Buffalo in the 1890s: Polish and Italian freight workers clash

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Today, it’s one of Buffalo’s newest waterfront spaces—RiverFest Park– nestled between Ohio Street and the Buffalo River, just across the water from Buffalo RiverWorks and the Labatt grain silos.

The Buffalo Evening News, May 26, 1899

The Buffalo Evening News, May 26, 1899

At the tail end of the 19th century,  Buffalo’s waterfront was rough and tumble. On this day in particular, it was the place where two immigrant groups clashed and “a race riot looked imminent.”

The unionized mostly Polish freight handlers at the New York Central Freight House on Ohio Street had joined the unionized mostly Irish grain shovelers in striking for better working conditions and in protest of contract abuses.

Cincinnati-Street-from-LOC

When the dock-working Poles came back to work, many were displeased to be working alongside mostly Italian non-union men. Management promised to dismiss the Italians, but when 150 showed up ready for work the next day, “within five minutes, a good sized riot was in progress.”

How the fight started seemed to be in question—The News’ account laid the blame at some of the 200 Poles who began accosting the Italians and calling them scabs. The Courier said the Italians may have started it when one of them threw an old tomato can into the group of Poles.

“Knives and revolvers were flourished,” reported The News, “and fists were freely used.”

Witnesses heard as many as 25 gunshots—one Polish man was shot in the back. An Italian man was slashed in the face. Five were arrested and charged with rioting.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.