Time and circumstance has nearly eliminated knowledge and memory of one of the city’s great institutions.
In 1904, the Elk Street Market was “the largest fruit and garden truck market in the United States.” The traffic in commodities sold rivaled any similar market on the continent.
Buffalo Stories archives
The market’s size and success was attributed to so many of Buffalo’s immigrants holding onto centuries-old ways and their “adherence to village customs.” German, Italian, and Irish traditions played out all over the four-block long market that ran parallel to Michigan Street, in an area now largely taken up by the Buffalo Creek Casino.
Trying to understand where the market was offers up several red herrings. The first is the name. The market is nowhere near today’s Elk Street.
The part of Elk Street where the market stood is now South Park Avenue. Elk Street once ran from Seneca Street almost to the foot of Main Street. In her blog about Buffalo Streets, Angela Keppel writes that in 1939, South Buffalo businessmen thought it would be a good idea to have a street that runs from South Buffalo to downtown. Elk Street was one of five streets that was carved up to create South Park Avenue.
Buffalo Stories archives
Another red herring is the Elk Street Terminal. Famous now as one of Buffalo’s early reuse condominium projects, it was built at the northern tip of the market and used for the loading and unloading of trucks and trains. The actual market stretched several blocks into the First Ward from the back door of the terminal.
Buffalo Stories archives
It’s actually a double red herring because not only was the terminal a small part of the market away from most of the buying and selling the market was famous for, it’s actually several blocks away from where Elk Street was. It was named after the market (which no longer exists) which was named after the street (which no longer exists.)
Buffalo Stories archives
Thousands of wagons laden with fruit and vegetables paid 15¢ or 25¢ for a spot on the market or took their wares to the terminal to be loaded on trains to be sold around the country. The farmers themselves came from as far as Orchard Park or further south, or as far north as Clarence — but rules prevented Niagara County growers from selling at the market.
During the height of the fruit season, 10,000 bushels were sold a day.
Buffalo Stories archives
The main building also was home to a meat and poultry market, and the fish market was the city’s busiest.
Michigan Avenue just outside the Elk Street Market. Buffalo Stories archives
A fire in the late 1920s and then railroad maneuvering to have most of the larger business of the Elk Terminal moved to the Clinton Bailey Market mostly spelled the end of the Elk Street Market, which continued to hang on as a farmers market through the 1930s.
These views show a 1906 and 2016 view near what is now South Park and Michigan avenues.
Buffalo’s position as one of America’s largest and most sophisticated cities was strikingly on display with the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The City of Light. Advanced transportation. The most modern manufacturing ideas put into practice. Many of the wonders of the Industrial Revolution were on display for the world to take in and enjoy in Buffalo.
But behind that picture of a flourishing city was an undeniable underbelly: Thousands of Buffalonians had no running water in their homes or access to bathing facilities.
It was universally acknowledged as a growing problem, but one without a clear solution.
“A great number of Buffalonians do not feel the need of public baths in the summer months,” wrote the Buffalo Courier in 1895, “because there are many much frequented bathing places along the lake and river fronts and along the numerous creeks in Buffalo.”
Buffalo, it was written, didn’t need bathing facilities, because people bathed in lakes, rivers, and creeks.
A day at the beach was more than just a day of sunshine and relaxation—it was a matter of hygiene. Resort beaches south of the city, places like Wanakah, Idlewood and Bennett Beach, were appropriate for women and children, but men and older boys would bathe wherever they could.
The foot of Court and Georgia streets — which once led from the West Side to the banks of Lake Erie — were popular spots, as were Squaw Island and the foot of Ferry Street.
One man was arrested trying to wash up in the Johnson Park fountain. “The Polish Boys,” wrote The Courier, frequented a bathing hole along Buffalo Creek near South Ogden and the railroad bridge of the Jammerthal area— now the northern East Side of Buffalo. One still-open quarrying area is along Amherst Street as it approaches Bailey Avenue coming from Main Street.
In 1895, Buffalo’s two public baths—one at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, one at the foot of Porter Avenue – were “small box-like arrangements,” more or less “dilapidated, dirty, and disgraceful” sheds.
Street urchins and pickpockets would use the places, it was said, but no respectable boy or man would be seen there—where a nickel would provide use of a locker and a pair of “bathing pants.”
“Buffalo is deplorably, disgracefully deficient in public baths,” wrote the Courier. Especially during winter months, when bathing alternatives were needed, working men couldn’t afford the luxury of the widely available $1 Turkish baths.
City leaders took the health crisis and turned it into one of the nation’s first public welfare programs.
Buffalo Health Commissioner Wende called the bath houses in two of Buffalo’s most crowded tenement areas a long time in coming.
“While the luxury and benefit of public baths have reached their highest stage in Europe, it remained for Buffalo, an American city, in competing for the supremacy in the realization of the conditions desired by a cultured public, to establish a bath where the indigent, the fatigued, and the unclean could find shelter and care without money and without price.”
In 1897, a brick structure was built on the Terrace as a sanitary bathing facility for the men of Buffalo, particularly the mostly Irish immigrants of the First Ward and the Italian immigrants of The Hooks.
Soap and towels were provided to bathers free of charge. The facility was the first free, open bath house anywhere in the country, and put Buffalo on the cutting edge of health and sanitation.
In 1901, a second public bath house was built on Buffalo’s East Side at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street.
This larger building had separate bathing facilities and waiting rooms for both men and women. While there were bathtubs for women and infants, men were offered showers. The idea of showering was brand new — so new, in fact, that a 1901 article in The Buffalo Express explained how a shower works.
“The bather stands erect in the shower, and the water falls down upon him. There is a depression in the floor, with perforations which carry away the water that has fallen.”
The interior of the shower area had stalls separated by wrought iron. Water was heated to approximately 100 degrees, and bathers were allowed 20 minutes in the showering and adjoining dressing rooms.
The buildings’ rules were written on the walls in English, Polish, Italian and German. They read:
No swearing or obscene language
No intoxicated person allowed in the building
Walls, furniture, and property must not be defaced or injured
Soiled clothing must be taken away by the bather
Towels must be returned to the keeper or matron
No bather may occupy an apartment longer than 20 minutes
There were also laundry facilities for underclothes to help further improve sanitation.
Dr. Wende said the free services, with more than 394,000 baths taken in the first four years, cost Buffalo taxpayers 3 cents per person per year, with most of that cost going toward the purchase of soap.
Well into the 1950s, these two bath houses, along with two more at Grant and Amherst and 249 William St., remained in demand providing as many as a million baths a year.
One slight modification was made as time went on — a new rule prevented singing in the showers.
“If we let people sing in our 52 showers,” said the keeper of Bath House No. 2 Stanley Molik, “we’d be in trouble for disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.
Standing in this spot today, you get a good view of a gas station and a Family Dollar in front of you and the Commodore Perry Housing Complex at your left. Today, it’s the corner of South Park Avenue and Louisiana Street.
Buffalo Stories archives
In 1890, South Park had not yet been built. Parts of the street now called “South Park Avenue” were then known as Triangle, Abbott and Elk, among others.
This Elk and Louisiana streets intersection was the crossroads of the Old First Ward. A block or two in either direction were canals and the homes of scoopers teeming with the Irish immigrants who were the foundation of Buffalo’s milling and grain industry.
While nothing but the streetscape remains today, some of the stories remain.
While half the storefront was replaced by the Marine Trust Company by 1925, the name Charles Lamy is clearly visible in the 1890 photo.
Lamy was a grocer, saloon keeper and state senator. Born in Eden, he opened a small shop at 305 Elk as a teenager in 1873 and stayed in business until his death in 1929.
He was instrumental in helping the people of the First Ward find a unified political voice. Among his accomplishments was to help shatter the “saloon boss” control of the livelihoods of Buffalo’s grain scoopers. Into the first decade of the 1900s, owners of lake shipping concerns would turn over the wages of scoopers to saloon owners who would make sure the men’s bar bills were paid before there’d be any money left for their families to eat.
Lamy was one of eight trusted men elected by scoopers to speak on their behalf to the shipping companies in Detroit. He’s buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
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
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.
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.
BUFFALO, NY – Just driving where the roads took me, I wound up in the First Ward today, driving down the stunning new Ohio Street and looking across the dirt and weeds to the Chicago Street lot which was home to long gone ancestors.
My 3rd great grandfather, Miles Norton, was an Irish immigrant grain worker who died in the family flat over 64 Chicago Street when he was 45 years old in 1883.
The address is a shaggy looking vacant lot right now, but over looks all that is new and exciting in Buffalo.
As Miles and his big Irish family lived a pretty impoverished Old First Ward existence, it’s easy to imagine them looking out their back window at the stinking and dirty Buffalo River… And thinking of it as their lifeline and livelihood, as the means for a life better than the one left behind on the old sod of Eire.
In 1883, living above 64 Chicago Street was pretty much the end of the line. It was likely better than what was left in the old country, but the worst of Buffalo. Filth and poverty and hunger.
For the last half century, the view from that spot has showcased rotting industry and wasted waterfront… And was a view many could point to as ground zero for hopelessness and the slow death of Buffalo.
I wish ol’Miles could see that view now… And understand the newness and feeling of hearts-overflowing in the rebirth of the grounds which are forever stained with the sweat and blood of him and so many hundreds of thousands like him through the decades.
As I stood in those weeds today at the corner of Chicago and Mackinaw, my soul glowed with happiness for my ancestors– that their toil won’t be forgotten and my descendants– that they will be able to live in and enjoy a rejuvenated and wonderful Buffalo.
Our future is built on our past. Our future honors our past.
Love him or not, there is no disputing the fact that James D. Griffin relished his time as Buffalo’s mayor, and there were few events where Mayor Griffin was more joyful than he was each year at Buffalo’s St. Patrick’s Day parades.
Buffalo News archives
“This is my 16th parade as mayor, but my 32nd all-around,” recalled Griffin at his last parade as mayor in 1993, as he had a beer outside DuBois Restaurant on Niagara Street. Unperturbed by the 14-degree windchill, he told News reporter Lauri Githens, “This is a great day. Every day is a blessed one for the Irish.”
The parade has been on Delaware Avenue now for decades, but before the building of the MetroRail in the early ’80s, Buffalo’s Irish and Irish-at-heart would parade up Main Street from Memorial Auditorium to North Street.
Bagpipers pipe past AM&A’s at Main and Court in 1972. (Buffalo News archives)
Since 1994, Buffalo’s second St. Patrick’s Day parade, the “Old First Ward Parade,” has brought grassroots marching and wearing of the green back to where it all started.
This 1937 photo shows the start of that year’s parade at Elk (now South Park Avenue) and Louisiana Street.
Buffalo News archives
News reporter Anne Neville wrote a comprehensive history of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2014. You can read that story here.
The area is now the parking lot next to the HSBC Atrium on Perry Street, but in 1945, it was the home of the Market Terminal Warehouse.
Buffalo News archives
The building’s name referred to the Elk Street Market, which was across Michigan Avenue from the building. The Market Terminal Warehouse filled nearly an entire block bounded by Perry, Mississippi and Scott streets.
The building had been, for generations, the home of a sheepskin tannery owned by Jacob Schoellkopf. Schoellkopf used the fortune he made in tanning to invest first in milling and brewing, then railroads and banking, before becoming the “King of Electricity” after buying up several firms that were trying to harness the energy of Niagara Falls to make electricity.
He eventually also started the Schoellkopf Chemical and Dye Co. along Elk Street and the Buffalo River, which was eventually bought out by National Aniline.
After years of back taxes piled up, Schoellkopf & Co. sold the building in 1945.
The building was also one of many Buffalo industrial scenes photographed by abstract painter Ralston Crawford, who grew up in Buffalo and attended Lafayette High School before going on to capture industrial scenes like Buffalo’s grain elevators, bridges, trains, and aircraft. Considered one of the innovators of Precisionism, Crawford’s work graced both the covers of magazines such as Fortune and the halls of such great museums as Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The exact demolition date of the building is unknown, but dates to sometime before the opening of the then-Marine Midland Atrium in 1991.
By the time this photo was taken in 1978, vast tracts of one of Buffalo’s oldest working-class neighborhoods were long gone.
The decades’ old shanties of the First Ward and surrounding neighborhoods had long been a target of urban renewal. The Niagara Extension of the Thruway took over railroad right-of-ways, but it cut some streets and neighborhoods in half in the process. The Commodore Perry public housing project replaced block after block of rich, old-time neighborhoods with soulless government-owned tenements.
The Irish families that lived and worked there for generations left as the harbor and grain jobs did.
Thirty-seven years after this photo was snapped, parts of the First Ward are seeing new life. Within blocks on Fulton and Marvin, there are the Elk Terminal Lofts and the mixed use Fairmont Creamery Building. There’s all the development of the Buffalo River Works, Canalside and HarborCenter areas a short walk away.
And while the lot where this storefront/tavern/home once stood is now empty, it stands directly across the street from the Seneca Creek Casino.