From 1880 to Today: The Watson Elevator

By Steve Cichon

Perhaps it has more to do with the building’s location in the foreground of the image, but the Watson Elevator was an important enough part of the City of Buffalo in 1880 that it is the only building that is actually labelled on the map.

It was built in 1859 by Stephen Van Rensselaer Watson, then one of Buffalo’s busiest builders, using mostly white pine that he’d brought to Buffalo from elsewhere on the Great Lakes on the schooner he owned especially for that purpose.

Watson Elevator 1883

It was heralded as the most ambitious elevator ever built. With two sides of waterway access, it could take in grain from a vessel on the Buffalo River side, while unloading a cargo of coal on the side of the City Ship Canal.

It was that unique and completely surrounded by water status that lead to the elevator’s eventual demise. As Buffalo’s importance as a rail hub grew, there was no way for trains to access the Watson.

The old wooden Watson grain elevator spent most of its last decade empty and abandoned, except for the daring swimmers who’d climb up the rickety old building and take a thrilling jump into the surrounding harbor.

When the Watson met the same fate as so many of Buffalo’s early wooden grain elevators — it burned down in 1907 — it was called “one of the greatest spectacles that Buffalo has had in many a day.”

The burning of the Watson Elevator, 1907

Three Buffalo fire boats — the John M. Hutchinson, the George R. Potter and the W.S. Grattan (still serving now as the Edward S. Cotter) — fought the blaze on the water, and firefighters on the city streets fought more than 100 small fires as winds whipped embers across the water into city.

The Mansion House Hotel, which stood in what’s now the Canalside footprint, lost four awnings to the flying sparks. Sheets of flaming wood blew as far away as the corner of Seneca and Michigan streets.

After several years of political rancor, the site was excavated and became a turning basin for ships in Buffalo Harbor.

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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.