Torn-Down Tuesday: The fetid, festering Hamburg Canal

By Steve Cichon

The Hamburg Canal, which was built to divert traffic from the busy Erie Canal. (Buffalo Stories archives)

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.

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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.