The Electrical Museum That Never Was

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GLEANINGS FROM THE CORN FLATS      (published in Your Niskayuna 11/1/2019)

THE ELECTRICAL MUSEUM THAT NEVER WAS  

By Denis Brennan, Niskayuna Town Historian

“If you build it, they will come.”

That was the implied promise made in a 1963 Niskayuna Bulletin article titled “Museum to Put Niskayuna on the National Map.” Upon completion, it was expected to draw “a million visitors a year from all over the nation.”

A state charter had been granted for a non-profit organization to build the American Museum of Electricity on 140 acres adjacent to Lock 7.  It was expected to cost $15,000,000.

The museum campus included: a Radio Planetarium, which would give attendees the “full illusion of space travel” including live communication with astronauts; a state-of-the-art educational television studio; a collection of historical exhibits, including one “devoted to electrical power and communication”; exhibits devoted to “the fields of transportation and defense”; as well as an Electrical Hall of Fame.

Furthermore, cable cars would carry visitors across the Mohawk River to experience a fully operational “1920’s-vintage electric power station”; Railroad tracks, from the old Troy-Schenectady line – which were yet to be removed – would have been used to display early electric railway equipment; and, finally, visitors could tour an obsolete World War II submarine docked in the nearby marina.

Niskayuna was perceived as an ideal location for the museum not only because it was home to the GE Research Lab and Knolls Atomic Power Lab, but also in light of the famous people in electrical history linked to the area, including: Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz, George Westinghouse, and Joseph Henry.

Easy access to the Northway and the Thruway made the area readily “accessible to 87 million people within a radius of 500 miles.”

As fantastic as in sounds, this project was not promotional pie-in-the-sky.  The museum was initially proposed as a wing of the Schenectady Museum in 1959.  GE physicists, John C. Fisher, and Milan D. Fiske and GE managers, J. Herbert Holloman and Thomas O. Paine were “the brains” behind the Niskayuna proposal.   

Governor Nelson Rockefeller was a Trustee and the board included a long list of industrial, business, and academic leaders.  

Editorials in the Schenectady Gazette and in the Albany Times Union in March 1963 voiced strong support; the former labeled it a “Splendid Project” and the latter proclaimed it a “new wonder.”

The museum, of course, was never built; however, it was not for lack of effort.  Initial plans for funding the museum called for raising $200,000 from businesses and individuals in the Capital District to purchase the land, hire a director, and establish temporary housing for the museum’s foundation. This was accomplished by December 1963. 

In 1966, efforts to raise the estimated $15,000,000 needed for construction were ongoing; the Schenectady County Board of Supervisors voted to officially approve the museum’s application for a multi-million-dollar federal grant.

Schenectady City Historian, Chris Leonard, has documented many of the artifacts acquired for display, including material from the 1964 World’s Fair, as well as locomotives built by both GE and ALCO. 

Unfortunately, despite these efforts, by 1970 the project collapsed, primarily because three of the four principal organizers were transferred from the area; their careers took them far from Niskayuna.

Did Niskayuna “dodge a bullet” or was it a “lost opportunity”?  Not an easy question to answer.  By 1963 Niskayuna had transformed beyond its 19th Century rural agricultural roots to become a 20th Century suburban residential community.  Another transition to a tourist destination would have had enduring and likely permanent consequences. 

History can only tell us what was, not what might have been. Nevertheless, it cannot stifle our imagination.  

Author’s Note: We encourage any past or present town residents to contact the Niskayuna Town Historian at [email protected] regarding any information, resources, or stories they might like to share about Niskayuna’s distinctive history.