Buffalo in the ’50s: Skyway was city’s ‘brightest jewel’

       By Steve Cichon

There was the feeling that we were finally getting one right after years of talking about it– a “$12,000,000 ribbon of steel and concrete soaring far above downtown highway congestion,” reported The News.

Traffic flowing across the Skyway – which was named by a contest in The Buffalo Evening News – “heralded a new era” for Buffalo.

“Banished forever were the temper-wrecking, time-consuming traffic jams that leaped into existence every time railroads switched across Michigan Ave. or raised lift bridges dead-ended traffic there and on Ohio St.— jams that sometimes stalled cars all the way along South Park to the foot of Main St. Instead, there beckons a 1.1-mile-long, four-lane divided highway, with a 40-mile-an-hour speed limit and no traffic lights, sweeping in four great curves from its downtown entrances to Fuhrmann Blvd.”

WBEN Radio recorded the 11 a.m. opening ceremony and played it back at 7 p.m., so the downtown commuters who’d be the most regular users of the bridge would have the opportunity to listen once they got home from work.

Mayor Steven Pankow cut the ribbon on the bridge that had taken five years to build, but a few decades to imagine.

Mayor Pankow cuts the ribbon on the Skyway.

The first discussion of a high-level bridge to take traffic over the Buffalo’s harbor and railroad exchanges came in a 1922 planning report. That’s 33 years from conception to ribbon-cutting. Many thought it would never happen.

Part of the 2019 criticism of the Skyway is that it looms as a physical and psychological barrier to linking various waterfront development elements.

In 1955, the futuristic highway was being lauded as the solution to bring together two parts of the region that were separated by industrial infrastructure.

The opening of the Skyway in 1955 was a cause for excitement and celebration in Buffalo and looked upon as a harbinger of good things to come for the city. Since then, the closure of the Skyway has been a harbinger of bad snowstorms.

“For many years we of Buffalo have dreamed, pondered and discussed the problem of constructing a suitable passage over the water courses at the Buffalo Harbor and the devious routes in this section of the city,” said State Superintendent of Public Works John Johnson at the ribbon-cutting.

“The restricting necessity of having this traffic artery running from the heart of the business district to the center of a large industrial section seems to have cut our city in two. It has also stifled the entire section from further growth and development, because of traffic congestion.

“Rescue of this area from virtual decay was paramount in our planning. It is a proud and happy day for all of us to witness the completion and now the utilization of this mighty structure.

This piece of work will relieve the whole area from traffic delays, will enhance development, promote prosperity and open a new vista of beauty so magnificent as to be unforgettable.”

The opening of the Skyway, said Mayor Pankow, “marks the beginning of a traffic relief development in Buffalo second to none in the state.”

While the merits of the Skyway continue to be debated, the era of highway building it helped usher in is universally accepted as a dark time in Buffalo’s urban development. As cars first drove on the big elevated bridge along the water, another $33 million in highway construction was already in the works, including the Kensington and Scajaquada expressways.

Torn-down Tuesday:  Skyway dooms railroad right-of-way

By Steve Cichon

Just as Buffalo has a renewed sense of optimism, with many of the imaginative construction projects underway in 2015 and planned for beyond, the people of Western New York were excited about futuristic, forward-looking projects in the 1950s, too.

Buffalo News archives

There had been talk of a “high-level bridge” along the inner and outer harbors of Buffalo for decades by the 1950s. The idea was to provide automobile access to downtown Buffalo from the south, while also maintaining seafaring ships’ access to the harbors and Buffalo River.

In 1950, it was written, “The first spadeful of earth turned for the span will culminate a 25-year dream of city planners for a route to provide the smooth flow of traffic to and from Buffalo from the southeasterly approach.”

By 1954, the way was being cleared at what was to become the downtown end of the high-level bridge.

This photo shows the area where  West Swan, Franklin, Upper Terrace and Erie streets come together, with one of Buffalo’s oldest landmarks — the St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral rectory, built around 1860 — off to the right and city hall overhead.

The old tracks of the New York Central Railroad are just out of view, and can be seen in this photo taken a bit further back. The tracks were given up in part for the roadbeds of the Skyway and the I-190.

Buffalo Stories archives

Buffalo in the ’70s: It’s a grainy photo, but waterfront progress couldn’t be clearer

By Steve Cichon

This grainy 1975 photo was published to show the progress being made on repairs to the Skyway, but looking at the area with the eyes of 2015, 40 years of progress and change couldn’t be clearer.

Missing from the photo are the 1979 Adams Mark Hotel, and its neighbors WNED-TV and WKBW-TV. To the left of the Skyway, toward the top, you find an empty field where there is now Canalside.

The Aud and the Donovan Office Building stand just to the right of the Skyway at the top of the page. The Aud site is now home to the canals used for skating and boating. The bones of the Donovan Building live on inside the Phillips Lytle building.

For decades, city planners wrang their hands over the Webster block. In 1975, it was a parking lot, which it remained until only three years ago, when the Pegulas broke ground on HarborCenter.  Also not in this photo — because it was 20 years from being built — is First Niagara Center.

Even Old Buffalo Looking New: Ch.4’s 1960’s Buffalove

       By Steve Cichon

BUFFALO, NY – My friend Libby wrote something the other day which made me think. She was talking about the cold and the gray and the snow, and how we don’t even realize how the darkness of it all creeps into our personality.

“Honestly do not even realize I am depressed, until the sun comes out and everything is sunshiny and I feel the depression lift!”


I read this amidst my going through my collection of old radio and TV trade magazines. In the late 50s and early 60s, these magazines were filled with ads from local radio and TV stations looking to appeal to national advertisers. They talk about how great the station is, but also how wonderful the city and it’s people are– a great place to sell your stuff.

There are plenty of great ads from Buffalo stations. It’s like a Buffalo version of the wacky creative efforts you might see from the guys on Mad Men.


I’ve used these old magazines as a resource for years. Decades even. This time, however, the feeling was different, and Libby’s exaltation helped me put my finger on what made some of these ads better than they were the last time I looked.

These ads look better and more interesting, because there is hope and brightness in Buffalo like we haven’t seen here since the late 50s.

These ads, from 1958 and 1964, show WBEN-TV’s excitement for Buffalo and what is to come, and are meant to showcase the “just-over-the-horizon New Buffalo” that was on it’s way.

These ads feel fresh and great, because while there was a 60 year lag, that New Buffalo really is just around the corner this time.


When we were filled with gloom and darkness about our city, we would look and read these, and point to the empty, rotting grain elevators as a vestige of a vanished industry.

We’d look closely on the Skyway image, and see the beams marked with the logo of Bethlehem Steel. It was a bridge built to get 15,000 men from the city to their jobs in a plant that’s been cold for 30 years.


We imagine what Buffalo would have looked like if we didn’t build highways and downtown office buildings for 2 million expected Western New Yorkers, and we lament the buildings that were lost because too much of downtown was torn down too quickly for the wrong reasons.

But now, with the sun out here for the first time in generations, we look at these images and see progress and what’s to come. We now recreate under the Skyway, with promise of more to come. Grain elevators and malt houses are becoming the avant-garde, up-and-coming spaces that the next generation of Buffalonians realize are incredibly unique to us alone, as moves are made to re-imagine and re-purpose what makes us unique.


And with cranes and scaffolds up in dozens of places around the city, the thought of “new building” isn’t necessarily followed by “oh no.”

As the sun shines, and us Buffalonians feel the depression about our city lift, we’re beginning to figure out how to make our dynamic past, part of our dynamic future.

And we’re getting excited about seeing how the same ol’stuff starts to look different with some sunshine on it, warming the face and the soul.