He was both a creative genius and a successful businessman, taking ideas from the drawing board through the production and distribution process. He invented the air brake and in so doing made rail traffic much safer for thousands of Americans over the second half of the 19th century, and he also helped harness and enhance the wonderful world of electricity.
That’s enough reason right there to put up a statue of the man and embrace that history, but there’s more, and that’s why it was so enjoyable to have a small part in the placement of Dexter Benedict’s wonderful life-sized statue of Westinghouse at the corner of South Ferry St. and Erie Boulevard last week. For me, the real reason why it felt so good to be a part of Brian Merriam’s George Westinghouse Statue Project Committee is that George Westinghouse Jr. was a decent, honest man who possessed a real sense of empathy for his fellow man. And to see Westinghouse and his likeness join Benedict’s other statues in downtown Schenectady – Thomas Edison, Charles Steinmetz, William Seward and Harriet Tubman – is a very gratifying experience. Thanks to Merriam and his group – Frank Wicks and Laura Lee in particular – for spearheading this project and bringing it to fruition.
I knew very little of Westinghouse until 15 years ago. I knew he had been born in Central Bridge in Schoharie County and came to Schenectady as a young boy just prior to the Civil War. I learned a lot more in 2005 when as a volunteer for the Schenectady County Historical Society, I started indexing the Francis Poulin Collection located in the Grems-Doolittle Library on Washington Avenue in the Stockade.
Poulin, a former city historian/archivist for Schenectady, had collected a voluminous amount of material on Westinghouse and I went through it all. Usually when you immerse yourself into the life of some historic icon of some kind, you find a few flaws, maybe one or two personal failings that pop up. A funny thing with Westinghouse. There was none of that. Everyone seemed to have admired the man and loved him, from his lowest factory worker to various men of prominence in the business and scientific world.
Samuel Gompers said of him, “if all business leaders and moguls treated their employees as well as George Westinghouse, there’d be no need for any labor unions.”
And Nicola Tesla said this, “George Westinghouse was, in my opinion, the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power. He was one of the world’s true nobleman, of whom America may well be proud and to whom humanity owes an immense debt of gratitude.”
So while much of America has been tearing down statues of late – sometimes for very good reason – Schenectady is putting them up, honoring men and women of distinction who had a strong connection to the area. To steal some phraseology from Abraham Lincoln, “it is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.”
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Westinghouse Jr., inventor of the air brake in 1869, to be celebrated on his 176th
Written by Bill Buell, Published by the Daily Gazzette
September 18, 2022