For this 21st century Buffalonian, it’s tough to imagine the water playing such a vital daily role in the lives of Buffalonians of 100 years ago, but the dock along the Buffalo River is as busy as any downtown street.
For generations, we’ve lamented the loss of the water as a part of our lives in Buffalo. While projects of the last 15 years have allowed much more waterfront access than we’ve seen in decades, today, the foot of Main Street in this photo is covered by Metro Rail tracks and parking lots between the back of KeyBank Center and the Skyway.
The steel propeller passenger ship Wyandotte spent the summer of 1904 as the passenger ferry between downtown Buffalo and Crystal Beach. It was one of a handful of steamers to handle those duties before the SS Canadiana took over the route from 1910 through 1956.
About a decade after the above photo was taken, the buildings visible on the left would make way for the DL&W Terminal, parts of which are still used today as an NFTA storage shed for Metro Rail trains.
Today, HarborCenter is one of the developments of a revitalized waterfront that draws people from all over the world.
In 1946, when the photo above was taken, lower Main Street was more of a reminder of what Buffalo was losing, rather than what was to come.
For decades, the anchor of that block had been the Seaman’s Home.
“The Seaman’s Home is not a charitable institution,” said founder James Pickard in 1925, when Buffalonians were concerned lower Main Street was “being overrun with bums and hoboes.” Pickard said the Seaman’s Home was a place where men could get 50 cents’ worth of clean lodging for 20 cents.
He was superintendent of the home from 1907 until he died in 1944. The place was “designed to provide lakemen with a home within their means and one where they could maintain their self-respect.”
When the Seaman’s Home Association was created, there was a need for winter housing for the thousands of men who worked on lake boats for the other three seasons.
By the 1950s, the local maritime industry had changed. Great Lakes shipping was no longer a key cog in the country’s economy. Many of the less-skilled jobs had been automated, and far fewer sailors who remained made relatively decent salaries and could afford to live comfortably when not on the lakes.
In 1953, the Courier-Express “Enquiring Reporter” asked a handful of men, several of whom listed the Seaman’s Home as their address, “What causes you to live on Skidrow?”
Each of them, in one way or another, mentioned alcoholism as a part of their struggle to survive.
When the area was rezoned in 1957, a salvage company owner said no one would notice if the place was torn down.
“The Seaman’s Home is nothing but a dropping-off spot for every bum from California to Maine,” said Robert Gray of Republic Salvage, heatedly, in a Common Council hearing. “I know what I’m talking about because I put on old clothes and went down there to see for myself.”
A few years later, when impending redevelopment put the future of the home in jeopardy, The News reported “there are few places left where the human derelicts of the city can get a bed for a night for the traditional 50 cents.” Not too long afterward, one of the last was nothing but a memory.
After decades as a parking lot for special events at The Aud and what’s now KeyBank Center, HarborCenter was opened on the spot in 2014.
The great thing about this 1969 map proposing a waterfront domed stadium… Is that it pretty much looks this way there now— if you squint, the proposed domed stadium looks like Key Bank Center and the proposed convention center looks like HarborPlace.
Also, thank God the West Side Arterial (on the left towards the top) wasn’t built.
In fact, thank God most of the proposed buildings listed here weren’t built. Number 10 is shown where Coca-Cola Field is… it wound up on the other side of number 9 and became the Hilton/Adam’s Mark.
Before they were even finished digging the Hamburg Canal, in 1849, the standing, fetid water in the half-dug ditch was blamed in part for a growing cholera crisis in what we now call the First Ward and Canalside areas.
1896 map with Hamburg Canal highlighted in blue. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Originally conceived to help divert traffic away from the busy Erie Canal, soon the railroads were doing a good enough job of making the Hamburg Canal in particular nearly completely obsolete.
For decades, the fate of the canal was a political hot potato. Albany politicians tried to wrestle control of the valuable land. Others vowed the city could make a fortune by filling it in and getting the land into the hands of the railroads – but which railroad seemed to be the point of disagreement.
Meanwhile, the mucky water sat festering.
The Common Council declared the Hamburg Canal a nuisance in 1869. The following year, Buffalo Mayor Alexander Brush and a group of concerned citizens took a tugboat tour of the Canal from Michigan Street to the Buffalo Harbor. One participant called the waterway “a horrible bed of pestilence.”
It got worse from there. A 1912 report called the canal a “mass of decaying filth, stagnant water, foul-smelling, and covered by a dark scum.”
The largest part of the Hamburg Canal was finally put out of its misery when the Lehigh Valley Railroad built Buffalo’s glowing new passenger terminal on a filled-in portion of it in 1916.
Hate for the man-made waterway was reignited when Depression-era WPA workers came across a long-covered portion of the canal running where they had been planning on building the foundation of Memorial Auditorium. Special reinforced sewers were built below The Aud to allow the old canal’s waters to continue to move all through the building’s nearly 70-year history.
Today, the Canalside rink, the Courtyard by Marriott and The Buffalo News are all on ground that was once Buffalo’s most derided waterway.
Buffalo became “the Atlantic’s back door” when the Erie Canal opened for business 191 years ago today.
The village of Buffalo was a town of about 2,400 at the time. When a ceremonial start to the digging of the canal in Buffalo was held in 1823, everyone in the town and surrounding villages like Black Rock and Buffalo Plains (now both a part of the City of Buffalo) was invited to come celebrate. They were also asked to bring their tools and plow animals.
The effort was a community one. A group of men from the Buffalo Plains — now the area along Main Street from Niagara Falls Boulevard to Sisters Hospital — drove a team of 12 oxen down to the area that is now Canalside to start digging.
The men and the animals worked all day, and the only payment was found flowing from the barrels of pure rye whiskey set up along what was destined to become the banks of the Erie Canal.
“Our whiskey then was the pure article, made from rye, without adulteration,” wrote pioneer Buffalonian William Hodge, who remembered the events from when he was a boy. “Along the line of the canal, at convenient distances, was to be found another barrel of whiskey, pure old rye, with part of the head cut out and tin dipper lying by and all were expected to help themselves.”
A little more than two years later, on Oct. 26, 1825, the entire town poured back into that same area for the gala opening of this marvel of modern engineering.
That morning, the Village of Buffalo echoed with cannon fire at 9 a.m., the official start of the parade to the canal terminus. A band led the way for a cadre of soldiers and sailors, followed by the spade-carrying laborers who did most of the digging, followed by hundreds of citizens. At the end of the parade was a carriage carrying Gov. DeWitt Clinton and Sen. Samuel Wilkeson — whose work in dredging Buffalo Harbor made the entire event possible.
With a ceremonial jug of water pulled from Lake Erie in tow, Gov. Clinton climbed aboard “The Seneca Chief” bound for New York City at exactly 10 a.m.
A cannon fired as the boat left, and in the days before telephone or even telegraph, news of the successful start of the journey was sent to Albany by a relay of cannon fire. Each time a cannon shot was heard by an artilleryman slightly further up the canal, he’d fire a shot. The news traveled 280 miles in a mind-boggling hour and 40 minutes.
The Seneca Chief and Gov. Clinton arrived in New York City on Nov. 4, 1825. That ceremonial jug of Lake Erie water was poured into the Atlantic for the wedding of the waters and Buffalo’s fate was sealed as the east’s last stop on the way to the American West.
Fifty-five years later, Buffalonians are growing increasing excited as new and innovative uses are being created for the aging, hulking grain elevators and mills along the Buffalo River.
But this week in 1960, the chairman of International Milling would have “looked at you funny” had you told him the best use for grain elevators might be to wrap them to look like beer cans so people have something interesting to look at while they play outdoor ice hockey.
Charles Ritz — who hailed from Minneapolis, not Buffalo, mind you — said things like “Buffalo’s geographic advantage cannot be matched” and “Buffalo is best situated to supply growing populations of the American Northeast.”