Buffalo in the ’50s: Juvenile delinquency and the Crystal Beach Boat Riot

By Steve Cichon

Out driving the day after the infamous Crystal Beach Boat Riot, this group of accused juvenile delinquents may have just picked the wrong day to cruise Buffalo’s West Side with a switchblade in their car.

Buffalo News archives

The summer of 1956 was one of conflict in Buffalo and with Buffalo youth across the lake in Fort Erie. When the Crystal Beach Amusement Park opened on Memorial Day, the day ended with nine youths under arrest, and another six in the hospital with minor injuries. Those arrested and those injured were both black and white.

Two days later, the final ride of the day back to Buffalo aboard the Canadiana—“The Crystal Beach Boat”—was marred by what many who were there remember as rowdy teens getting “extra-rowdy.” In common memory, it was “The Crystal Beach Boat Riot,” or “The Crystal Beach Boat Race Riot.”

Stormy weather meant cramped conditions for passengers crowded into the covered areas of the boat during the 9:15 p.m. run. Tensions already high from the fight in the park a few days earlier boiled over.

Many of those involved said it had more to do with neighborhood or school pride than race, but the resulting breakdown was the same: White youths fighting black youths and black youths fighting white youths. Kids of both races with no previous records of misbehavior at school or with the police got caught up in the melee. Investigations by the FBI and a panel established by Mayor Steven Pankow showed that early newspaper reports of “a nightmare of flashing knives and sobbing passengers” didn’t paint the full picture.

What in retrospect was Buffalo’s earliest manifestation of the civil unrest and racial tensions that were to come during the civil rights movement of the 1960s was at the time downplayed as less about race and more about juvenile delinquency. Three black youths were arrested, but city fathers and the black community called it an unfortunate isolated incident, attributable to hooliganism among the young rather than racial tension.

Police vowed to stop the violence and quell the rowdy behavior of Buffalo’s young thugs and troublemakers.

Within 24 hours of the Canadiana riot, the boys pictured above were taken to the Niagara Street Police Station after a switchblade was found in the car they were riding in—they were all charged with possession of the single knife.

While civic leaders downplayed the role of race in the problems of that summer, race relations in Buffalo were permanently harmed. The riot aboard the Canadiana was also the final straw for steamer service which was already struggling with increased competition from cars and buses. The summer of 1956 was the last season for the boat which, since 1910, had carried 18 million passengers between Buffalo and Crystal Beach.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.