Queen City of the Lakes
Mon, 01 Nov 2021
During the shipping season, at the Erie Basin Marina on Buffalo’s waterfront, you can often watch the massive bulk of a lake freighter glide by the nautical eminence of The USS Sullivans, The USS Little Rock and The USS Croaker. The war ships and submarine, moored at the Naval & Servicemen’s Park, are floating memorials and naval monuments to the bravery of another age. The scenic walkway here runs along the Buffalo River and looks across to the 19th century eminence of the China Lighthouse at the U.S. Coast Guard Base. Looking out at the Lake from here, on a windy day, you can feel and see the undulating Lake Erie rollers, as they swell and crash over the cap rocks of the offshore break wall, in a spume of frothy spray. The mesmerizing rhythm helps the mind drift back to a time before there was a City of Buffalo.
The Senecas, Iroquois and French traders camped here before it was the far frontier of a new America. Later, the Erie Canal helped funnel the new country’s Westward expansion through Buffalo, a wild and bawdy frontier town. The brothels on Canal Street were without number then. In the saloons, unscrupulous barkeeps were apt to slip the unwary patron a “mickey finn” in his beer. The unfortunate and unconscious pilgrim would then be fleeced of his poke and dropped into the Buffalo River, through a trap door in the back room. It was a rough and ready existence where the ruthless and the cunning prospered. Great tall-masted sailing ships, with spider-webbed rigging and fluttering sheets of billowing canvass, plied the harbor and added more cargo and sailors to the already bustling tumult of the canal district.
The crumbling grain elevators, on and around Kelly Island, are towering cylindrical reminders of a time in the 19th century, when Buffalo was second only to Chicago for grain storage, beef production and rail yards. The grain merchants hired the immigrant Irish in droves for the dusty and dangerous job of scooping and unloading the grain. The new Americans, with their lilting brogues and hickory backhoes,(wooden shovels) moved the mountains of grain from the waiting freighters.
The eclectic architecture all around the area is the pride of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richardson, White and other visionaries who were building a new America. The Delaware Avenue mansions stood as great gilded retreats of the privileged, symbols of Buffalo’s new-found commercial wealth.
The Panama exhibition of 1901 was a wonder of the modern world. President McKinley was shot down here and later died. Incoming President Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated shortly afterwards in the Wilcox Mansion. Writer Jack London spent time in our county jail. Mark Twain was a newspaper editor here in the 1840’s. U.S. Presidents Grover Cleveland and Millard Fillmore hailed from Buffalo, at a time when the city was a commercial and industrial colossus.
The great open heart of Canada lies a few yards across the Niagara River. From the headland of the upper terrace, the mind’s ear can still hear the ancient echo of booming cannons from Forts Niagara, George and Erie. The thundering cannon still rings in our collective consciousness. The remembered and acrid smell of burning timber reminds us of the time, during the War of 1812, when the British and their Indian allies burnt the new village of Buffalo to the ground. We have seen and weathered much in this town.
Buffalo is a series of villages, linked loosely together in a confederation, that gives the city color and life. Buffalo has the vibrancy of New York City and the laid-back charm of the mid-west. Chicken wings, beef on weck, Bocce’s pizza and any kind of beer attract the faithful in great shuddering throngs. Our baseball and football stadia reflect the emergence of the rowdy working class to the pursuit of leisure. The games have the clash and ring of the Roman Arena. Only in Buffalo, we are more serious about the contests.
The scattering of saloons, in the ethnic neighborhoods, is a smoky archipelago of warmth and companionship, a place where bankers and bums can rub elbows in a confraternity of the befuddled.
Buffalo is a great ethnic swirl of color and diversity. But, beneath the patina of the Theater District, art galleries and museums however, beats the remembered heart of a sprawling frontier town, lusty with life. In that respect, little has changed in Buffalo.
We are children of the weather. The snow and the wind often roar across the waterfront and then just as suddenly, are gone. It is like sharing sleeping quarters with a ten-thousand-pound elephant. You soon grow sensitive to its needs to toss and turn. Coping with the weather in Buffalo shapes and defines the mental toughness of our character. We are a city of immigrants that struggled much to get here and liked what we found.
Joseph Xavier Martin