It was more of a wipeout than a teardown, the effects of which were being fully realized on this day 60 years ago.
Gale force winds and rushing waters ripped the grain boat Michael K. Tewksbury from its moorings at the Standard Elevator, and sent it pilot-less down the Buffalo River, smashing into and destroying the Michigan Avenue Bridge, just before midnight on Jan. 21, 1959.
After hitting a grain elevator straight on, the 515-foot Tewksbury then hit the bridge broadside, wiping out one of the 200-foot towers.
Those who heard the gnashing and groaning of the steel say they’ll never forget it.
“A sickening, scratching crash like an auto accident magnified a million times,” said an engineer who heard the crash from the nearby fireboat.
It took workmen and tugboat crews 10 days to get the ship free.
A trial to determine fault stretched on even longer, as the city blamed the owners of the Tewksbury and another ship, the Shiras, for not having been properly moored. Ship owners, meanwhile, blamed the city for allowing ice floes to jam up the river and not raising the bridge to avoid the accident.
By 1961, $30 million of claims had piled up in relation to the incident.
Ultimately, a judge decided the other ship was improperly moored, came loose, and hit the Tewksbury, and also that the city should have lifted the bridge to avoid the crash. Midland Steamship Co., owners of the Tewksbury, were held harmless.
A replacement bridge was built in 1960 at a cost of $2.5 million. After being repaired and returned to seaworthy condition in Buffalo Harbor, the Tewksbury was eventually sold for scrap in 1962.
The full story of that night and the years that followed trying to figure out what happened is told with photos, excerpts from depositions, and eyewitness accounts by Old First Ward historian Gene Overdorf at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Tewksbury Lodge at 249 Ohio St. The admission is $10.
Aside from showing the Michigan Avenue Bridge wrapped around the Tewksbury, and the near-miss for the Edward M. Cotter just to the left, it also shows the dramatic changes to the landscape of the First Ward over the last six decades.
In both images, the most recognizable landmark is the Swannie House.
Before Memorial Auditorium was built in along Buffalo’s waterfront in 1940, the city looked at several different sites for a new convention center and auditorium.
At the time, the Broadway Auditorium was the largest and most-used event space in the city. Still standing as “the Broadway Barns” and the home of the city’s snow removal and other heavy equipment, the old Broadway Aud almost didn’t make it into the 1940s.
The 1930s aerial photo above shows one idea for a potential footprint of a new, modern Broadway Auditorium. Early proposals called for parking for 12,000 cars and at least 100,000 square feet of floor space.
The rancorous political banter over whether Buffalo needed a new auditorium and convention space, and where it should be built if needed, doesn’t sound too much different that the debates which continue on the same subject now, 90 years later.
“We don’t get big national conventions that should come to Buffalo for the reason that we have no decent place in which to house them,” said Niagara District Councilman John C. Montana, during a debate on the subject in 1929.
Many hoped that the new building would be in place by the start of Buffalo’s city centennial celebration in 1932, but the Aud didn’t open in what is now Canalside until 1940.
The aerial photo also shows the complete campus of St. Mary’s Redemptorist Roman Catholic Church.
When work was started on the building on what was then “the Old Batavia Road” in 1848, the area was still rural and on the outskirts of the city. The church took 10 years to build and was consecrated by Bishop John Timon in 1859.
When the church closed in 1981, it was the oldest active house of worship in the city. After a massive fire in 1986, the church was lost to an emergency demolition.
More than any one building, the photo shows the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor at a time when many of the now-long-gone buildings of the area were still active.
The Michigan Avenue YMCA is the large building just below the “Broadway Auditorium” label on the image. Built in 1927, it was torn down in 1977.
There’s also quite a bit of history nestled right around the “Broadway” label on this photo.
Built in 1845-49, Buffalo’s first African-American church and Underground Railroad stop, the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, is visible to the left of “Broadway.”
Just below the “B” stands the Colored Musicans’ Club. Above the Broadway label stands Ann Montgomery’s Little Harlem Hotel.
“The silent Chinese of Buffalo are good and happy folk,” read the headline describing “Buffalo’s Chinese colony” in the Courier-Express in 1940. “Not one of them has been on police record in 20 years.”
There were 96 Chinese in Buffalo in 1900. That number had grown to 110 by 1930. In the intervening years, a small Chinatown sprouted up along Michigan Avenue around William and Broadway, but most of Buffalo’s Chinese population was located close to the many laundry businesses and chop suey restaurants located in all parts of the city.
By 1940, only two Chinese stores were left in the area that is today better known as the African American Heritage Corridor. Those two stores were located on the same block as the historic Michigan Street Baptist Church at 511 Michigan Ave.
Suey Gee Chang was located at 507 Michigan Ave. It was a retail outlet that catered to Buffalo’s Chinese population.
Between the church and Suey Gee Chang was the home of two organizations, the Chinese Benevolent Protective Association and the Chinese Merchants Association. Here, the Chinese gathered to exchange news from back home, iron out differences among themselves, collect money for relief of the poor in China and, especially for the older Chinese, play mahjong.
It was mostly the oldest members of the group who also maintained a Buddhist shrine at 509 Michigan Ave. Twice a month they’d drink tea and practice incense burning rituals.
George Wong was a leader of the Buffalo Chinese community and owned a laundry at 718 Elmwood. He said that even though most of the area’s Chinese were no longer practicing the religion, that Buddhism “indirectly still maintain(ed) a hold over his people.”
“The Chinese always try to imagine how an act would feel if done on themselves,” Wong said. “If they feel they wouldn’t like it, then they think it wrong to do it to someone else. Above all they hate stealing.”
A generation earlier, the organization of Chinese businessmen was much more robust and was located at 475 Michigan Ave., near the corner of William Street. Unless they used a Chinese-operated laundry service, the only time most of Buffalo heard from the city’s Chinese population was when both newspapers wrote about colorful and exotic Chinese New Year celebrations every year or when the businessmen would collect money for the starving people of China. The impoverished conditions in many parts of China were the result of a long war with Japan. It’s also the origin of the bromide about “starving kids in China.”
Buffalonians were always particularly generous to the efforts to collect for poor of China, especially when, for example, Mayor J.N. Adam gave his office as a collection point and encouraged the people of the city to give.
Fook-Lip Liu was a graduate of Burgard High School and a mechanic at Curtiss Aeroplane. “We are very happy because the living conditions here are so much better than in China,” Fook-Lip explained to Courier-Express reporter Lucian C. Warren in that 1940 article. “Americans are very nice to us and Buffalonians in particular have been nice to the Chinese.”
Buffalo’s early Chinese population mostly came to Buffalo from southern China; among them was Wallace Lee. He came to Buffalo in 1918 and worked as a chef. In the Town of Tonawanda, he and his wife raised six children, among whom there were at least two doctors, a pharmacist, an engineer and a school teacher.
The Chinese men said they were treated well in Buffalo, but that wasn’t always the case for Chinese here, particularly at the height of an opium epidemic in the mid-1890s.
“Slippery Jim” Lee was a trafficker of opium into Buffalo across the Canadian border. Under cover of darkness, he and his cohorts climbed into rowboats in Canada to take the drugs from across the Niagara River. Once on this side of the river, the drugs were taken to the Michigan Avenue Chinatown for distribution.
In 1897, a Buffalo Courier reporter followed a U.S. Marshals detective to 234 Michigan Ave. and wrote an ugly, racist accounting of what unfolded there.
With a series of shrieks similar to those that might be uttered by wild animals, Jim Lee’s two henchmen leaped to their feet, and rushed upon (the detective). The latter threw back his coat displaying his badge, at the same time announcing that he was an officer and wanted Jim Lee.
He proceeded to look through the place, paying no attention to the ravings of the Chinks.
Finally, one of them, an unusually dark skinned fellow, with fierce, villainous looking black eyes, grabbed up an-iron weight with a string attached, and swinging it around his head, threatening to knock the officer’s head off if he did not get out.
Once the opium trade died down, so did the hostility between Buffalo and the Chinese.
The writer of a glowing 1905 review of the Chinese New Year was apparently awestruck by the $300 worth of fireworks set alight in front of the Michigan Avenue shop of Hop Chong Wah.
The Chinese in attendance considered it Buffalo’s first professional fireworks display. The review read: “To the average spectator the Chinese seemed to have mastered the art of handling fireworks, and the display was well worth seeing. Even the street car motormen stopped their cars for a few moments while the din was at its height in order to allow the passengers to take in the scene.”
An account of the preparations for the 1912 New Year celebration gives an idea of what it must have been like:
Sam Lee, one of the best known Chinese in Buffalo, said last night that his countrymen were making elaborate preparations for the event this year, which will be doubly important, owing to the creation of a new republic in China, with Dr. Sun at its head.
“Our people in Buffalo will feast for days, and maybe weeks,” said Lee.
At a Chinese restaurant in Michigan street a banquet is planned at which most of the Chinese and their “Melican friends” will be present.
Here there will be bird nest soup, shark fins, which somebody a year ago dubbed “fish with whiskers,” geese gizzards, lobster, young duck and a dozen other strange dishes of the Orient.
The place will be elaborately decorated for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, a joss altar and vari-colored lights. There will be quaint Chinese pottery and chopsticks, “Gum boi,” the favorite Chinese red wine, will be very much in evidence.
All good Chinamen are now paying their debts. New Year’s cards are now being sent around from one Chinese to another. Laundries, restaurants and tea houses are being cleaned up and put in readiness for days and even weeks of eating, drinking and visiting. It means idleness for the Chinese. That’s the way they celebrate their New Year’s.
Between the world wars, there was no greater unifier of Buffalo’s growing black population than the Michigan Avenue YMCA.
As late as 1920, unique circumstances made gathering as a community in a single space difficult. Overt racism made many civic gathering places, and most private ones, off limits. In other marginalized and immigrant communities within Buffalo, a place of worship also acted as a place of assembly for non-religious activities – but unlike the Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish populations, there wasn’t necessarily a unifying current among the many different churches of the larger African-American community.
The organization of a YMCA branch specifically for Buffalo’s black men and boys started in 1924. By 1927, $225,000 had been raised and plans were drawn up for the building by John Edmonston Brent. He was one of the founding members of the branch, as well as Buffalo’s first black architect. Brent would go on to work for the City of Buffalo, where his design work remains on display, most notably along the gates and fences of the Buffalo Zoo.
On April 15, 1928, the new building was dedicated in “devotion to the uplift and advancement” of the 10,000 members of the black community it served.
Aside from the 20-by-60-foot swimming pool and gymnasium, the building boasted a barber shop in the basement, a lounge for men fronting Michigan Avenue, and a lounge for boys on the side of the building. The second floor was filled with classrooms, club rooms, a cafeteria and a women’s area. The third and fourth floors were dormitories with room for 70 men.
More than just a club, the Michigan Avenue YMCA became the heart of the community. Famous speakers, performers and human rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Count Basie and a young Jim Brown all visited the building.
William “Pops” Jackson (left) began running a YMCA program for Buffalo’s black population in 1923. He oversaw the building of the Michigan Avenue building. When he retired in 1947, he was widely acclaimed as the driving force behind the YMCA and much of the good happening in Buffalo’s black community. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Perhaps more importantly, the building was home to fostering ideas and a sense of purpose from within the black community out to the rest of Western New York.
Following the appointment of the Rev. D Ormond Walker, pastor of Bethel AME Church, to Buffalo’s War Council in 1944, Michigan Avenue YMCA chapter president A.J. Smitherman felt that the YMCA had helping bring people together. He spoke about it at a Y gathering that included the fire commissioner, the Democratic Party chairman and the president of Western Savings Bank.
“It is gratifying that our people and other groups may mingle at ease on terms of human brotherhood and friendship. That’s the kind of unity and brotherhood the world is seeking and it is Buffalo’s answer to those bigots who would raise the red flag of race hatred.”
The Michigan Avenue YMCA building was torn down in 1977; the site remains a vacant lot just south of Sycamore.
It’s spring in Western New York. For most of the last 137 years, that has meant getting ready for Bisons baseball.
Buffalo News archives
This 1957 photo shows Offermann Stadium, home of the Bisons from 1924 to 1960, and the path of Luke Easter’s record 500-plus-foot home run over the scoreboard that year. It was the first time that it have ever been done during a game in the park’s 33-year history — although legend had it that Babe Ruth once hit a ball over the scoreboard during an exhibition.
The outfield billboards are an interesting snapshot of life in Buffalo in 1957 as well.
WKBW’s clock advertises the station that wouldn’t become Buffalo’s top 40 rock ‘n’ roll leader for another year yet. Weber’s Mustard remains a Buffalo favorite, but Madison Cab, Don Allen Chevy and the rest all only exist in Buffalo memories.