The following was submitted by the author to B.R.A.G. (Bolivar-Richburg-Allentown-Genesee Historical & Preservation Society) for republication on this website. It was originally published in the Times Herald, Olean NY, June 2005.
Power for the Last Century
Roller Rink Had Roots in Electric Generation
By Ken Clark
Special to the Times Herald
The recent collision of a tractor-trailer into the Coliseum in Ceres was a reminder of just how much things have changed in little more than 100 years. Today, the Interstate highway is ubiquitous and high-power tractor-trailers are everywhere. Electric power is available at the touch of a switch and an afternoon of entertainment is a simple automobile ride away.
Yet at the turn of the last century, paved streets ended at the city limits and the Model-T was still only an idea in Henry Ford's mind. Electricity was limited to the larger cities and an afternoon of entertainment away from the city meant one thing: a ride on the electric trolley car.
The Olean Street Railway Company started in 1880 as a horse-draw line. It converted to electric cars in 1893, thus starting the era of the trolley in Olean. The company merged with a trolley company in Bradford as well as a third company which linked the two cities in 1906 to form the Western New York & Pennsylvania Traction Company.
The term "traction" was used in the era to refer to electric propulsion of rail vehicles within and between cities. It was derived from the "traction motors" which hung under the rail cars and provided the power to move them. The same concept today is called "light rail."
This traction company grew to nearly 100 miles of electrified track and eventually linked Olean with Bradford and Salamanca. Its line were extended to Bolivar, Shinglehouse, Little Valley and Lewis Run, Pa. The company opened up Riverhurst and Rock City parks to provide a stimulus to passenger traffic. Thus the "six flags" of a century ago.
In this era, commercial electric power such as Niagara Mohawk was still a thing of the future. Although the city of Olean generated its own municipal electricity, the traction company was forced to generate its own power. The small power plants in Olean and Bradford of the original trolley companies were adequate for their small lines but as the system was merged and mileage expanded, a large modern power house was needed.
In 1902 the company erected such a power station in Ceres. The building was constructed in two phases. The southern smaller portion was built first and housed two boilers and two reciprocating steam engines. When these proved inadequate to meet demand, the larger northern portion of the building was added in 1906-08.
This newer addition contained internal combustion engines to drive the electric generators as well as more modern power distribution equipment. When this addition was built the steam engines were relegated to "stand by" service during peak periods and during maintenance of the newer engines.
Ceres was chosen for the location of the power plant because the traction company owned a natural gas field just south of the building's location. Both the steam boilers and the newer internal combustion engines all used this natural gas for their fuel.
The power plant generated 19,000 volts of alternating current (a.c.) power. However, unlike today's standard 60-cycle power, the standard at the time was 25-cycle power. This power was fed all over the system by means of "high tension" power lines.
The trolley cars, however, ran on 550 volts of direct current (d.c.) power. Therefore, there were "sub-stations" located at strategic points around the system to "step down" the voltage to the proper level and convert the power from alternating to direct current. Sub-stations were located in Lewis Run, Bradford, Seneca Jct., Salamanca and Olean.
The Ceres generating station also contained a sub-station and thus provided the 550 volts of d.c. to the eastern portion of the system. The conversion of a.c. to d.c. power was accomplished using a "rotary converter." This was a mechanical devise which combined the commutators and slip rings of both an alternator and a generator in one device. It generated no power on its own. However, it spun around matching the 25-cycle frequency of the a.c. power fed into it, making and breaking contact with the circuit thus converting the power to d.c. This technology has long since been replaced by modern silicon diode rectifiers but at the time the rotary converter was the state-of-the-art.
In 1977, this author was fortunate to have interviewed the late Adelbert "Dell" Nutt of Allegany. Mr. Nutt joined the traction company in 1912 at the age of 12 as a water boy. He worked through every position the company offered and eventually became plant manager of the Ceres generating plant. Dell indicated that the basement underneath the newer portion of the building housed huge concrete mufflers to quell the noise from the engines. Their exhausts exited the mufflers in a series of metal exhaust stacks along the northern-most outside wall. Their remnants still exist today.
Mr. Nutt related a couple of unfortunate stories. The traction company had operated its own private telephone system. At strategic locations around the system were located small phone boxes which allowed the trolley car conductors to talk with the central dispatcher and thus move around the system safely. Unfortunately there was one such occurrence where the 19,000 volt wire had dropped down and came in contact with the phone wire. An unsuspecting conductor was electrocuted near 15th St. in Olean.
Another tragedy occurred at the generating plant itself. It seems an inexperienced operator could not get one of the natural gas engines started. However he failed to turn off the flow of natural gas. When he finally succeeded in starting the engine, the room was full of gas and exploded. Mr. Nutt indicated that the engine fell several feet into the basement and took some time to repair. Needless to say the stand-by steam engines were put back on line.
The hey-day of electric traction in this country started to decline in 1920. Paved roads and the explosion of the automobile reduced trolley ridership. Commercial electric power came to the area in the form of the Niagara Hudson Power Company. In 1921 the traction company entered receivership (a form of bankruptcy) and was reorganized as the Olean, Bradford & Salamanca Railway Company. It became cheaper to purchase power from Niagara Hudson so the Ceres plan was shut down and the equipment sold. The company shut trolley operation down completely in 1927 to be replaced by a bus line.
The Ceres roller rink stands as a reminder of a once-great electric rail empire. Today, only a few signs of the traction company remain: The Bradford power plant and sub-station still stands as a car dealership on E. Main St. The Olean car barn and sub-station at Main and N. Union Sts. housed Dow Equipment but was replaced by the Hampton Inn. The main office of the traction company with its huge safe to guard the daily receipts housed a liquor store on N. Union St. until the Beef 'N Barrel expanded; The safe almost had to be blasted out of the building. The old piers of the Seneca Jct. bridge still stand just upstream of the 219 bridge. Will the Coliseum vanish too like so many other remnants of the traction company?
Ken Clark is an Olean native and former employee of the Times Herald. He graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 1987 with a degree in Computer Science. He was acting City Historian for the City of Olean in the early 1980s and wrote many historical articles while employed by the Times Herald. He resides in Manassas, VA and develops web applications for a top Fortune 500 mortgage company.
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