The Quest To Commemorate Westinghouse In Schenectady

Plans are being put forward to commemorate one of Schenectady’s most famous engineers with an $80,000 bronze statue.

George Westinghouse Jr., who was born in Central Bridge but raised near his father’s factory on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, filed his first patent (for a rotary steam engine) at 19. His first major breakthrough came at the tender age of 22 when he invented an air brake that was adopted by almost all rail companies at the time and is still the basis for braking systems on modern trains.

Frank Wicks, a Union College engineering professor who was involved with the erection of both Erie Boulevard’s statue of Thomas Edison alongside Charles Steinmetz and the Harriet Tubman/William Seward statue near the Schenectady Library, is the driving force behind the Westinghouse statue proposal.

“Schenectady was known as the city that lit and hauled the world, George Westinghouse did more than anyone else to modernize the railroads,” Wicks said. “With the air brake they had bigger trains going faster. He also modernized electricity and allowed it to be transferred over large distances efficiently.”

Westinghouse’s work with alternating current (A/C) led to clashes with his fellow Schenectady-based inventor, Thomas Edison. Despite a PR campaign culminating in Edison’s use of A/C to execute an elephant on Coney Island, Westinghouse’s system eventually won out over Edison’s preferred direct currant.

A prolific inventor and entrepreneur, Westinghouse held over 300 patents and had formed over 60 companies at the time of his death.

Alongside his professional achievements, Westinghouse had strong personal ties to Schenectady. On his mother’s side, the inventor could trace his roots back to the town’s founders; his father owned a farm equipment factory on Erie Boulevard.

Wicks hopes part of the $10 million State Economic Development Award the city received last November can be set aside for the Westinghouse statue. The grant, which is being overseen by the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, is meant to kick-start the redevelopment of Schenectady’s downtown area with a particular emphasis on Erie Boulevard, the Mohawk Casino area and the Mohawk Harbor.

“There are thousands of ideas for statues for everyone that is made,” Wicks said. “You either do or you don’t do it. There are quite a few hoops to jump through. Once you get the idea, you’ve got to get a committee, you’ve got to get funding, you’ve got to get acceptances.”

“What we want is a single source of funding,” he continued. “Schenectady now has $10 million for downtown revitalization initiative. $10 million looking for ideas. The estimated cost is $80,000, which represents less than 1 percent of the funding available.”

A public meeting is scheduled for Thursday, February 20 at 6 p.m. at Schenectady County Community College at which plans for the statue will be discussed alongside other proposals. The meeting will be in Room 101 of the Stockade Building, and members of the public are encouraged to attend.

Should funding be secured for the statue, which Wicks envisions could be erected on the site of the Westinghouse factor on Erie Boulevard, the next logical step would be securing a sculptor.

Wicks has an idea for that, too: Dexter Benedict, a Penn Yan-based sculptor who was also commissioned for both the Steinmetz/Edison statue, the Tubbman/Seward statue. He’s currently working on a statue of President Harry Truman for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri.

“To get a statue you need a sculptor, you need a foundry and you need an installer,” Wicks said. “They’re usually done by three different groups of people. We have an advantage because Dexter Benedict can do it all.”

However, despite how straightforward things seem to be, time is of the essence.

“You have a certain window of opportunity,” Wicks stressed. “You have to go for it now or not go for it. Right now we have a single person (Benedict) who can do it all. Five years from now, he may not be able to do it all. A year from now he may not be able to do it. It’s probably going to be now or never.”

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