By Steve Cichon
For decades, the Ohio Street Bridge was ground zero for the fight between Buffalo’s road traffic and Buffalo’s water traffic.
Buffalo News archives
Before the Skyway was built, Ohio Street was a major artery. From the motorist’s perspective, the bridge served as access for all the men coming from the south who worked in the mills and elevators along Buffalo Creek as well as men who worked downtown.
That was at odds with the thoughts of shipping interests, however.
“The Ohio Street Bridge has long been a hindrance to navigation in the (Buffalo) river,” a tug line manager told the Courier-Express in 1928.
The bridge spanned the Buffalo River at one of the tight hairpin curves in the waterway. Even without the bridge, as time wore on, it was becoming a difficult area for larger, more modern ships to navigate. The 621-foot freighter Cadillac, it was explained in 1950, had less than three feet of clearance in making the turn.
When city engineers began blasting around the bridge to make a larger way for ships like the Cadillac, the bridge’s central pier was damaged, and the bridge was closed for months.
The subsequent traffic nightmare helped push along long-discussed plans for the high-level bridge and highway along the waterfront that was to become known as The Skyway.
By Steve Cichon
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.