Buffalo in the 70s: Remembering the smells of South Buffalo – refinery says it’s not polluting

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

When I was a tiny boy in South Buffalo, my dad owned a tavern in the Valley. Depending on which stops we’d make first, we’d drive by Republic Steel, Hanna Coke, and a few grain mills on the way to the gin mill via South Park Avenue, or we’d drive by the refinery and chemical plants on Elk Street to get to the bar.

Photos can show people what these smoke- and steam-belching plants looked like at full tilt, and that tells some of the story. I always looked in wonder at the old bricks, miles of pipes and the smoke and often fire shooting out of tall chimneys.

For me, the most stark difference on those rides along South Park and Elk now is the smell – or more accurately, the smells.

The smells coming from Republic Steel changed as you drove along the mammoth set of buildings, until it started to mix with the smell of the Hanna sulfur piles sitting exposed on the other side of the Buffalo River.  That quickly blended with a chemical whiff from National Aniline, until we’d turn down Smith Street. When the wind was right, you’d catch the smells coming from the grain elevators and grain mills in the Valley, including the Purina Mill. Hint – the dog food grain mill didn’t smell like Cheerios.

Each smell was different and distinctly pungent in its own way, but the granddaddy of all nose-searing odors came from the same place with the pyrotechnics display which left me face-planted against the passenger side window of my dad’s AMC Spirit as we drove by.

The piercing smell from the Mobil Refinery on Elk Street was every bit as epic as the flames seemingly lapping out of control from the refinery chimney. Maybe it’s because someone told me when I was very young that they made gasoline there, but I always pictured the smell as looking like the vibrant colors of a little bit of gasoline in a dirty puddle of water.

While the emissions from the chimney may not have been illegal, I’m sure the smells I remember coming from Mobil weren’t exactly a net positive for the surrounding environment and nearby residents.

Forty-five years ago, Mobil said it wasn’t polluting the water. Maybe it wasn’t. But I’ll never forget that smell.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and is the News Director at WECK Radio. A 25 year Buffalo media veteran, Steve's contributed more than 1400 Buffalo History stories to The Buffalo News, worked at WIVB-TV, Empire Sports Network, and spent ten years as a newsman and News Director at WBEN Radio. He's also put his communication skills to work as an adjunct professor, a producer of PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.