Erie Canal, ‘Atlantic’s back door,’ opened 191 years ago

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo became “the Atlantic’s back door” when the Erie Canal opened for business 191 years ago today.

Buffalo Harbor in 1825.

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 Village of Buffalo, 1825.
The Village of Buffalo, 1825.

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.

Buffalo from Lake Erie, including the lighthouse, 1823
Buffalo from Lake Erie, including the lighthouse, 1823

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.

Waiting to hear the previous cannon. Buffalo Stories archives
Waiting to hear the previous cannon. (Buffalo Stories archives)

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.

What it looked like Wednesday: LaSalle Park and the Erie Canal, 1932

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

What we now know as LaSalle Park was a canal-side dumping ground before it was developed into parkland in celebration of Buffalo’s 100th year as a city.

Buffalo Stories archives

Buffalo Stories archives

Twenty years after the million-dollar purchase of the lands were made, the area between the Erie Canal and Niagara River on Buffalo’s West Side was finally christened Centennial Park in 1932.

The best reference for figuring out what you’re looking at here is the Col. Frank Ward Pumping Station, which still sits at the northern end of LaSalle Park.

The portion of the Erie Canal shown in this view — likely taken from Buffalo’s then-new City Hall looking north — has since been replaced with the I-190.

Torn-Down Tuesday: When the Erie Canal wandered through the West Side

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

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.