YOU WALK UP TO AN ORDINARY-LOOKING CLUSTER of old brick waterfront industrial buildings and into a plain gray lobby. You open an unmarked black door in the rear corner of the lobby and pass through it to find yourself in a hallway lined with aging white ceramic tile. The hallway is undistinguished except by an ornate embossed enamel sign from early in the century: DO NOT SPIT ON THE FLOOR. At the end of the hall, you go through another bare door —and enter a space as big and majestic as Grand Central Terminal, where you’re standing on a balcony so big and long that streetlamps sit atop its railings at regular intervals. The balcony opens out, under a soaring clerestory roof, onto a row of five 60-foot-tall triple-expansion steam engines, giants of iron and brass that loom in the dim light. Each engine has two 30ton flywheels, 20 feet across. They no longer spin; three squat yellow electric motors grind away almost as if in spite next to the feet of one engine, doing all the work that the five behemoths once performed.
“They’re Still There” has always devoted itself to machinery still doing the job, but an exception has to be made here, because the engines at the Colonel Francis G. Ward Pumping Station, in Buffalo, New York, are extraordinary survivors even among defunct relics. Except for their stillness, they present a scene almost identical to that at their initial operation in 1914. Back then their magnificence was well recognized. A grand entrance from outside led straight to the balcony. Buffalo residents, arriving to pay their water bills, would come through the big doors and gaze on the power that brought Lake Erie’s water to their homes before moving along to the little offices tucked away beneath the balcony, each of which had a big picture window looking out on the scene.
Building such a monumental setup was not easy. When the site for the station was selected, it was still underwater; a cofferdam had to be built around the area, and debris from a water tunnel leading to it became fill. The engines were fabricated right in town, by the Holly Manufacturing Company. Each engine weighed 1,100 tons, produced 1,200 horsepower, and could move 30 million gallons of water a day by thrusting a plunger down into the water and then sucking upward; each new electric motor has twice the power and, despite being a tiny fraction of the size, makes far more than twice the noise.
The electrics were installed in 1937, but the steam engines continued as backups until the 1970s. During World War II the station was closed to the public to prevent sabotage, and it never reopened to view. That the five engines are still there at all is a fluke. The city of Buffalo couldn’t afford to take them out and had no other use for the cavernous space anyway.
I was introduced to the engines by Lorraine Pierro and Jerry Malloy, the president and vice president of the Industrial Heritage Committee, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving such neglected Buffalo landmarks. Pierro is a local college administrator and Malloy a factory worker. “We started the organization in 1986,” Pierro said, “when the city was soliciting ideas for how to develop the water- front. People were thinking, What can we put here? That really irritated me. It’s all here already. You know, Lowell has its national historic park, but its textile technology all came from England. The grain elevator was invented right here, and it has influenced architects all over the world. We mustn’t lose that.
“We’d like to make this pumping station into a museum,” she added. “Our aim is to clean and polish it all up—not that it needs very much—and run it on compressed air. I’ve talked to people at steam clubs all around the country, and nobody anywhere has a batch of big machines like this.”
Malloy put in, “You even talk to people around Buffalo, and no one knows it’s here. I learned about the pumping station from customers at my father’s old waterfront restaurant, the Harbor Inn, when I was working there. Then when I first saw it, in 1987 or so, my jaw dropped. I started learning about all the area’s inventions, its shipping heritage, the importance of the elevators, and I was swept away. Here I am just working at a bar, and look what’s going on around me.”
The group runs summer boat tours of the waterfront and the grain-elevator district, and it is working with the city not only to open the pumping station to visitors but also to establish a well-marked industrial-heritage trail, a technological version of the Freedom Trail in Boston.
“Everyone in Buffalo should know about its unique past,” Pierro told me. Her voice echoed in the immensity of space around the towering Holly engines. “Everyone should be able to see this amazing sight.”