Torn-Down Tuesday: When Transit was a beautiful little country road

By Steve Cichon

Think of a joyful weekend ride down a beautiful little country road.

Now think of a weekend ride down Transit Road.

Driving it today, you might be overwhelmed by the feeling of modern American sprawl, but the road itself was etched into the landscape more than 200 years ago.

In 1952, mothers protested on the bridge that crossed Transit Road at Tonawanda Creek, just north of Millersport Highway. Some Erie County children had to cross the bridge — which had no sidewalks — on foot to get to their Niagara County school each day. The bridge that goes over the same spot today has two wide shoulders and carries five lanes of traffic.

Work began in 1799, cutting through the wilderness to create a route from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. The route was very close to one traveled by Native Americans from a time before recorded history, but construction followed one of the guidelines on the original Holland Land Co. survey of the area. The “Transit Meridian Line, due north,” which was nothing but an imaginary line on a map, evolved into today’s artery that runs through the center of southern Niagara and northern Erie counties.

The old Iroquois route was well established at what is now Transit and Main, and both the surveying and the road building started off from that spot. It’s been an important intersection for hundreds of years, long before our struggles to get into the proper lane for turning into Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Transit Road, 1919.

Nature that wasn’t a much of a concern to the native peoples was soon being tamed by European settlers. Fisherman liked the speckled trout they could pull from the Tonawanda Creek, but they didn’t like the rattlesnakes, bears and wolves.

Ad for the Depew Transit Road Land Co., 1893.

Taming nature also meant development. It was at the junction of the Erie Canal and the Transit Road where Lockport grew in the 1820s.

A few years later and little further south, Catholic missionaries founded “the Parish of the transit” in the wilderness of what is now northern Erie County.

In the 1840s, Adam Schworm built and home and a store near that church, and that part of Transit has been known as “Swormville” or “Swormsville” (depending on who you ask) ever since.

Another boon to the development of Transit Road came in 1893 with the New York Central Railroad’s decision to build 100 acres’ worth of rail sheds and locomotive shops in what would eventually become the Village of Depew.

Land speculators started gobbling up land near Transit Road. “At least 25,000 people will soon inhabit the new City of Depew,” says the 1893 ad for the Depew Transit Road Land Co., “and they will keep on coming.”

In the earliest days of the automobile and “the Sunday drive,” Transit Road was the strip of road where Buffalonians would drive to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, although even 99 years ago, a writer in The Buffalo Times admonished drivers for not taking it all in.

A variety of ads for Transit Rd. attractions aimed at automobile drivers, 1907.

“The mad motorist will fail to appreciate the continual exhibition of pastoral life led by the farmers along (Transit Road) and will have no eye for the alluring country detail — the superb trees and verdure, nor sense the perfume from the hay field, flowers and sweet grasses.”

Hens & Kelly was a stand-alone store in the parking lot of Transitown Plaza starting in the mid-1950s.

Once motoring enthusiasts started driving along Transit Road, farmers started making room for people trying to make a buck on those Sunday drivers.

Public houses, hotels and taverns sprang up with increasing frequency around the intersection of Main Street and Transit Road.

As the early days of the automobile moved into postwar suburban expansion, Main and Transit once again was an early spot for reflective development, culminating with the construction of the Eastern Hills Mall starting in 1969.

Hopefully all this gives you something to ponder the next time a Saturday afternoon Transit Road drive from Genesee Street to Maple Road takes 22 minutes.

Published by

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.