Buffalo History

Preservation Ready Survey of Buildings Downtown, Northland and Fougeron / Urban Survey Areas
City of Buffalo, Erie County, New York
December 2013

Section 3, pp. 1-4; pp. 6-16

(See also: Buildings from the same survey)

3.1 Historical Overview 
Section 3, pp. 1-4

The general vicinity within and around the City of Buffalo was occupied during prehistoric times (e.g., before the arrival of European explorers). The southwestern portion of the Downtown survey area, at what is now the Canalside area, was the site of prehistoric occupation from 4000 BC to about AD 1500. This occupation at the confluence of Buffalo Creek and Little Buffalo Creek as well as Lake Erie may have been continuous or periodic based on seasonal variations of the relative wetness of the area. The area may have served as a node in the prehistoric/protohistoric Great Lakes trade network .

The first Euro-American settlement at what is now Buffalo did not occur until the late 1750s when Daniel de Joncaire established a temporary trading settlement near Buffalo Creek. Referred to as “Rivière aux Chevaux” (River of the Horses), Joncaire’s short-lived occupation was terminated when the French were driven from the area by the British during the French and Indian War. By 1780, some Haudenosaunee subsequently settled along Buffalo Creek, which would later be incorporated into the Buffalo Creek Reservation.

With the conclusion of the American Revolution, riverine reservations at Buffalo Creek, Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Tonawanda were created for the Haudenosaunee, while the remaining territory became available for purchase.

Lying on both sides of Buffalo Creek, the Buffalo reservation consisted of 130 square miles and extended east from Lake Erie. Except for a one-mile swath along the east side of the Niagara River, which New York State reserved for itself (the so-called “Mile Strip”), non-Indian land within the present Erie County was acquired by a consortium of Dutch investors referred to as the Holland Land Company in 1792-1793 .

By 1795, only four people lived within what is now the downtown portion of Buffalo and the rest of the area was a wilderness. Beginning in the spring of 1798, Joseph Ellicott and his team of surveyors began the process of dividing the Holland company’s land in western New York into townships. The future City of Buffalo was sited and laid out by Ellicott, who called the village on Buffalo Creek New Amsterdam and named the streets after his Dutch patrons and regional Native nations.

In 1808, the community at New Amsterdam (referred to by its inhabitants as Buffalo) became the seat of the new county of Niagara. The new Niagara County comprised what are now Erie and Niagara counties, and contained three towns—Cambria, Clarence, and Willink. Two years later, the Town of Buffalo was created from the Town of Clarence, with New Amsterdam (now called Buffalo, as well) remaining as the county seat. The Town of Buffalo comprised all the land west of Ellicott’s west transit (i.e., present-day Transit Road), while the village of Buffalo was concentrated along the high ground north of Buffalo Creek. In April 1813, the State Legislature passed an act formally incorporating Buffalo as a village, but as a result of the strife engendered by the War of 1812, the village was not officially chartered until April 1816.

During the war, the British burned nearly every structure in Buffalo and the nearby community of Black Rock at the end of December 1813. Many residents trickled back to the smoldering ruins of the village, as the area remained an active part of the Niagara theater.

Prescient efforts by Samuel Wilkeson in 1819 led to the construction of Buffalo’s harbor, which seduced the Erie Canal commissioners to site the western terminus of the canal at Buffalo. When the canal opened along its entire length on October 26, 1825, the Erie Canal would make Buffalo the transshipment point for goods moving between the Midwest through the lakes to New York.

The economic prosperity resulting from the Erie Canal swelled Buffalo’s population. In 1825, Buffalo contained 2,412 people; by 1835, this number had mushroomed to 15,661. In 1832, Buffalo was incorporated as a city, with Buffalo Creek its approximate southern boundary.

The invention and proliferation of the grain elevator reinforced Buffalo’s strategic location as the nexus of the Great Lakes/inland trade and the ocean trade associated with the Atlantic ports. Beginning in 1842, construction of numerous grain elevators would turn Buffalo into one of the leading grain shipping centers in North America. From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century,

[l]ake steamers loaded with grain, lumber, livestock, iron, and limestone docked and waited while their cargo was loaded on to canal boats and freight trains bound for seaports of the east. Access to rail and water transportation also facilitated the development of the city’s first factories. Flour mills, breweries, grain elevators, tanneries, and iron foundries all crowded the banks of the Buffalo Creek in South Buffalo.
In 1854, the city’s increasing population was 74,214, with more than 60 percent of those people foreign born. These residents at that time included 31,000 Germans and 18,000 Irish (most of whom were Catholics) and were concentrated in what was then the First Ward, the waterfront areas of the present Downtown survey area. In 1853, the City of Buffalo extended its boundaries, annexing the surrounding Town of Black Rock.

Buffalo’s agriculture-based economy diversified to include commerce, industry, and, as expected, navigation. Many of these industries (e.g., shoe factories, shipyards, tanneries, flour mills, machine shops, blacksmiths, iron works, lumber yards, soap factories) were located near the canal and waterfront, including the “Cobblestone District.” Other enterprises sprang up to serve the myriad interests of both industries and individuals. Banks and insurance operations developed to assist and ensure the flow of commerce, while clothing stores, tailors, dry-good and grocery stores, printers, taverns, miscellaneous artisans and craftsmen operated to serve the workers and entrepreneurs on the wharves.

The arrival of the railroads during the mid-nineteenth century fostered the continued economic growth and diversification of Buffalo into a more densely populated, more heavily industrialized area. From its introduction in 1848, railroads would begin to dominate the downtown area. By the end of the nineteenth century, railroad lines and resources circumscribed the waterfront and the Cobblestone District and included the New York Central. The Erie Railroad reached Buffalo in 1863 and used a depot at Michigan Avenue and Exchange Street. The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western began service in Buffalo in 1883. Other railroads included the Lehigh Valley, among others.

By reorganizing its operations in the city after 1879, the New York Central developed key components of the infrastructure of a passenger rail service that encircled the city. Beginning operation in July 1883, the “Belt Line” used the tracks of the Junction Railroad on the eastern side of the city, which had been completed to the International Bridge by 1872, and the tracks of the former Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad on the western side. A total of 2,100 passengers were served in the first week. The creation of this system allowed for the geographic expansion of the city’s population and led to the development of other areas of the city, including the Northland and Fougeron/Urban Survey areas.

Twentieth Century.

The numerous railroads served Buffalo at the end of the nineteenth century which transported goods and raw materials to and from the lake freighters docking at Buffalo’s harbor. At this time, Buffalo was the second leading railroad terminus in the United States (after Chicago). The freight-carrying capacity of Buffalo’s railroads had far eclipsed that of the Erie Canal, and by the early twentieth century, areas along the canal and waterfront had become warrens of decrepit buildings and towering grain elevators. The new Barge Canal terminus was located on the Niagara River at Tonawanda Creek; the old Erie Canal between downtown and points north was abandoned and ultimately filled in. In 1926, the Commercial Slip, the connection between Lake Erie and the Erie Canal and the linchpin of Buffalo’s nineteenth- century economic success, was filled. A Barge Canal terminal building was located at both the Erie Basin and the Ohio Basin in Buffalo.

During the 1920s, 34 variously sized grain elevators were situated along the Buffalo River and around the harbor. In addition to milling operations, cereal companies were also located in the city, including Hecker H-O Company, the Mapl-Flake Company, and the Shredded Wheat Company. Buffalo’s vibrant industrial economy also drew other manufacturing concerns, such as the Curtiss-Wright Aeroplane Company, the burgeoning automotive industry, various machine shops and foundries, meat-packing and soap-making industries, but many of these operations were located along the Belt Line outside the Downtown survey area. The city had a population of 506,775 in 1920.

In the post-World War II years, the grain/flour-products and chemical industries were ensconced along the western oxbows of the Buffalo River, while the steel industry was located farther to the east (notably the Republic Steel conglomeration) and the south in Lackawanna. Despite appearances, a long economic decline was underway by the 1940s. The St. Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1958-1959, allowing ocean-going vessels to by-pass Buffalo (via the Welland Canal between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario), providing another avenue for economic decline. Important companies relocated to neighboring states or closed outright (such as Bethlehem Steel, Hanna Furnace, Republic/LTV Steel, and Shenango, Inc. in the 1980s) and, while the city’s population fell from 580,132 in 1950 to 532,132 in 1960, Erie County experienced increased suburbanization (the county’s population exceeded one million in 1960).

Automobile transportation and the infrastructure that supports it undermined railroad transportation, just as rail transportation and its infrastructure eclipsed canal transportation. The Skyway (the elevated portion of New York State Route 5) was completed in the mid-1950s (opening in 1955) as part of a general boom in large-scale, public construction projects in the 1950s and 1960s, which included the extension of the New York State Thruway into the Southtowns, and the construction of the Niagara Extension of the Thruway (I-190), the Scajaquada Expressway (New York 198), Humboldt Parkway, and the Kensington Expressway (New York 33).

By the early 1960s, the Lehigh Valley Railroad would cease services in Buffalo. Its huge Main Street station closed 1952 and was razed in the late 1950s for construction of a new state office building. During the late 1960s and 1970s, the large industrial conglomerations situated south of the Buffalo River closed, leaving behind extensive brownfields surrounding the Tifft Nature Preserve.

Since 1970, development in the Downtown survey area of the city included the construction of The Buffalo News building at Washington and Scott streets (1973); the Naval and Serviceman’s Park and Museum (1979 and recently relocated); the light rapid rail transit system along Main Street (completed in 1985; which eliminated vehicular traffic from Main Street in the study area); the downtown baseball stadium (1980s, currently named Coca-Cola Field); the First Niagara Center at the foot of Main Street (1990s); and the HSBC Atrium (1990). More recently, development projects in the Downtown survey area have included the Canalside project, the razing of the Memorial Auditorium, the renovation of the Donovan Building, and the construction of HarborCenter. In 2010, Buffalo’s population had fallen to 261,310, its lowest level since 1890 when it was 255,664.

Section 3, pp. 6-16

War of 1812.

On the night of December 30, 1813, British forces attacked the approximately 2,000 militia defending Buffalo and Black Rock, burning both villages to the ground and destroying ships and supplies. After the British raids ended on January 1, 1814, only three structures reputedly remained in the village of Buffalo: David Reese’s blacksmith shop on Seneca Street, Mrs. Gamaliel St. John’s house on Washington Street, and a small, stone jail on Washington Street near Eagle Street. New York Governor Daniel Tompkins remarked that “The whole frontier from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie is depopulated & the buildings & improvements, with a few exceptions, destroyed”.

As expected, residents trickled back as the immediate hostilities diminished. However, the area remained an active part of the Niagara theater with a detachment of soldiers stationed in Buffalo, which served as a staging area for later actions during the remainder of the war. During the winter of 1814-1815, the American army remained in cantonment at so-called “Sandy Town,” the area below the bluff at what is now the Peace Bridge Plaza and Front Park, and between the high sand dunes that once bordered the lake and the present right-of-way of Interstate-190. This area is near what is now the foot of Porter Street and LaSalle Park.

Antebellum Development.

By 1816, the newly re-incorporated Village of Buffalo had a population of approximately 400, nine of whom were slaves. As pioneers filled the Niagara Frontier after the end of the War of 1812, new municipal entities were created including the formation of Erie County in 1821. The region received a tremendous economic boost when it was determined that the western terminus of the Erie Canal would be located somewhere along Lake Erie. Construction of the Erie Canal, which would link commercially the Hudson River to Lake Erie, began in Rome, New York, in 1817.

The villages of Buffalo and Black Rock, located several miles northwest of Buffalo along the Niagara River, engaged in a vigorous five-year battle to be the site of the canal terminus, with each village completing extensive harbor improvements to entice the commissioners. Efforts led by Samuel Wilkeson resulted in the creation and dredging of a harbor at the mouth of Buffalo Creek suitable for canal traffic. The location of the western terminus at Buffalo guaranteed its victory in its rivalry with Black Rock, and after the canal opened on October 26, 1825, Buffalo became the de facto transshipment point for goods moving between the Midwest through the lakes to New York and ocean trade.

In addition to becoming the transshipment point for goods and raw materials, Buffalo witnessed the passage of hundreds of thousands of settlers as they journeyed west as “more immigrants passed through these street [surrounding the Erie Canal] during the height of the canal era (1830-1865) than passed through Ellis Island”. In April 1832 Buffalo was incorporated as a city; its boundaries were North-York streets (now Porter Avenue) on the north, Jefferson Street on the east, and the Buffalo Creek reservation on the south with Buffalo Creek its approximate southern boundary.

Areas beyond the city’s southern limits remained Seneca land as part of the Buffalo Creek reservation until 1842. However, little settlement had occurred south of the Buffalo River by 1847.

Few structures stood near the waterfront area prior to 1825, when
Thaddeus Joy and George B. Webster erected a wooden warehouse and a wharf on the west side of Main Street east of Little Buffalo Creek (what is now the re-watered Commercial Slip) in the winter of 1824-1825. Joy and Manly Colton erected a two-story frame store on a lot on the west side of Main Street near corner of Prime and Hanover streets. This structure joined Winthrop Fox’s store, which had been built in 1814, and John Scott’s warehouse, erected near the foot of Main Street in 1816. Below the steep bluff where the Terrace was situated, Little Buffalo Creek “was a dark, muddy, sluggish looking stream, grown full of water grass and water lilies, besides having its surface pretty well covered with green frog spawn. Its banks were also tolerably well lined with a stinted growth of scraggy thorn trees and alder bushes.

A manufacturing center emerged adjacent to the southeastern end of the Downtown survey area. In 1827, the Buffalo Hydraulic Company or Association was formed to fund the damming of Little Buffalo Creek and creation of an associated canal. Completed in 1828, the canal ran for approximately four miles between Little Buffalo Creek and Big Buffalo Creek, and was partly within the Buffalo Creek Reservation, east of the survey area. “A saw-mill, a grist-mill, woolen factory, hat body factory, last factory, and brewery, were built, which were operated for some years, and quite a settlement grew up in that vicinity”. By 1836 the Hydraulics, located along the eastern edge of the recently incorporated City of Buffalo, were reported to have become a village of 500 inhabitants and was the site of three saw mills, a woolen factory, a pail factory, a factory for turning bed posts, a grist mill, a brewery, and a tannery. In 1850, Gardner’s tannery was located west of the former reservation boundary north of Seneca Street near Little Buffalo Creek and the Hydraulic Canal. Lumber, logs, livestock and grain were shipped via the canal, which also served as the sewer for adjacent tanneries and slaughterhouses. The discharge of waste into the canal became a problem by 1851, resulting in the canal’s filling prior to 1884.

The Erie Canal ended in the Commercial Slip on the west side of Main Street at the confluence of Little Buffalo Creek and Big Buffalo Creek (now, the Buffalo River). Other waterways were constructed in this area to augment both the capacity and water flow of the canal, and included the Main and Hamburg Street Canal, the Clark and Skinner Canal, the Evans Ship Canal, and the Ohio Basin.

The Main and Hamburg Street Canal contributed to the city’s success as a manufacturing center. As early as 1833, the construction of a water linkage from the Erie Canal to The Hydraulics (land in proximity to the Hydraulic canal) was discussed, but was slow to bear fruit. Officially opening in 1852, the Hamburg canal ran north of Scott Street and paralleled Buffalo Creek, connecting to the Hydraulic Canal at Hamburg Street. Three years later, the city declared the canal a nuisance because of stagnant water at its eastern extremity. Subsequently used as a sewer, the canal was filled prior to 1901, and was part of Lehigh Valley Railroad property in 1912.  The location of the Main and Hamburg Canal is partially under what is now the former location of the Memorial Auditorium (“Aud”), the Donovan Block (the present Phillips-Lytle Building), and the Niagara section of the New York State Thruway (I-190).

The Clark and Skinner Canal was constructed between 1841 and 1846 and connected Buffalo Creek and the Main and Hamburg Canal. It ran parallel to and east of Mississippi Street in what would become Buffalo’s industrial First Ward, and was located between two of the largest railroads that entered Buffalo at the end of the nineteenth century: the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western (DL&W) and the Lehigh Valley. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the canal produced “unsavory odors” and was considered a danger to public health. According to a newspaper article of the day,
From Perry Street north to Scott Street the stream is a bogmire. The wharfage on the west side upon which the plant of Schoellkopf & Company’s tannery is located is dilapidated and in many places entirely washed away. Much refuse has been dumped into the slip, contaminating the water and making it a public nuisance. From Perry Street south to Elk Street, and even as far as the Buffalo River, the slip is in somewhat better condition.
West of Main Street at the southwestern end of the Downtown survey area, the Evans Slip or ship canal was constructed between 1831 and 1834 and attained its formal name—the Evans Ship Canal—in 1853 as part of an overall renaming of Buffalo waterways. In 1842, Joseph Dart constructed the first steam-powered grain elevator south of the slip at its junction with the Buffalo River. The original elevator burned in the early 1860s, a hazard that afflicted many of the early wooden elevators, and the site on later historical maps is identified as Bennett’s elevator. Elevators were located on both sides of the Buffalo River, the Evans Ship Canal, and the City Ship Canal by the early twentieth century.

During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, both the federal and state governments aided the effort to improve access to the harbor and increase its capacity. These efforts included improvements to the South and North Piers, construction of a seawall along what is now referred to as the Inner Harbor, and breakwalls on what is now the Outer Harbor. In addition, a dry dock “with a marine railway, powered by a horse-turned capstan, [that] was built opposite of Ohio Street in 1836 and a steam-powered yard opened nearby soon after. A large dry-dock opened in 1838, was enlarged in 1844 and enlarged again in 1848”.

The Ohio Slip joined the Main and Hamburg Canal with the spacious Ohio basin. The Ohio Slip extended about one half mile and the basin was rectangular measuring approximately 600 feet by 1,000 feet. It was connected to the Buffalo River by a short outlet. The slip was completed in 1850, and the basin in 1851-1852. The Ohio Basin served as an important transshipment point for cargo transferred from lake boats to canal boats. By 1905, the Ohio slip was been filled in as far south as Elk street and was open beyond that point. Like the other waterways in this area, it suffered from a lack of current and was declared a health hazard in the 1930s and was gradually filled in.

New arrivals in the city required places to stay as they either sought employment or waited for the lake vessels to carry them, their family, and their belongings farther west. Hotels, boarding houses and “temperance houses” proliferated throughout the Canal District in the southern portion of the Downtown survey area. Other hotels as well as boarding houses were scattered east of Main Street into the old First Ward, south of what is now Exchange Street.

The owners of the commercial shipping establishments (e.g., the so-called forwarding and commission merchants) became successful economically with the completion of the Erie Canal, and their success carried over into the civic arena. As successes, these entrepreneurs were the leading citizens of community (along with bankers and builders) and several became mayor of the City of Buffalo—Ebenezer JohnsonHiram PrattSamuel WilkesonSheldon Thompson, and William G. Fargo.

Accompanying increasing immigration, commerce, and overcrowding on the waterfront, cholera struck Buffalo periodically between the 1832 and the mid-1850s. The Canal District served as the epicenter of the illness with more virulent outbreaks occurring in 1832, 1834, 1849, and 1854. Of course, the transient population of immigrants passing through Buffalo’s waterfront took the blame. During the first outbreak in 1832 (the year of Buffalo’s incorporation as a city), “The death carts would patrol the streets, and when there would seem an indication of a death in a house, the driver would shout “bring out your dead.” Bodies were not permitted to remain unburied over an hour or two, if it were possible to obtain carriers, or a sexton to bury them.

During the virulent cholera outbreak that afflicted the lake-port city in 1832, the city council enacted stringent sanitary regulations in an attempt to mitigate the outbreak, which included the prohibition of burials in the city’s Franklin Square cemetery (downtown). Part of these efforts was the purchase of remote land outside the city boundaries for the creation of a cemetery for cholera victims. At the time, North Street (formerly Guide Board Road) was Buffalo’s northern boundary, and other cemeteries were arrayed along it. At least six other cemeteries were located in the northern part of the city or just north of the city line through the 1850s. Forest Lawn Cemetery was established in 1849.

Located south of Perry Street between Main Street and Michigan Avenue, the so-named “Cobblestone District” is south-southeast of original Village of Buffalo that was razed during the War of 1812. During the nineteenth century, this area was part of the industrial First Ward, and was traversed by waterways built to augment the Erie Canal (e.g., the Main and Hamburg Canal, the Clark and Skinner Canal, and, farther to the east and south, the Ohio Basin and Slip. Largely vacant until the 1840s, the area contained warehouses and several small iron-working industries, although the streets closest to Main Street and the Buffalo River were developed initially. For example, Beals, Mayhew & Company established the first machine shop and foundry in the village in 1828 (at Indiana and Ohio streets) and the Webster Block along Main Street was erected in 1835.

The Cobblestone District witnessed more dramatic development during the second half of the nineteenth century, as small manufacturing operations proliferated in the area through utilization of the canal and, later, the railroads. Buffalo Steam Engine Works, at Washington and Indiana streets, where the HSBC Atrium is situated, was formed in 1841, and became George W. Tifft, Sons & Company in 1857. It manufactured steam engines, boilers, and machinery as well as performed other iron work.  Eagle Iron Works and Jewett & Root Stoveworks together occupied the Mississippi-Perry-and-Ohio streets block along the Clark and Skinner Canal by the mid-1850s. Eagle Iron Works manufactured cast-iron architectural elements, while Jewett & Root made stoves. By 1850, Bush and Howard operated a tannery along the Main and Hamburg Canal at Chicago Street. A.H. Brown erected a brass foundry and machine shop at 120 South Park Avenue ca. 1872, and prepared work for “tanners, brewers, and others, and made a specialty of railroad and steamboat brass castings”.  Buffalo Scale Company was organized in 1860 and, by the 1880s, was making 19,000 scales a year, including railway truck, wagon, hopper, motor truck, and platform scales.

n the 1850s, other industries in this area included F. Collignon brass works, John C. Jewett manufacturing plant, F.S. Pease’s Buffalo Lubricating Oil Company, and Thomas Clark’s Red Jacket Distillery. Founded in 1849, John C. Jewett Manufacturing Company, Inc. made household items such as iceboxes, bathtubs, birdcages, and spittoons, and was a pioneer in home refrigerators. Later in the 1940s, it became a specialist in medical refrigeration.

The canal’s economic impact and the harbor’s prosperity were reinforced in the 1840s by Joseph Dart. As noted, Dart perfected a steam-powered grain elevator and system for removing grain from the holds of ships, revolutionizing grain shipping and handling. The invention and proliferation of the grain elevator reinforced Buffalo’s strategic location as the nexus of the Great Lakes/inland trade and the ocean trade associated with the ports of New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Beginning at the Evans Slip in 1842, construction of numerous grain elevators transformed Buffalo into one of the leading grain shipping centers in North America. By 1863, 27 grain elevators enshadowed Buffalo’s harbor and were part of an extensive transportation network and developing industrial economy that included shipping of grain, lumber, livestock, iron, and limestone as well as finished products.

By the later nineteenth century, the waterfront area between Washington Street and Michigan Avenue (the Long Wharf) including areas on the south side of the river on Kelly Island became the heart of the elevator district. In addition, numerous other businesses served the area, including ship chandlers, grocery stores, and the offices of various tug and passenger lines.

The Canal District was a warren of closely huddled, dirty, wooden buildings and included large, wooden grain elevators and grain drying houses. These areas were scenes of periodic fires during the nineteenth century. In the early 1850s, several extensive conflagrations leveled a large portion of the Canal District. In September 1851, more than 200 buildings burned north of Evans Street, and in October 1853, more than 100 buildings burned between State Street and Evans Street. While these incidents resulted in the erection of more brick buildings along the waterfront, it did not curtail the incidence of fire. In September 1862, a fire in a grain-drying house at Water and Norton streets spread to the nearby Evans and Sterling elevators, destroying both the elevators and their contents. Undeterred, the fire spread north across the Evans Ship Canal to Evans whiskey warehouse and office, and south across Norton Street to Bell’s foundry, Klein & Dobson’s pump and block factory, and the tenements on Fly, Evans and LeCouteulx streets. Between 30 and 40 buildings were destroyed, as were 13,372 bushels of wheat, 40,000 bushels of corn, and 28,690 bushels of oats, but much of Evans’ whiskey was saved.  Despite the problems with periodic fires, Buffalo’s waterfront supported 25 elevators (referred to as “elevating warehouses”) with a storage capacity of 5,855,000 bushels in 1867.  The economic success of the Erie Canal heralded a dramatic increase the area’s population expansion and social change with the arrival of immigrants into Western New York.

East and North of the Canal District. In the years before the Civil War, Buffalo’s economy revolved around the transshipment of goods and raw materials, and geographically centered on the waterfront in the western part of the city. As a result, businesses and residences were concentrated in the area west of Main Street, and the city’s eastern portion was largely vacant, especially the area east of the businesses along Main Street and north of Seneca Street.

Settlement expanded east of what is now Michigan Avenue beginning in the late 1820s. First, the trees were cleared east of the location where Michigan Avenue crossed the former Buffalo Creek (later, the Main and Hamburg Street Canal). This area, south of what is now Exchange Street, at one time was home to otter and beaver populations.  “Far from the docks, but walking distance from most industrial sites and the central business district, much of the East Side was a flat, wet meadowland with stands of willow and oak. At its furthest reaches, there were particularly thick forests”. The East Side was home to Buffalo’s black residents as well as its German immigrant settlers.

In the early 1830s, Buffalo’s small black community (numbering less than 100 at that time) lived east of the expanding business district along Main Street and the well-to-do residences along Oak and Elm streets and, where many of them worked as domestics. They established the Vine Street African Methodist Episcopal Church (on Vine and Washington streets) and, in 1845, erected the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church (on Michigan near Broadway Street). The current Michigan Street Baptist Church served as one of the stations on the Underground Railroad. Later, by the beginning of the Civil War, approximately 500 blacks lived in Buffalo, “many of whom were fugitive slaves or their descendants”.  By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Buffalo’s “black community had become a significant center of free black life in America, a hotbed of abolitionism and the final stop on the renowned Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada”.

As the city’s black population was putting down roots in the East Side, Buffalo witnessed a huge influx of German-speaking immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s. These settlers also moved into the East Side beyond Michigan Avenue north of Batavia Street (now, Broadway). The Germans also moved northward into what would become the Fruit Belt (the area where the streets were named after fruit trees) and eastward along Genesee Street after the mid-1850s. As a result, this area became filled with an extensive array of small, artisanal shops (e.g., chair makers, harness makers, tailors, shoemakers, butchers, and bakers) operated by Germans. In addition to their distinctive shops, the Germans also brought their own social institutions, such as their beer halls, lodges, churches, and theaters. Further,
[t]he principal north-south streets in the densely populated Deutschendorfchen (German village)—Michigan, Ellicott, and eventually Main, too,—would contain, as time passed, the imposing residences of affluent German merchants, shopkeepers, and manufacturers, while the east-west boulevards—Genesee and Batavia [now Broadway]—were packed with German groceries, artisan shops, and working-class residences. With its foreign character, this area seemed exotic to Americans, a transplanted European town, “as little American,” said the Commercial Advertiser in 1857, “as the duchy of Hesse Cassel.” Scattered among the Germans, however, was one of the oldest of American populations: a large percentage of the city’s small, stable black population—about 704 persons in 1855. Though not ghettoized, blacks were never allowed, as gradually their German neighbors were, to enter the city’s mainstream. They were in their own public school, barred from voting, unless able to meet a fifty-dollar poll tax, under state law, and able to find employment only as menials and service workers.
During this period, Buffalo’s population rose from 29,773 in 1845 to 74,214 in 1855, with more than 60 percent of the population foreign born. In 1853, the City of Buffalo extended its boundaries, annexing the Town of Black Rock and receiving a new city charter.

The Railroads and Late Nineteenth-Century Development.

The arrival of the railroads fostered continued economic diversification of Buffalo and was vital for the importation of iron and coal from the mines of Pennsylvania. Economical lake transportation of ore to Buffalo enabled the shift of the city’s commerce-based economy to a manufacturing economy. The Civil War stimulated the iron and steel industry and, by 1864, 24 foundries and machine shops were located in Buffalo. The trend toward heavier industry intensified after the Civil War. Soon after, iron and steel manufacturing would become the backbone industry of the City of Buffalo.

In the 36 years between the end of the Civil War and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, the population of the city jumped from 94,210 to 352,387.

The New York Central Railroad reorganized its operations in the city by consolidating and relocating several stations. Beginning operation in July 1883, the Belt Line used the network of interconnected tracks to create a commuter passenger line that encircled the city. A total of 2,100 passengers were served in the first week. “In 1885 twelve trains ran counter-clockwise from Exchange Street beginning at 5:55 A.M., and thirteen clockwise ending at 7:45 P.M. In those halcyon days one could circle the city for a nickel”.

The extension of the Belt Line fostered industrial and residential development in the sparsely settled areas in the city’s northern and eastern limits, initiating a process of drawing residents and businesses away from the city’s central core. Workers, at a time when public transportation was irregular or nonexistence, tended to live near the places at which they were employed. This practice continued into the early decades of twentieth century when transportation was improving. Moreover, industries were liberated by the railroads from the necessity of locating near the waterfront or the canal to transport their goods. The advent of hydroelectric power at the turn of the nineteenth century also facilitated this transition. As industry sprouted in the sparsely settled areas of the East Side, Black Rock, and North Buffalo near the Belt Line, workers followed.

Establishment of the electric street railway and interurban lines at the end of the nineteenth century expanded residential opportunities and reinforced the accessibility of the Buffalo’s park system, elements of which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, by city’s residents. By 1900, 25 streetcar lines paralleled city roads (along with 87 miles of track) connecting downtown Buffalo with outlying neighborhoods in all corners of the city. In 1902 the electric railway was consolidated with other streetcar lines to form the International Railway Company. As railroad transportation supplanted the canal systems as a means of moving peoples and goods around, the success of the electric railways undermined the profitability of the Belt Line, which stopped passenger service during World War I. The electric railways would, in turn, be undermined during the 1920s and 1930s by the successes of automobiles and buses.

In the years after the Civil War, Buffalo harbor and old First Ward area saw continued growth in commerce and industry. In addition to grain elevators and other shipping and mercantile endeavors along the river, ancillary and service-related businesses spread from the intensively developed Canal District over Main Street into the Cobblestone District and up Main Street into the formerly residential areas. These enterprises included office buildings, banks, insurance and legal services, barber shops, groceries, storage depots, and railroad-related structures, as well as soap and bicycle factories, distilleries, brass works, ironworks, tanneries, and oil warehouses.  Lafayette Square and Niagara Square became hubs of commerce and government.

Iron-making became an important Buffalo industry during the nineteenth century. Iron manufacturers in the city prior to the Civil War included the Buffalo Engine Works, Buffalo Rolling Mill and Iron Works, Howard Iron Works, Niagara Forge, and E. & B. Holmes Machine Corporation on Chicago Street.  Iron ore smelting began in Buffalo around 1860. The Civil War stimulated the iron and steel industry and, by 1864, 24 foundries and machine shops were located in Buffalo. As a citizen of the new iron age, William Wendt founded the Buffalo Forge Company in 1878 to manufacture a portable blacksmith forge at the corner of Washington and Perry streets. The company relocated to Broadway in 1880. The trend toward heavier industry intensified after the war, and in 1869 the city held an industrial exposition that featured the inventiveness of mechanization and production and fostered the idea of industry as a craft. The introduction of the iron industry at the exposition provided a stage for the initiation, and subsequent development, of a new era of industrialization. The railroad was vital for the importation of iron and coal from the mines of Pennsylvania. Economical lake transportation of ore to Buffalo enabled the shift of the city’s commerce-based economy to a manufacturing economy. Soon after, iron and steel manufacturing would become the backbone industry of the City of Buffalo.

Worker residences intermingled with industrial and manufacturing operations along the Buffalo River, adjacent areas to the north, and along the Belt Line after 1880; there was little to no residential areas south of the Buffalo River until the twentieth century, except for the community of squatters along the seawall west of the City Ship Canal. Businesses in the Cobblestone District included coal yards, Hubbell stove works, Eagle Iron Works, Wheeler’s malt house, G.W. Tifft, Sons & Co., Jewett & Root Stove Works, E. & B. Holmes lumber yard, and Holloway’s stone yard.

In the 1890s, First Ward industries in and in proximity to the Cobblestone District included Buffalo Steam Engine Works (estate of G.W. Tifft), Eagle Iron Works, Farrar & Trefts Iron Works, Phoenix Boiler Works, Sherman S. Jewett & Co., Buffalo Upholstering Company, E & B Holmes lumber yard, foundries and machine shops, Schoellkopf & Company Sheepskin Leather Manufacturer along the Clark and Skinner Canal, Buffalo Scale Works, the Buffalo Fish Company, the Lehigh Valley Railroad freight house, Eagle Iron Works, the Onondaga Salt Company, and the American Glucose Company, which employed over 1,000 men until a disastrous fire devastated the plant in 1894. (The manufacture of glucose was established in Buffalo ca. 1873 by Cicero J. Hamlin, and his American Glucose Company was primary producer of glucose in the United States.) In the 36 years between the end of the Civil War and the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, the population of the city jumped from 94,210 to 352,387.

The post-Civil War years marked the combined efforts of the federal, state, and local governments to improve Buffalo’s harbor and expand its capacity. These activities included dredging the harbor channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, strengthening of the harbor entrance piers, the Outer Harbor breakwater, which by 1903 was extended to the Stony Point section of West Seneca (later the City of Lackawanna), creation of a canal terminal by the state by enclosing the Erie Basin and linking its breakwater to the Black Rock harbor breakwater. By 1900 the mouth of the river was deepened to 20 feet to accommodate the larger lake freighters with capacities of 10,000 tons. About that time the federal government assumed control of the entrance to the harbor.

Despite these efforts, by the end of the nineteenth century, the canal-based economy was dying as the railroad surpassed the canals as a means of transporting goods, and rail lines encircled the Canal District. The coup de grace for the waterfront and canal terminus was the laying of a railroad bed down the center of Prime Street literally overnight in 1883. The DL&W subsequently laid multiple tracks in the street, demolishing the Hazard Block at the corner of Main Street and the Central Wharf and ending public access to the waterfront in this area.

Buffalo became the third largest coal depot in the United States by 1885, “handling nearly all America’s anthracite coal and a growing share of its bituminous coal shipments”.  Buffalo’s share of the bituminous coal trade leapt from 327,467 tons in 1874 to 1,921,354 tons in 1884, and of the anthracite trade from 472,262 tons to 2,451,410 tons during the same period.

On August 15, 1896, the first electric current was transmitted to Buffalo from Niagara Falls. The event led to the gradual electrification of Buffalo industry. The International Railway Company, a local street railway, was the first electric railway in the city in November 1896. In 1897, George Urban’s flour mills were the first industries to be electrified. Moreover, the availability of cheap electrical power served to draw the Lackawanna Steel Company from its home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to the Stony Point section of the Town of West Seneca by 1904.

During the 1890s through the early twentieth century, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad maintained a freight depot along Ohio Street between the Ohio Basin and the river between two grain elevators. In the 1880s, the New York Central supported three passenger stations in the city: one in east Buffalo (near what is now the Central Terminal); one on Exchange Street; and one on Erie Street close to the harbor. With the creation of the Belt Line in 1883, the Erie Street station was replaced by one on the Terrace, west of Main Street, and the East Buffalo station was largely abandoned for an improved Exchange Street station.

The DL&W passenger terminal was situated at Main and Dayton streets from 1885 until 1917, when a new terminal at the foot of Main Street adjacent to the harbor opened with associated elevated tracks. The DL&W freight house had earlier been erected along the riverbank from Main Street to Commercial Slip along Prime Street. The Union Block and the Central Wharf were demolished by the end of this period.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad ran an extensive freight operation east of Washington Street south of the Main and Hamburg Canal, while the New York Central operated freight and passenger services east of Washington Street and north of the canal. In the early twentieth century, the Main and Hamburg Canal was filled in and structures south of Quay Street were razed for the construction of the Lehigh Valley passenger terminal along Main Street on what is now the Donovan Block (the under construction Phillips-Lytle building).

By the end of the nineteenth century, Buffalo was the second leading railroad terminus in the United States (after Chicago), which had reduced the economic impact of the Erie Canal to near irrelevance. As a result, New York State and canal interests believed another expansion of the old canal was necessary for it to compete with the railroads. By the last years of the nineteenth century, however, cost overruns and charges of incompetence caused the movement to improve the canal to be subsumed into the movement to re-conceive the canal in terms of the technological changes then-occurring: bigger, faster, motorized boats.  While other portions of the state, including Niagara County, dramatically widened and deepened a new canal channel, the City of Buffalo did not, and over the next 30 years the source of Buffalo’s nineteenth-century economic success would be slowly filled with trash and buried.  The Erie Barge Canal connected to Lake Erie through the Niagara River, and begins at the junction of the Niagara River and Tonawanda Creek. Nevertheless, a Barge Canal terminal building was located at both the Erie Basin and the Ohio Basin in Buffalo.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2016
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