thin, uniform steel strip with opposite edges sharpened and held in place with a clamp and handle.
A great deal of work and experimenting followed. It was 1903 before he was able to market his new product, selling 51 razors and 168 blades that year. By 1917 he was selling a million razors and 120 million blades annually. Beards were rapidly disappearing.
King Camp Gillette was more than an inventor and salesman, however. He was also a utopian socialist who believed that the competitive system brought about greed and waste. He concluded that society was ready for a great industrial change that would bring about economic order and efficiency. This would then create ideal social conditions and so a perfect world would be achieved.
“Under a flawless economic system of production and distribution,” Gillette explained, “there can be only one city in North America and possibly in the world.”
Because of its unlimited natural source of power, he felt that the site of this city, which he named Metropolis, should straddle the Niagara River.
Gillette’s ideas were detailed in a book he wrote titled “The Human Drift,” published in 1894, the year before his safety razor vision. In the book he explained that Metropolis would be a rectangular city 45 miles by 135 miles. It would stretch from just beyond Rochester, New York in the east to Hamilton, Ontario in the west. The residential section of Metropolis would extend from Rochester, New York to a point about 10 miles east of the Niagara River. Here he envisioned some 60 million people, virtually the entire population of the United States at that time, would live in thousands of 25-storey apartment buildings. All other cities would be abandoned.
The industrial district of Metropolis would be centered around Niagara Falls. A logical and orderly system of production and distribution would be established. This would be achieved by each manufacturing industry having only one plant. Therefore, there would be only one steel mill, one shoe factory, one paper mill and so on for the whole continent. All the consumers and workers would be living nearby. With no competition and practically no transportation, distribution and marketing costs, Gillette reasoned there would be a great deal of excess wealth. This money would be used to improve social conditions, creating equality in society. This achievement, in turn, would mean that problems like crime would be eliminated.
None of these plans ever materialized, of course. In fact the very competitive system he criticized helped him earn a fortune with his safety razors and blades. Gillette could sell them – but not his vision for Niagara.
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