Article From the Spring 2001 Issue of


The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation


Once upon a time, your Editor was getting about as close to hands-on home improvement as he dared, pulling down the old water-damaged plaster ceiling in his den so it could be repaired with new drywall. Out tumbled debris from around the pipes in the floor of the upstairs bathroom, along with a page from the November 28, 1926 Democrat & Chronicle. An article headlined "Old Penstock Find Recalls Horsecar Day" in that yellowed sheet of newsprint led us on a search for information and produced the following story.

According to the article, three abandoned water pipes, or penstocks, each 96 feet long and 5 feet in diameter, had been discovered during remodeling at Rochester Gas and Electric Corporation’s Station No. 5, located near Driving Park Avenue at the Lower Falls on the Genesee River. The newspaper interviewed Thomas H. Yawger, RG&E’s superintendent of the electric department, who said that the penstock arrangement was part of a plan to compress air in the late 1880’s before electricity had been developed as a useful means for providing power.

Yawger went on to relate how a horsecar had been fitted with a compressed air motor and storage tank, pipes had been laid from the base of the falls to street level, and a test run made. "According to reports", Yawger is quoted, "the car started out briskly, and ran successfully from Driving Park avenue to the Bausch & Lomb Optical Company’s plant in St. Paul Street. It ran out of air there, and stopped". That’s a distance of a mile.

Fascinating. For thousands of years, mankind had only animals to provide power for land transportation until the steam engine was invented, and by the 1870’s the high water mark for mass transit in most cities was still just a horse-drawn car on rails set in the street. Meanwhile, industry in general had graduated from water power to steam in operating factories and mills, and with that came the advent of centralized facilities to produce compressed air.

Compressed air powers brakes on trains today and is familiar in industrial facilities and construction sites. The source is an electric or internal combustion powered device that compresses the air and stores it in a tank, and the air is distributed around the plant or site in a system of pipes, hoses, and nozzles for a wide variety of pneumatically actuated presses, reciprocators and control systems, as well as more mundane cleaning chores. Before electricity, the cost of steam or water powered air systems prevented most small companies from installing them in their factories. Where practical, central plants, much like the electrical generating facilities of today’s utility companies, piped compressed air underground to nearby users.

Imagine the state of technology in the post-Civil War era. Railroads and their steam locomotives had become prominent in domestic trade, and through standardization of track gauge, automatic couplers, and air brakes were making rapid improvements in speed and reliability of service. In manufacturing and commerce, the list of developments just kept growing: interchangeable parts, the telegraph and telephone, the chemical industry. And yet, the people and industry of the nation still ran on power provided for the most part by men, animals, and steam engines. The ability to transmit power by means of compressed air in pipes must have been viewed as a major step forward, and there were many who sought to take advantage of it.

At this time, Buffalo, situated on Lake Erie at the western end of the Erie Canal (and astride the New York Central railroad), blossomed as a center for industry and commerce. Proposals were soon put forth to harness the energy of nearby Niagara Falls. According to "The Day They Turned the Falls On: The Invention of the Universal Electrical Power System" by Jack Foran, there were many ideas heard, and the relatively new and undeveloped technology of electricity was just one of them. It may seem odd by today’s perspective, but systems were proposed to transmit air or water under pressure the 22 miles from the falls to Buffalo. Some even advocated mechanical means such as drive shafts, cables, and pulleys. Considering the development of cable street railways in some cities, this latter approach probably seemed pretty sensible at the time.

As late as 1890, George Westinghouse, inventor of the air brake but also founder of the Westinghouse Electric Company with 300 central generating stations by that time, still favored compressed air as the power transmission method from Niagara Falls. The technological war between Westinghouse and Edison, the former advocating alternating current and the latter having hitched his wagon to direct current, is a story beyond the scope of this article. It’s worth recognizing, though, that the technology of generators, motors, lighting systems, and the possible uses for electricity were all developing rapidly. AC could be transmitted at efficient, high voltage and stepped down in transformers to usable levels. But if you wanted a practical electric motor, you had to opt for a DC system. It’s little wonder that experiments and opinions during this time covered a wide range. It would be just a few short years before things sorted themselves out (Niagara Falls started sending electricity to Buffalo in 1896), but for the time being, every possibility was being pursued.

In the compressed air camp, which traced its ancestry to our own lungs and the bellows as limited means for moving and pressurizing air, there were some successes. Back in 1700, French scientist Denis Papin had developed a water wheel-powered system for compressing air and transmitting it through tubes (he also invented the pressure cooker 31 years earlier). And according to information supplied to us by Mark Brader of Toronto, Englishman George Medhurst in 1810 envisioned systems for moving messages, freight and even people by various air or vacuum powered devices. Although Medhurst failed to find backing for his ideas, starting in 1844—very early in the railway era—four "atmospheric" railways were constructed in Ireland, England and France. These lines used a rail car powered from an adjacent, parallel air pipe containing a lengthwise slit with a leather seal. The "piston" was in the pipe and connected to the car through the slit. Vacuum applied in the pipe sucked the piston and its attached car along the line. Today’s Zip Loc bag material technology would support this idea (and Brader tells us a Brazilian system began operation in Jakarta in 1989), but leather couldn’t stand the wear and tear, especially in freezing temperatures, and the last of these lines was converted to a conventional steam railway in 1860.

Brader also provides details about the use of rail vehicles actually inside larger tubes, pushed along by moderate air pressure. The English were the first to think outside of the box (or rather, inside the pipe), picking up on Medhurst’s ideas and building a 30" diameter demonstration tube in 1860. The Post Office in London used this line and another one until 1874. In 1864, a 1000 ft long tunnel was constructed to convey a full-sized, 35-passenger railway coach at 25 miles per hour. In 1870, American Alfred Ely Beach, publisher of Scientific American, built and for a short time operated a similar car under Broadway in New York City, using a circular cross-section tunnel, 312 feet long. City Hall failed to bless Beach with permission to extend his line, and it closed after a few months of service.

Incidentally, another Englishman, J. Latimer Clark, built the first dispatch tube system, in London, in 1853. It carried messages over a length of 675 feet. Such systems found utility in many areas of commerce (remember charging your purchase at Sibley’s?) and continue in use today.

But what about the Rochester experiment and similar attempts to employ compressed air to run a machine to move a streetcar? We’ll finish the saga in the Summer 2001 issue of HEADEND.

We thank a number of friends of the museum for taking the time to help us research this article: Mark Brader, Michael Wares, Shelden King, Tom McColloch, and David Minor. You can listen to David’s Time Traveler series each Saturday morning on WXXI-FM (91.5). Check out Mark Brader’s entertaining review of urban transit development on the web at

There is also a site devoted to compressed air operated trolleys and locomotives that might be of interest,