Heading north from Canalside toward the Peace Bridge, the I-190 was built in the bed of the Erie Canal.
It’s difficult to imagine a ride along the Erie Canal, with some of today’s landmarks there with the old waterway. You’d be floating north past the Channel 7 studios, then Genesee Street going right up to the edge of the water, then the BlueCross BlueShield headquarters, then Court Street going right up to the edge of the water – but that’s what it would have looked like if the canal was magically put back in the spot where it once sat.
The shipbuilding yard of George Notter was at the foot of Virginia Street, where Virginia met the canal. This 1883 photo shows Notter’s shipyard, the Erie Canal, and the strip of land between the canal and the water.
Today, the spot once occupied by the Notter building is about where the Niagara Street northbound on-ramp to the I-190 starts to curve. The canal is paved over with the Niagara Extension of the Thruway, and the strip of land with small houses to the right is now LaSalle Park.
Buffalo became “the Atlantic’s back door” when the Erie Canal opened for business 191 years ago today.
The village of Buffalo was a town of about 2,400 at the time. When a ceremonial start to the digging of the canal in Buffalo was held in 1823, everyone in the town and surrounding villages like Black Rock and Buffalo Plains (now both a part of the City of Buffalo) was invited to come celebrate. They were also asked to bring their tools and plow animals.
The effort was a community one. A group of men from the Buffalo Plains — now the area along Main Street from Niagara Falls Boulevard to Sisters Hospital — drove a team of 12 oxen down to the area that is now Canalside to start digging.
The men and the animals worked all day, and the only payment was found flowing from the barrels of pure rye whiskey set up along what was destined to become the banks of the Erie Canal.
“Our whiskey then was the pure article, made from rye, without adulteration,” wrote pioneer Buffalonian William Hodge, who remembered the events from when he was a boy. “Along the line of the canal, at convenient distances, was to be found another barrel of whiskey, pure old rye, with part of the head cut out and tin dipper lying by and all were expected to help themselves.”
A little more than two years later, on Oct. 26, 1825, the entire town poured back into that same area for the gala opening of this marvel of modern engineering.
That morning, the Village of Buffalo echoed with cannon fire at 9 a.m., the official start of the parade to the canal terminus. A band led the way for a cadre of soldiers and sailors, followed by the spade-carrying laborers who did most of the digging, followed by hundreds of citizens. At the end of the parade was a carriage carrying Gov. DeWitt Clinton and Sen. Samuel Wilkeson — whose work in dredging Buffalo Harbor made the entire event possible.
With a ceremonial jug of water pulled from Lake Erie in tow, Gov. Clinton climbed aboard “The Seneca Chief” bound for New York City at exactly 10 a.m.
A cannon fired as the boat left, and in the days before telephone or even telegraph, news of the successful start of the journey was sent to Albany by a relay of cannon fire. Each time a cannon shot was heard by an artilleryman slightly further up the canal, he’d fire a shot. The news traveled 280 miles in a mind-boggling hour and 40 minutes.
The Seneca Chief and Gov. Clinton arrived in New York City on Nov. 4, 1825. That ceremonial jug of Lake Erie water was poured into the Atlantic for the wedding of the waters and Buffalo’s fate was sealed as the east’s last stop on the way to the American West.
Many Buffalonians know that the Erie Canal started in Buffalo — at the old Aud site at Canalside. Where it went from there is a little less well-known, but even easier to picture — the canal bed as it ran through the Lower West Side is essentially paved over for a very familiar roadway. Between Erie Street (next to the old Aud site) and Porter Street (next to the Peace Bridge), the Erie Canal ran on the path of what is now I-190.
The Canal was part of life on the Lower West Side, but not in the “low bridge” and “mule named Sal” sense. It was, for intents, a garbage dump. An illegal dump, but a dump nonetheless.
The garbage-filled waterway is the long-defunct Erie Canal in this 1938 photo. City Hall is seen to the south, and the bridge crossing the canal is at about the same place where the pedestrian bridge now crosses the 190 from Hudson Street to LaSalle Park. (Buffalo News archives)
In the 25 years following the snapping of the photo above, the Lower West Side would go through a series of scorched earth “Urban Renewal” type projects that left the area entirely unrecognizable to someone who would have been familiar with the canal.
When the Lakeview Housing Project was announced, residents were told the canal bed would be transformed into a playground for children. If this ever happened, it only lasted for about a decade with the 1950s building of the “Ontario Thruway.”
Gone would be tightly packed “slum areas” like the one below.
Buffalo News archives
This image, probably taken in front of 370 Trenton Ave. near Hudson Street, was provided to newspapers in 1938 as the typical sort of “slums” which would be condemned to build the new Lakeview project. By 1939, Trenton Avenue looked like the photo below, with 696 units of housing planned, costing renters on average about $4 per month.
Buffalo News archives
Today, the corner of Trenton and Hudson has gone through another transformation, with a new generation of subsidized housing built there over the last several decades.