Torn-Down Tuesday: Tonawanda’s notorious vice district, Goose Island

       By Steve Cichon

If you’re visiting the City of Tonawanda these days, taking a nice ride from, say, Gateway Harbor – the home of Canal Fest and summertime concerts – over to Old Man River for a hot dog and an ice cream, you might not realize the trip includes passage through what was once one of Western New York’s most infamous red light districts.

Goose Island, City of Tonawanda, 1925

The area that’s now home to a Tops Market and the police station was once known as “Goose Island,” a small man-made island formed when the Erie Canal cut off a triangle of land from the rest of the city bounded on the other sides by Tonawanda Creek and the Niagara River.

It’s no surprise that Tonawanda’s expansive lumber industry eventually made use of the island, but initially it was developed with residences for more well-to-do Tonawandans.

Goose Island “resorts” with doors and windows nailed shut following vice and liquor raids in the 1930s.

Tonawanda Mayor Christ S. Warren was born on Goose Island in 1879, when the Tonawandas were the world’s largest freshwater lumber port. As a boy, he helped his grandfather operate a grocery store which catered to the canalers.

“Many a morning I got up at 3 o’clock to drive a team and a covered wagon to the Buffalo market for supplies,” an 81-year-old Warren remembered in a 1960 interview.

But times changed. There were several destructive fires there in the early 1890s. In 1899, speculators bought up much of Goose Island as it was named as a possible site for a series of docks for lumber and grain ships – but those docks were ultimately built on Buffalo’s Squaw Island.

Whether it was a direct result of that crazed land buying gone bust or not, over the next 20 years, Goose Island became known as a “notorious district,” made up of “disorderly houses.”

“Goose Island has had a shady reputation for years,” reported the Buffalo Times, “and had come to be well-known throughout this section of the country because of the escapades credited to many persons visiting it.”

The infamous area was commonly referenced in divorce proceedings of the time. Mrs. Lumley was granted a divorce after her husband was fingered as “one of three boon fellows” joined by “buxom women companions” at a “wild party” on Goose Island in 1925.

It was around the same time that Erie County Sheriff Frank A. Tyler called the conditions on Goose Island “downright immoral,” and threatened that if Tonawanda Police wouldn’t clean up the place, he’d send deputies to “remove this stigma from Erie County.”

After a late night visit to the district Tyler told the Buffalo Courier, “I have positive evidence that women are soliciting openly in the streets.” He went on to quote letters from parents who said their sons and daughters were “ruined” by visits to the district.

Despite “more than 20 houses of ill-repute operating with two to four women attached to each house,” Goose Island hotel owner Philip Perew said he’d been living on the island for years and saw no problems with conditions there.

“Everybody knows what Goose Island is for,” said Perew, who lived on Sweeney Street.

“A survey of Goose Island yesterday by a reporter revealed there are two streets in which nearly every house contains two or three women wearing gaudy dresses and having highly painted faces,” reported the Buffalo Courier. “The women make no secret of their business and laugh at reports of the impending cleanup.”

Aside from the vice, “the free flow of intoxicating liquor” was also a problem there during the height of Prohibition. In some quarters, Goose Island was known as “the wettest spot in New York State.” A Buffalo man was arrested in 1925 driving a truck with 30 barrels of beer on River Road. Often that beer didn’t make it too far– plant operators on “the island” had a difficult time keeping employees sober. As many as 500 people a night were visiting the Goose Island “resorts.”

The drinking and prostitution both were open secrets. That lead to the 1936 arrest and trial of a sheriff’s deputy accused of trying to extort money from Perew and other “Goose Island resort operators.”

Tighter policing through the 1930s saw the decline of the area as a prostitution center, as arrest rosters showed people with nicknames like “Tiger Lilly” and “Tony the Wop.” The filling in of the canal along Niagara Street during that decade also reconnected the island to the rest of the city.

A billboard touting the urban renewal that was slated for the City of Tonawanda in 1966.

Urban renewal efforts of the 1960s further wiped any remnants of Goose Island off the map. Planners bragged efforts in a 45-acre parcel downtown, where all the wooden frame buildings – many dating back to the 1860s – were to be replaced with modern brick and concrete structures.

“When the project is completed in January 1968,” predicted Urban Renewal Perry A. Wilson, “Tonawanda will be one of the most modern and beautiful cities in Western New York.”

Urban renewal saw the deomlition of the remaining original Goose Island structures in the mid-60s. This century-old Chestnut Street house was torn down in 1966.

With that work, the old Goose Island – and years of illicit history in the City of Tonawanda – was plowed under.

Though the following was written during one of the earlier crackdowns that didn’t quite last, this 1918 reflection in the Buffalo Times sums up the end of Goose Island well.

“The passing of the island as a ‘red light district’ with painted women thus marks the elimination of a spot that for a long time has been a thorn in the side of respectable residents of Tonawanda.”

Buffalo’s Definitive Foods: The Fish Fry

By Steve Cichon

We’re continuing our week-long look at Buffalo’s definitive foods…

Mineo South take out fish fry, Lent 2018.

You can get a fish fry in other places, but Western New York is the only place you can get a Buffalo Fish Fry.

What that usually means for most of us is a giant piece of haddock covered thick, golden and crispy beer batter, tartar sauce, a lemon wedge, french fries, and hopefully more than one salad like coleslaw or potato salad. And the best fish fries have a piece of seeded rye bread thrown in on top.

This Buffalo Friday night staple at VFW Halls, Holy Name Dinners, and neighborhood taverns has been evolving into our current expectation for generations and generations.

The first place Buffalo flocked to go out for a fish fry was Richie Roth’s fish house. He was the city’s renown expert fisherman, and he started frying it up in his ramshackle shed on the banks of the Erie Canal at the foot of Hudson Street sometime around 1900.

Today, the spot is covered by the baseball diamonds you can see from the 190 in LaSalle Park. That part of the 190 was built in the bed of the Erie Canal.

The Buffalo Commercial, 1922

The shack which was condemned more than once still played host to politicians, musicians, and plain old working people. Those fishing boats were good for more than just bringing in fresh-caught Lake Erie fish– even during Prohibition, the beer flowed freely at Richie Roth’s.

Buffalo’s brewer Mayor Francis X. Schwab, who himself faced federal charges in the production of “near-beer” that was over the legal alcohol limit, lauded Roth after an inspection of his fish shack in 1922.

“This vice talk is all bunk,” Schwab told The Buffalo Commercial. “(Police Captain) Jimmy Higgins didn’t see a thing wrong. There’s no law against eating fish, I guess.” He called it “a nice place.”

The Courier-Express called Richie Roth’s “the best fish fry in the world.” He spent decades arguing with the city over his right to stay in the shack he’d worked out of for more than 40 years. He died in 1948.

Trautwein’s serving Blue Pike, 1955.

Before 1960, any good fish fry was made with blue pike. Once the most ubiquitous and tasty fish of Lake Erie, the blue pike was over-fished and saw competition from invasive species such as rainbow smelt.

As the blue pike grew more rare, Buffalonians began to acquire a taste for the haddock fish fry, which is a good thing. By the 1970s, the blue pike was generally accepted as extinct.

Buffalo in the ’20s: Buffalo’s pro-booze, anti-swimsuit Mayor Schwab

By Steve Cichon

“While Buffalo girls are in the front rank so far as feminine pulchritude is concerned; I do not believe their charms should be exploited,” Mayor Frank X. Schwab told reporters in 1927. It was front page news when Schwab — who was also owner of the Buffalo Brewing Company — told the Miss America pageant that no girl from Buffalo would be appearing with his endorsement.

Mayor Frank X. Schwab (Buffalo Stories archives)
Mayor Frank X. Schwab (Buffalo Stories archives)

“Both as mayor of the City of Buffalo and as the father of seven children, I have never been impressed favorably with bathing and beauty contests. To my mind they set up a false standard in the minds of young people, and the resultant evils and disadvantages more than offset any ephemeral fame which these contests bring to the various cities.

Buffalo Evening News, July 13, 1927
Buffalo Evening News, July 13, 1927

“For this reason I decline to comply with your request that as chief executive of the city I give to the young lady selected through your contest as Miss Buffalo a letter of introduction to the mayor of Atlantic City.

“It is simply my decision, as mayor of the city and as a father, that I think Buffalo will be better off and certainly none the worse, if it has no young lady compete in this so-called national beauty contest.”

Mayor Schwab and his family. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Among the many letters Mayor Schwab received in response to his refusal there was only one deriding his decision. Ministers and mothers wrote letters of thanks, while the local contest promoter wrote asking him to reconsider.

Mayor Schwab stood firm, saying the contest doesn’t serve to elevate girls from Buffalo or anywhere else in the country. Apparently, many agreed with Schwab.

While the Atlantic City bathing suit contest started its annual skin show in 1920, the year of Schwab’s protest — 1927 — was the pageant’s last year until 1932. At first, it was claims of “promoting loose morals” which scuttled the show, followed by the Depression. By the end of the ’30s, a talent competition was added and girls under the age of 18 were no longer allowed to enter.

In commending Schwab, Rev. W. Earl Ledden, pastor of the Richmond Avenue M. E. Church, likened the affair to a cattle call.

“Your letter to the Atlantic City authorities reveals moral dignity and insight, and I take pleasure in expressing to you my hearty approval. The bathing beauty affair is simply a publicity stunt for Atlantic City, a clever method of stretching the hotel season a week. And the method places our young womanhood on a plane too close to that of the Chicago stockyards to merit moral and official sanction.”

It was one of the few times where Schwab received public support from Buffalo’s Protestant leaders. Not only was Schwab Catholic, he was also under federal indictment. As the owner of a brewery, he stood accused of possessing (and brewing) beer with an alcohol content higher than 3 percent in violation of Prohibition laws.

After two terms as mayor, Schwab was defeated in his re-election bid by Charles Roesch, a Broadway Market meat cutter and the original “Charlie the Butcher.”

Torn-Down Tuesday: Pro-booze women march on Niagara Square, 1932

By Steve Cichon

The photo shows only a small portion of the parade of 20,000 women who marched in front of an estimated 100,000 people lining the streets of Buffalo, nearly all boisterously in favor of the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the end of Prohibition.

Buffalo News archives

Most seemed to agree, it was written in the Courier-Express, that some government control over liquor by taxation was a better idea than “the unending stream of bootleg liquor and beer that flows tax-free through this city.”

In characterizing the crowd, Courier reporter C.V. Curry noted there were no machine guns, bootleggers, gangsters, racketeers or “red-faced saloonkeepers of the days long ago.” Instead, he wrote, those marching to return to the legal stream of booze included socially prominent matrons, “veterans of the battlefields of France,” and “at least six elderly, dignified veterans of the Civil War.”

As far as this photo, it might seem familiar but difficult to place. Several landmarks shown still stand, while several others are gone.

The Rand Building looms in the background in full view — the neighboring Tishman building, which now partially blocks the view from this vantage point, was not built until 1959.

The building in the left foreground is the familiar Statler Hotel. To the right is the Walter Mahoney State Office Building. Both look pretty similar today.

The torn-down part of this Torn-down Tuesday entry are the buildings along Franklin Street that have since given way to the Convention Center. The sign that can barely be made out on the building is for the Mohican Grocery store at 157 Franklin.

Buffalo in the ’30s: The old booze-hidden-in-the-apron trick

By Steve Cichon

Buffalo News archives

From Jan. 16, 1920, to Dec. 5, 1933, Prohibition was the law of the land … and Buffalo was a center for the import of illegal booze.

In Buffalo and around the country, organized crime grew from Americans’ insatiable thirst for liquor. Spirits were smuggled by the boatload into Western New York from Canada.

While some folks turned to making moonshine or bathtub gin at home, others did their best to figure out a way to bring a nip home from Fort Erie undetected.

Often that worked – but it didn’t work for the man who was arrested wearing this apron of booze under his clothing when he crossed into the U.S. over the Peace Bridge in 1930.

Buffalo in the 20’s: Booze Bust in The Valley

By Steve Cichon


BUFFALO BOOZE BUST… Wouldn’t it have been great if Irv Weinstein would have been around to write Prohibition stories? The papers were filled with them almost every day.

I like this one in particular– because it took place in a bar my ol’man would buy 55 years later.

The text is a bit hard to read:

The Buffalo Sunday Express Sunday December 27, 1925

Cleverly concealed caches of liquor were found hidden under the floor of the barroom in the saloon at no. 807 Elk street, owned by John Doty. A large copper tank, to which were attached two spigots and a siphon, was hiding places for two dozen quarts of rare old whisky.Under the floor and on the stairway were 100 quarts of alleged liquor. Doty will be arraigned on Monday.

In the late 1930s, the path of Elk Street changed as South Park Avenue was created out of several South Buffalo and First Ward streets. What was number 807 Elk –at the corner of Smith Street– in 1925, is now 207 Elk (sadly, a vacant lot.)