On May 4, it will have been four years since a devoted group of fans of the scientific visionary Nikola Tesla saved his crumbling laboratory in Shoreham, and on Independence Day this summer, it will be 100 years since Tesla’s giant electrical tower there was torn down by creditors and the metal it contained was sold for scrap.
This little piece of Long Island history is important, and it is still being written.
It’s hard to imagine Nikola Tesla riding out from New York City on the Long Island Railroad, getting off at the Shoreham train station and walking into his amazing laboratory at Wardenclyffe. But that is indeed what was happening back in 1903.
His laboratory, which was designed by the famous architect Stanford White, was just a few hundred feet from the train stop. The red brick building is still standing today between Route 25A and the old railroad right of way that contains modern electrical transmission towers.
Those towers connect us to the power grid that brings electricity out east from the gas fired generation station that was built after the Shoreham Nuclear Plant was decommissioned.
Tesla built a 187-foot high tower at his laboratory that was part of his plan to build towers around the world to bring radio communication and “free electrical power” to everybody, by connecting to the earth’s resonant electrical field underground, “using the earth as a conductor.”
The March 1902 Patchogue Advance newspaper reported “Under the center of the tower a well 123 feet square has been sunk a distance of 120 feet. This has been cased with eight-inch timbers and at the bottom, below the water line, a system of four tunnels will be driven out a distance of 100 feet each to the north, south, east and west. The particular use to which all this is to be put is one of the mysteries of the wireless system.”
When we were graciously granted a site visit by the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe’s President, Jane Alcorn, in mid-April, she told us that remnants of those tunnels have been found during construction projects over the past century. The past does have a way of coming back to us.
When Tesla bought the site, he made a deal that included building residential homes for the employees of the huge “Radio City” he was planning there. The deal sounds remarkably like the current deal that Luminati Aerospace is hoping to make with Riverhead Town at the old Grumman site in Calverton. I guess real estate development wasn’t that different, even a hundred years ago.
After Tesla ran out of money and his creditors had the tower torn down, the site became a photo processing plant that was eventually bought by the photo chemical company Agfa.
After Agfa closed their plant in 1987, the property sat in the overgrown woods and remained dormant until 2012. The 120-foot deep pit that had been the base of the tower had been used for decades as a dumping site for photo processing chemicals, and the site went through an extensive Superfund cleanup.
I rode by Wardenclyff hundreds of times while commuting to work out east and I never noticed the lab, even though I’ve long been fascinated by Tesla. Remarkable pieces of the past can quickly end up as abandoned buildings in the woods.
The Tesla laboratory building sat there unappreciated until a small group of caring people who had been running a science center at the nearby Shoreham-Wading River School District were able to rescue it. Even though the laboratory building was slated to be considered as a historic site in 1967, the site slipped into ruins and seemed near demolition until it was rescued.
Soon after we entered the property through the barbed wire-capped gates, it became obvious that Jane Alcorn is the current powerhouses at the Tesla site. Her longtime tenacious resolve to save the site has been a multi-decade project.
The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe launched an internet fundraising campaign that ultimately raised $1.37 million and eventually, on May 4, 2013, succeeded in purchasing the 16-acre industrial property.
At that point, the direction of history started to change. The site is currently well on its way to becoming a museum and science center, with the first building, a visitor’s center, slated to open this year.
One is immediately struck with the way the site still seems to exist unnoticed right in the middle of Shoreham along 25A. But there it is. There is the base of the huge radio tower, now capped with cement, and planted with grass. There is the red brick lab that Nicola Tesla used for his experiments, parts of which are masked by incongruous concrete mid-20th Century wings that are due to be torn down.
Walking around the outside of the building, it’s easy to imagine Tesla inside conjuring up huge bolts of electricity using only magnetic fields. I walked around the perimeter of the 16 footings that were the base of the radio tower, trying to figure out how the proportions would make power transmission around the world possible.
Tesla was an electrical engineer, but he was also a futurist. He predicted the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency 35 years before it existed. He imagined a world where scientific discoveries would be more important than war. He predicted “thinking machines” and robots. He said that, in the 21st Century, newspapers would give up reporting on crime and political controversies and instead focus on new scientific ideas. Tesla was a visionary who believed in re-forestation, cheap energy and the end of the burning of fossil fuels.
As our tour ended, we noticed the site is also home to a small but healthy herd of white-tailed deer.
We found ourselves promising Jane Alcorn that we would be coming back to volunteer to help this project somehow in the near future.
Many other people have fallen under the power of this place. Often, when walking the grounds, Ms. Alcorn finds pilgrims at the gate, peering in at the forged statue donated by Tesla’s native country of Serbia, where he is a much bigger hero than here, where he spent his life, in the United States.
This summer, at the lab’s annual celebration the weekend before Tesla’s July 10 birthday, which usually brings hundreds of people to Shoreham, they’ll be paying tribute to the tower on the centennial of its demolition.
It’s amazing how the past gets covered over and forgotten all over the East End of Long Island. The Benjamin Franklin mile markers, The Nazis landing on the beach in Amagansett, Benedict Arnold in Orient, The Amistad Memorial in Montauk, Fort Corchaug, The New Suffolk Submarine Base. Everywhere, you can find a plaque but often you can’t find anything else that proves the past was here.
A hundred years ago, a collection of fancy scientists were wandering around on the East End of Long Island. Marconi, Edison, Einstein, and Tesla were all in the area and doing amazing things with physics and electricity.
Einstein was sailing a small boat in Peconic Bay off of Nassau Point in Cutchogue, writing letters to Franklin Roosevelt about the development of the atomic bomb. Edison was at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead doing experiments with “moving pictures.” Just down the street, above Papa Nicks on Main Street, there is now a small cartoon animation studio that is gaining renown. Sometimes great ideas only have to travel one block and one century to get stuck in another pile of bricks and mortar.
If you’re riding east on Route 104 towards the Hamptons, The David A. Sarnoff preserve is on the right. In the 1920s, RCA purchased a piece of the pine barrens in order to do experiments in radio communications and electronics there. Sarnoff and Guglielmo Marconi (the father of radio) were in Riverhead in 1933. They built a series of towers that were 410 feet high and designed to send radio waves to Europe. I wonder if Tesla knew what they were doing there. He lived for a long time after his grand Shoreham experiment.
I’ve been wandering around in the woods trying to find the bases for those towers. The Flanders Fire Department probably knows where they are.