Torn-Down Tuesday: When Transit was a beautiful little country road

By Steve Cichon

Think of a joyful weekend ride down a beautiful little country road.

Now think of a weekend ride down Transit Road.

Driving it today, you might be overwhelmed by the feeling of modern American sprawl, but the road itself was etched into the landscape more than 200 years ago.

In 1952, mothers protested on the bridge that crossed Transit Road at Tonawanda Creek, just north of Millersport Highway. Some Erie County children had to cross the bridge — which had no sidewalks — on foot to get to their Niagara County school each day. The bridge that goes over the same spot today has two wide shoulders and carries five lanes of traffic.

Work began in 1799, cutting through the wilderness to create a route from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. The route was very close to one traveled by Native Americans from a time before recorded history, but construction followed one of the guidelines on the original Holland Land Co. survey of the area. The “Transit Meridian Line, due north,” which was nothing but an imaginary line on a map, evolved into today’s artery that runs through the center of southern Niagara and northern Erie counties.

The old Iroquois route was well established at what is now Transit and Main, and both the surveying and the road building started off from that spot. It’s been an important intersection for hundreds of years, long before our struggles to get into the proper lane for turning into Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Transit Road, 1919.

Nature that wasn’t a much of a concern to the native peoples was soon being tamed by European settlers. Fisherman liked the speckled trout they could pull from the Tonawanda Creek, but they didn’t like the rattlesnakes, bears and wolves.

Ad for the Depew Transit Road Land Co., 1893.

Taming nature also meant development. It was at the junction of the Erie Canal and the Transit Road where Lockport grew in the 1820s.

A few years later and little further south, Catholic missionaries founded “the Parish of the transit” in the wilderness of what is now northern Erie County.

In the 1840s, Adam Schworm built and home and a store near that church, and that part of Transit has been known as “Swormville” or “Swormsville” (depending on who you ask) ever since.

Another boon to the development of Transit Road came in 1893 with the New York Central Railroad’s decision to build 100 acres’ worth of rail sheds and locomotive shops in what would eventually become the Village of Depew.

Land speculators started gobbling up land near Transit Road. “At least 25,000 people will soon inhabit the new City of Depew,” says the 1893 ad for the Depew Transit Road Land Co., “and they will keep on coming.”

In the earliest days of the automobile and “the Sunday drive,” Transit Road was the strip of road where Buffalonians would drive to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, although even 99 years ago, a writer in The Buffalo Times admonished drivers for not taking it all in.

A variety of ads for Transit Rd. attractions aimed at automobile drivers, 1907.

“The mad motorist will fail to appreciate the continual exhibition of pastoral life led by the farmers along (Transit Road) and will have no eye for the alluring country detail — the superb trees and verdure, nor sense the perfume from the hay field, flowers and sweet grasses.”

Hens & Kelly was a stand-alone store in the parking lot of Transitown Plaza starting in the mid-1950s.

Once motoring enthusiasts started driving along Transit Road, farmers started making room for people trying to make a buck on those Sunday drivers.

Public houses, hotels and taverns sprang up with increasing frequency around the intersection of Main Street and Transit Road.

As the early days of the automobile moved into postwar suburban expansion, Main and Transit once again was an early spot for reflective development, culminating with the construction of the Eastern Hills Mall starting in 1969.

Hopefully all this gives you something to ponder the next time a Saturday afternoon Transit Road drive from Genesee Street to Maple Road takes 22 minutes.

Buffalo in the ’80s: Transit Road’s rooftop punch bug

By Steve Cichon

If you were a kid riding in the back seat on Transit Road in the 1980s, you quietly waited, hoping that your sibling forgot about the “sure thing” that was coming up.

Buffalo Stories archives/Buffalo News

Just past Cambria’s and Ralph’s Food Valu heading from the north — or just past Zorba’s and Lucki-Urban Furniture from the south — was a free, no-doubt-about-it punch for the kid who was paying attention.

Of course, nearly every set of siblings from the ’60s through the ’80s played the “punch bug” game with the original Volkswagen Beetles, produced for American drivers from the 1950s through 1977. Millions of Bugs meant millions of punches — as the game went, the first to see a “punch bug” was able to lawfully, under kids’ law, punch the person next to them as they exclaim “punch bug!”

It was about 1980 when Jim Abdallah, the Jim of “Jim’s VW Service” on Transit Road, took the engine out of a 1968 Volkswagen Bug and hoisted it up onto the roof of his repair shop.

From the small blurb in a 1985 Buffalo Sunday magazine, it’s unclear whether or not Abdallah was aware of the thousands of instances of physical violence he’d be precipitating in the back seats of family cars in the greater Depew/Lancaster/Cheektowaga area. There, however, the punch bug remained until some point in the ’90s — when the roof-borne bug was replaced with one painted on the side of the building. That still might be enough for some brothers to punch one another.

Buffalo in the ’50s: The suburban splendor of Hens & Kelly

By Steve Cichon

Today, the thought driving to the corner of Main and Transit might conjure up thoughts of sprawl for as far as the eye can see married with seemingly endless traffic. Sixty years ago that same view — as seen in the Transitown Plaza parking lot here — was more like the summit of suburban living and all the newness that Buffalo had to offer.

Buffalo News archives

This late ’50s H&K photo (above) is from the same time period as this ad (below) announcing Hens & Kelly’s 67thanniversary (and subsequent sale.)

Matthias Hens and Patrick Kelly opened Hens & Kelly in downtown Buffalo in 1892. The store remained in local hands until the late 1960s, when it was bought by Sperry & Hutchinson, the S&H Green Stamps people.

The original downtown location is now known as “The Mohawk Building.” The Transitown Plaza location is now home to TJ Maxx. When the Abbott Road location opened in 1951, Lackawanna’s LB Smith Plaza was the largest shopping plaza in Western New York. Today, it is anchored by Save-A-Lot. The Bailey Avenue location was next to the Kensington Expressway.

In the 1970s, the chain was purchased by Twin Fair. All Hens & Kelly location closed their doors when Twin Fair disappeared in 1982.