Torn-Down Tuesday: The gritty Seawall community on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor

       By Steve Cichon

The ramshackle, weather-beaten cottages and the people who lived in them were legendary in their own time.

Over the course of about 40 years, a group of several hundred families, mostly Irish and headed by mostly fishermen and sailors, settled on a strip of land that was created when the City of Buffalo built a seawall in 1865 to protect the city and the harbor from erosion and flooding caused by Lake Erie’s harsh wind, water and ice.

About 150 to 300 feet wide, the Seawall Strip ran from the lighthouse along the lakeshore to just past the foot of Michigan Street, which today is right around Wilkeson Pointe.

For 30 years or so, these folks lived, mostly ignored, on land that most viewed as useless. A few had to move their homes when a railroad was built; another couple made way for access to grain elevators. But in the mid-1890s, city fathers began to see the land as the perfect spot to connect the Hamburg Turnpike with downtown Buffalo.

A 1902 photo of the Seawall. To the left, the steeple of Our Lady of Mercy is visible. (Buffalo Stories archives)

The decades-long battle that ensued left poor people battling for their homes and newspapers and politicians battling over who was trying to do the right thing.

Of the five or six Buffalo papers that were covering the story closely, the one most firmly on the side of the people living along the seawall was the Buffalo Times. “Are 2300 citizens to lose their homes?” asked one front-page headline in 1897.

“These men built their homes with their own hands,” read the accompanying story. “They are not imposing structures, but they are comfortable, and when the wind blows down the lake and the big waves boil up along the shore, the people on the seawall strip are still warmer and safer than many on the mainland. They have fought poverty and nature and won. Now all their little property is in danger of being taken from them.”

It was for the good of the city, it was claimed, if not the people living there.

It was key to Buffalo’s continued expansion.

“The seawall strip and outer harbor will be developed, and the City of Buffalo is destined to enter upon an era of rapid growth in the near future,” said County Engineer George Diehl.

In 1908, the federal government took control of much of the seawall strip and evicted those living there.

“The hovels that for a score or more years have been homes to a half a dozen families must go,” reported the Buffalo Commercial — the paper that was most in line with interests wanting the strip developed.

“The strip in question,” said the Commercial, “is a dreary stretch of sand — desolate in summer, bleak in winter, worthless at all times without the expenditures of a vast sum; but on its barren acres a score or more of shanties have been erected and have been the homes of as many families.”

Six years later, holdouts were still living on the seawall. The Seawall Commission awarded $2,700 to each of the five families that had been living on “the island” for generations. It looked like the nearly 20-year battle was over — until a judge declared the payments illegal and ordered the city to serve notices to vacate. The City Council unanimously refused to enforce the order to vacate, and the legal battles continued.

The well-organized residents who remained dug in even deeper at this point.

“Some of them have seen their children and grandchildren born in these homes — the only homes they know — and it would terrible to drive them out and tear down their homes without any compensation,” said Thomas Sullivan, the residents’ lawyer.

“The city’s offer of a settlement puts them on the record backing their claims. Forcible ejection would make anarchists of the residents of the seawall,” Sullivan said.

Mary Freitus was one of the survivors. She was born in the home she lived in on the strip. It was built by her father, John Lattimer, in 1844, making her claim the oldest. She remembered growing potatoes and raising chickens, pigs and cows on the strip.

The fact that people like Freitus had lived in their homes for 70 years was only part of what validated their claims of ownership. Institutions popped up in the neighborhood as well.

The Seawall’s Celtic Rowing Club

The Celtic Rowing Club Boathouse was on the strip for more than 50 years. Through the years, it boasted members like William F. Sheehan, who went on to become New York’s lieutenant governor, as well as William J. Donovan, the founder of the CIA.

There was even a Catholic church and school on the strip at the foot of Michigan Street. Our Lady of Mercy was dedicated by Bishop Stephen V. Ryan in 1875. Like everything else on the seawall, it was a humble place.

The children of the seawall at Our Lady of Mercy School, 1907. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“A small unpretentious frame building, with an exterior sadly the worse for paint, stands at a distance from the road leading down to the lake at the foot of Michigan Street and beyond the railroad crossings. A tiny cross, rising above the surrounding buildings, tells what the modest little edifice is,” reported the Commercial in 1894.

The little two-room schoolhouse attached to the chapel was staffed by Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy from Miss Nardin’s Academy. A priest would come from the cathedral to offer Mass every Sunday for the 150 or so families at the parish around 1895.

The Commercial article went on, “Situated in the very heart of the shipping district, the work of the sisters and the priests is hard and discouraging in the extreme. It is no small thing to make the daily pilgrimage from the convent on Franklin Street beyond the swing bridges to the island.

“The influence of the priests and the sisters in this part of the island city is far-reaching and beneficial. They go into the hovels of the poor people, visit the sick and minister to the dying. But perhaps more than all else is the influence they have upon the children of the island, whose minds, but for the tiny chapel school, would know nothing but squalor and crime.”

The years of fighting over the seawall strip came to a head in 1917, when the Pennsylvania Railroad tried to take the home of longtime Seawall stalwart Col. John Houlihan.

Col. John Houlihan

He barricaded himself inside his home of 25 years, surrounded by three American flags and a rifle across his knees. Houlihan’s son was nearby wielding an ax and Mrs. Houlihan was standing at the stove, ready to dispense with a big pot of boiling water if needed.

“You know what happens to anyone who touches the American flag,” said Houlihan to the railroad carpenters and laborers who had shown up to tear the place down.

“I’m on my own property and serve notice that I will defend it to the last drop of blood in me,” said Houlihan. The railroad stood down, but Houlihan died a few years later.

Eventually, parts of the land that were once the seawall community were taken up by the railroad, by grain companies, and by the city — for Fuhrmann Boulevard, for a short-lived city bathing spot called Times Beach, and for the city dump.

The stench of the dump drove out any of the remaining Seawall holdouts, but when the Depression hit, “hoboes and down-and-outers” dug into the mounds of garbage and built shacks sheltered by and out of the debris.

Shacks in the dumps, 1934. (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Before long, there was a regular colony of shacks, which harbored more than 100 grimy men who ranged from the harmless and homeless to suspects seeking a safe hideaway,” reported the Courier-Express in 1934, as the last of them were being routed out for what had been talked about for 40 years – the building of an outer harbor highway, which was to be named after Mayor Fuhrmann.

Those final evictions marked the end of nearly a century of industrious – if not always clearly legal – living along the water’s edge in Buffalo’s Outer Harbor.

Our Lady of Mercy First Communion class, 1907. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Torn-Down Tuesday: Buffalo’s public bath houses

By Steve Cichon

Buffalo’s position as one of America’s largest and most sophisticated cities was strikingly on display with the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The City of Light. Advanced transportation. The most modern manufacturing ideas put into practice. Many of the wonders of the Industrial Revolution were on display for the world to take in and enjoy in Buffalo.

Sitting around a spittoon, men and boys wait for their turn for a free bath. (Buffalo Stories archives)

But behind that picture of a flourishing city was an undeniable underbelly: Thousands of Buffalonians had no running water in their homes or access to bathing facilities.

It was universally acknowledged as a growing problem, but one without a clear solution.

“A great number of Buffalonians do not feel the need of public baths in the summer months,” wrote the Buffalo Courier in 1895, “because there are many much frequented bathing places along the lake and river fronts and along the numerous creeks in Buffalo.”

Buffalo had two public baths in 1895. They were at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, along the lakeshore close to the General Mills complex, and at the foot of Porter Avenue, near the Buffalo Yacht Club.
Buffalo had two public baths in 1895. They were at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, along the lakeshore close to the General Mills complex, and at the foot of Porter Avenue, near the Buffalo Yacht Club.

Buffalo, it was written, didn’t need bathing facilities, because people bathed in lakes, rivers, and creeks.

A day at the beach was more than just a day of sunshine and relaxation—it was a matter of hygiene. Resort beaches south of the city, places like Wanakah, Idlewood and Bennett Beach, were appropriate for women and children, but men and older boys would bathe wherever they could.

The foot of Court and Georgia streets — which once led from the West Side to the banks of Lake Erie — were popular spots, as were Squaw Island and the foot of Ferry Street.

One man was arrested trying to wash up in the Johnson Park fountain. “The Polish Boys,” wrote The Courier, frequented a bathing hole along Buffalo Creek near South Ogden and the railroad bridge of the Jammerthal area— now the northern East Side of Buffalo. One still-open quarrying area is along Amherst Street as it approaches Bailey Avenue coming from Main Street.

In 1895, Buffalo’s two public baths—one at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, one at the foot of Porter Avenue – were “small box-like arrangements,” more or less “dilapidated, dirty, and disgraceful” sheds.

Street urchins and pickpockets would use the places, it was said, but no respectable boy or man would be seen there—where a nickel would provide use of a locker and a pair of “bathing pants.”

“Buffalo is deplorably, disgracefully deficient in public baths,” wrote the Courier. Especially during winter months, when bathing alternatives were needed, working men couldn’t afford the luxury of the widely available $1 Turkish baths.

City leaders took the health crisis and turned it into one of the nation’s first public welfare programs.

Men and boys wait for their turn in Buffalos public bath, 1901. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Men and boys wait for their turn in Buffalo’s public bath, 1901. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Buffalo Health Commissioner Wende called the bath houses in two of Buffalo’s most crowded tenement areas a long time in coming.

“While the luxury and benefit of public baths have reached their highest stage in Europe, it remained for Buffalo, an American city, in competing for the supremacy in the realization of the conditions desired by a cultured public, to establish a bath where the indigent, the fatigued, and the unclean could find shelter and care without money and without price.”

In 1897, a brick structure was built on the Terrace as a sanitary bathing facility for the men of Buffalo, particularly the mostly Irish immigrants of the First Ward and the Italian immigrants of The Hooks.

Soap and towels were provided to bathers free of charge. The facility was the first free, open bath house anywhere in the country, and put Buffalo on the cutting edge of health and sanitation.

Buffalos Public Bath House Number 1, was located on the southern tip of The Terrace playground. The building was in the approximate area of Channel 7s studios today. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Buffalo’s Public Bath House No. 1 was located on the southern tip of the Terrace playground. The building was in the approximate area of Channel 7’s studios today. (Buffalo Stories archives)

In 1901, a second public bath house was built on Buffalo’s East Side at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street.

Buffalos Public Bath House Number 2 at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)
Buffalo’s Public Bath House No. 2 at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street. (Buffalo Stories archives)

This larger building had separate bathing facilities and waiting rooms for both men and women. While there were bathtubs for women and infants, men were offered showers. The idea of showering was brand new — so new, in fact, that a 1901 article in The Buffalo Express explained how a shower works.

“The bather stands erect in the shower, and the water falls down upon him. There is a depression in the floor, with perforations which carry away the water that has fallen.”

The interior of the shower area had stalls separated by wrought iron. Water was heated to approximately 100 degrees, and bathers were allowed 20 minutes in the showering and adjoining dressing rooms.

The buildings’ rules were written on the walls in English, Polish, Italian and German. They read:

  1. Smoking prohibited
  2. No swearing or obscene language
  3. No intoxicated person allowed in the building
  4. Walls, furniture, and property must not be defaced or injured
  5. Soiled clothing must be taken away by the bather
  6. Towels must be returned to the keeper or matron
  7. No bather may occupy an apartment longer than 20 minutes

There were also laundry facilities for underclothes to help further improve sanitation.

Dr. Wende said the free services, with more than 394,000 baths taken in the first four years, cost Buffalo taxpayers 3 cents per person per year, with most of that cost going toward the purchase of soap.

Well into the 1950s, these two bath houses, along with two more at Grant and Amherst and 249 William St., remained in demand providing as many as a million baths a year.

One slight modification was made as time went on — a new rule prevented singing in the showers.

“If we let people sing in our 52 showers,” said the keeper of Bath House No. 2 Stanley Molik, “we’d be in trouble for disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.

Torn-down Tuesday: St. Brigid’s Hall in the First Ward

By Steve Cichon

St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church was the center of the Irish immigrant community in Buffalo’s First Ward neighborhood for more than a century.

Buffalo News archive

More than just the home of spiritual life, St. Brigid’s — and specifically St. Brigid’s Hall — was a center for union meetings, political rallies, parties, sporting events and theatrical performances.

Through the 1920s, it was also the place where thousands came together to organize the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade through the streets of the Ward.

The hall, pictured above in 1938, stood on the corner of Fulton and Louisiana streets.

The hall was across Fulton Street from the church, as shown on this 1894 city ward map. Buffalo Stories archives.