For the last few generations, on the outer fringes of Buffalo’s waterfront, sat an old industrial area that had lain waste for generations. Nothing much grew there but weeds.
In the first decade of the 21st century this all started to change. Under the leadership of a South Buffalo Congressman, named Brian Higgins, the area started to blossom. Many layers of government contributed over a span of years to the redevelopment, but the “go to” guy became Brian Higgins.
The Tift Nature Preserve has evolved over the last few decades. It is an area where garbage had been buried and fluorescent puddles of noxious chemicals once sparkled in the noonday sun. It is now a wonderful nature preserve for all to see and enjoy many types of wildlife.
In addition, the once-worn roadways are now flower-lined boulevards in Summer, accompanied by bike trails that link the downtown area to the outer harbor. Gallagher Beach, the Boquard’s small boat basin, the NFTA boat harbor, Wilkeson Park, The Times beach Nature Preserve and the remains of the old coast guard base, with its iconic 1837 China Lighthouse, all line the waterfront. The concert venue here draws tens of thousands to it, employing big names bands like “Guns and Roses.” The area has literally risen, like an urban phoenix, from the ashes of the old. From the quiet headland of the New Wilkeson Park, you can watch the sailboats cruising inside and outside the seawall.
The “Times Beach Nature Preserve” sits here. It is a bucolic and restful place with two wooden blinds to observe the flocks of geese and birds that settle in the reeds or make their nests here. A plaque that spell out the history of the area. It said that in 1917,The City of Buffalo had evicted a “bunch of squatters” from the site for industrial development. A Bunch of Squatters?” I thought to myself. Was this a referral to “The Beachers,” the grand origin of Buffalo’s Clan Na Gael?
In the 1830’s, Buffalo Mayor Samuel Wilkeson had coordinated the erection of the stone “break-wall,” just off the mouth of Buffalo Creek, to form the Buffalo harbor area. It was the beginnings of a prosperous modern Buffalo.
Just before this break wall’s construction, the first wave of Buffalo’s Irish immigrants had arrived. But it was the next wave, arriving during the “Irish Hunger of the 1840’s” that were to settle, near the break-wall in the area where I now stood, so peacefully gazing upon the avian life along the shore.
Poor and landless, the immigrant Irish settled along a strip of sand and dirt behind the old seawall. Scavenging wood, tar paper and castoff materials, these hardy people formed a gypsyesque encampment that contained a tavern, two rowing clubs, two restaurants and even a small church. The population soared to almost 2,000 souls in the 1850’s.
Colorful characters. like the Beach guerillas who raided commercial shipping with a stolen sloop, gave the area a unique and bohemian charm. Dock workers, scoopers, ferrymen, steel workers and fishermen populated the mean huts along this rough-hewn beach. Their descendants would later populate much of the old First Ward and South Buffalo.
When the City of Buffalo and the rail roads did evict them in 1917, it was the end of a colorful era in Buffalo’s history. Now, stories of “The Beach” only surface in reverie, over the odd glass or two of ale.
In that four lines of my own family descend from these people, I try my best to write about them and honor their memory.
Joseph Xavier Martin