Historic Buffalo River Tour
Historic Buffalo River Tour
It was one of those golden days of summer in early August. The sun was shining brightly, the skies were a glistening azure blue and the temperature was in the low 80’s. We had driven down to the Erie Basin Marina, on Buffalo’s waterfront, to take the Historic Buffalo River Tour. It was something we had wanted to do for the last few years but never seemed to get around to it.
We parked our car in one of the huge lots across from the river, near the new Templeton Landing Restaurant. There were already a large amount of cars parked here and we wondered what was happening in the nearby venues. The Naval and Servicemen’s Parks lies just below the Miss Buffalo docks. The light Cruiser, " Little Rock," Destroyer Escort “The Sullivan’s,” and the submarine “Croaker” all sit silently at anchor here. They are all W.W. II era vessels, surrounded by tanks, old aircraft and helicopters and everything else imaginable military. The Viet Nam and Korea memorials lay next to them along the river.
Just past the military park lies the newly created “Commercial Slip.” and concert venue. It is a celebration of Buffalo’s 19th century nautical heritage. And one more step over sits the domed presence of the HSBC arena, home of the Buffalo Sabers hockey team.
The harbor itself is a delight. A public boat launch, a large marina and a sea wall looking out onto the buffalo harbor reflect the beauty of Lake Erie on a sunny day. Condos and town houses flank the rest of the marina. I remember when this had been but an old and weed strewn field. We used to park our cars down here in the early seventies because the land was empty and the parking free. What a difference it is now.
We were early so we walked along the river on the brick laid path. Across the river stands the New China Light House, built in the 1830’s to warn shipping of shoals on the Buffalo shore. All manner of shipping passes by here in the warmer months. Giant grain boats and other freighters from the upper great lakes put in here to load or unload their cargo. Once we had been the forth-largest port in the world. Now, pleasure boats cruise up and down the river from the nearby marinas, interspersed with the occasional grain freighter. A two-masted ketch sailed on the river beneath us. She was gaff rigged and filled with tourists and children. The boat was decked out in some sort of pirate motif. A skipper with a blow horn was exhorting the children to “heave ho” on the ropes that raised the mainsail into position. The kids were laughing and hauling on the line, enjoying the whole experience.
We stop by the Miss Buffalo Dock and paid the thirty dollars for our two ticketson the Historic Buffalo River Tour aboard the Miss Buffalo II. It wouldn’t be boarding for thirty minutes yet so we decided to take a walk along the River enjoying the sights and sounds of this busy tourist venue.
Along the walkway, beds of roses and a cornucopia of other brilliantly
colored flowers glistened in their beds as we drank in the visual pleasure of the riot of color before us. The flowers really are an attraction. Just across the street sits a line of dark brown wooden sculptures. Various sports, historical and religious figures sit there drawing our attention. Newsman Tim Russert, and a rota of locally noted figures look out from their wooden visage on the many tourists who pass by. We stop for a time in front of the small restaurant “The Hatch.” Many visitors were already enjoying their ice cream cones and French fries on this beautiful day on the water.
We bump into former Buffalo Police commissioner Richard “Irk” Donovan. He is an old South buffalo school chum. Irk was holding one grandchild while another clung to his legs. He said that he and his family had been out jogging and stopped by for ice cream. Buffalo is a small town and encounters like this occur frequently. We walk along the river for a bit. Folks are sitting on the grassy areas in their lawn chairs enjoying the sun and the water on a gorgeous day. They seem relaxed and happy to be here.
It is nearing Noon, so we head back towards the Miss Buffalo Dock and run into Art and Betty Jays, also childhood friends from South Buffalo. We stop and talk for a while of their kids and grandkids in a timeless and pleasing Buffalo ritual. Then we have to scoot, because the ship is almost ready to cast off. We hurry down the walkway to the boat. We can see other passengers lining every seat topside and below decks. This cruise is sold out. She is a double decked [passenger ferry with lots of seating. She regularly plies the harbor and river showing off the magnificent waterfront to natives and tourist a like. Onboard we look for seating and come up with two interior seats. Good maybe for a rainy day but not one as gorgeous as this. I guess you have to be on board early to get a good seat or take what you can find. Mary climbs topside and asks a foursome at one table if we can join them. They agree so we move topside and sit with them. Two of the young tourists are from Iran and the other two from Mexico.
As we get seated, I notice and greet and old colleague from the Erie County Social Services Department, Lorraine Pierro. We had shared desk space in that outfit many, many years ago. We chat for a time catching up. Lorraine tells us she is the President of the Industrial Heritage Committee sponsoring this cruise and one of the two presenters narrating our tour today. Buffalo really is a small town.
The Miss Buffalo cast off her lines at 12:30 P.M and the skipper pivoted the boat around so we were pointed upriver. We passed by the Naval and Servicemen’s Parks and the Viet Nam memorial. People are waving to us from the shore where we had just walked. It was a sunny and beautiful day here in the river. Lorraine told the attentive crowd about the spot on the riverbank where Joseph Dart had in 1842 erected the first steam-powered grain elevator in the world. Buffalo had long been a transshipment point for grains, hogs, and foodstuffs from the Midwest.
Before the steam powered grain elevators, the grain had been shoveled from the boats by immigrant Irishman. They became know as “scoopers.” My grandfather was a scooper and passed on much of their storied lore to the family. We have his waterfront W.W, I pass identifying his as a ship unloader. It was hard and dirty work but the Irish took to it with a will. Most chewed wads of tobacco to keep the grain dust from their lungs. I can remember buying “Pa” plugs of elephant tobacco for Christmas to chew. He would masticate this acrid tasting wad of tobacco for a time and then spit the juice into a brass spitoon by his chair.
We motored by the bulk of the Sullivan’s and the Little Rock. Children and visitors run up and down the decks now where warriors had once held vigil. Lorraine begins her description of the creation of the Erie Canal. Opened in 1826 by N.Y. Governor Dewitt Clinton, after eight years of construction, the 363-mile canal stretches from Albany to Buffalo. It enabled passengers and freight to cross the expanse of New York State in ten days instead of several weeks. Though forty feet wide, the canal is but a scant four feet deep. A series of 83 locks had been built along its length lifting canal boats above various river rapids and rises in the land. It was an engineering marvel of its day and built entirely with New York State funds because the Federal Government had turned down funding for the project. Some things never change. The canal had served as a highway of commerce in the early 1800’s, making Buffalo into a thriving commercial port.
We pass the Old D.L & W terminal that now serves as a streetcar repair barns. It had once been the sight of a great uncle’s saloon. From there we start our journey into the city’s ship canal. Once the entire area had been honeycombed with 21 miles of canals. Small businesses and industry had grown here like weeds. Now except for the considerable bulk of the many grain elevators, the area lies fallow like some futuristic city that had been rendered empty by plague or war.
Lorraine and her co-narrator Jerry Malloy point out examples of old wooden grain elevators that often caught fire and burned to the ground. Brick silos and lastly the more recent cement silos line the banks of the river and stretch far inland like a series of industrial Stonehenge monuments. Once rivers of grain and flowed through this area and been stored in these massive cement towers. Ships had stood in line for the self-unloaders to empty their hulls of the precious grains. Now the birds fly overhead and tourists like us ponder at the change of fortunes that can befall a city.
General Mills, Cargill, Archer Daniels, Midland & Founders Supply form a rota of American Industries past and present who have left their cement sentinels here for us now. The cost of tearing one down is prohibitive, so they sit quietly awaiting their fates. In Akron Ohio, a hotel had been carved from one of these silos. Dubbed the “oatmeal Hilton,” it is a still a popular venue. Someone had proposed the idea here in the 1970’s but the idea had not taken root.
Up above, us like a concrete frame, hovers the Buffalo Skyway. From it, while driving its length, one can view a magnificent vista of Lake Erie and Buffalo’s waterfront. In nice weather it is a delight. In heavy snows and winds it is a nightmare to be avoided. Now it serves as an aerial frame for the area.
Off to our starboard we come across Kelly Island with its forest of cement towers once filled with grain. Developers and politicians have been proposing some type of bridge between Kelly Island and the mainland for decades. In the last century the river had been crossed by ferrymen in small boats who would take passengers across for a small fee. My great uncle had once been one of these ferrymen. I mentally pictured the man rowing others back and forth all day.
We come up to the Ohio Street Lift Bridge. Fifty years back a lake freighter, The Tewksbury, had broke free form her mooring and crashed into the bridge and the buildings nearby.
As in the old song, the bridge tender was either drunk or sleeping, so we turn the boat around and head back to the outer harbor. The coast guard base on our left sits ready to rescue boaters in trouble. Boats are tied up all around her. We nudge out into the outer harbor. Once there had been no harbor here. Samuel Wilkeson, an early Buffalo Mayor, had led the effort in the 1830 to lay down a limestone break wall just off the mouth of the Buffalo River. The break wall protects the fragile shipping from storms and crushing ice in the winter. Now it serves to create a quiet and protected harbor area. The Miss Buffalo cruised around the harbor and we viewed Buffalo ‘s waterfront in its entire splendor. Far up the canal, just near where the Lake spills into the Niagara River, I could see the red roofs of the Colonel Ward Pumping station. It is the main portal for Buffalo’s water supply from the Lake. Just off shore sits the small stone building with its conical red roof. It is the intake for the emerald water channel that feeds water into the pumping station. The Black Rock canal starts its run up the river here to meet up with the Tonawanda portion of the Erie Canal. Once canal boats had been as thick as swarming bees here. Now you see the occasional rowing team stroking the oars of their scull in the noonday sun.
To our south, the eerie and other worldly visage of giant windmills sit just off the Bethlehem steel property, spinning their giant blades in the afternoon sun. They are weirdly beautiful and futuristic. The Old Bethlehem complex is mostly quiet now. For sixty years, you could watch the volcanic explosions of hot steel at night as the workers poured another heat of molten steel into their ingot frames. Now they too are mostly silent, another ghost of Buffalo’s commercial past.
The skipper gets word that the bridge keeper has returned form whatever sojourn had occupied him and the Miss Buffalo reverses course and heads back up the river. In the distance, along the city skyline, we can just make out the beautiful top floors of Buffalo’s city hall. It is a tan colored and 28 story masterpiece in sandstone. I had once worked there along side of its diminuitive chief executive. Now that experience is but a distant memory like many of the things around me.
Our area had begun its commercial decline in 1931 when our Canadian Friends had first deepened the nearby Welland Canal connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario. Now many freighters need not stop in Buffalo bout could travel all the way to Kingston on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Then, in the early 1950’s, our friends from the federal government had deepened and widened the entire length on the St. Lawrence River, in conjunction with Canada, to build what was to become known as the St Lawrence Seaway. Boats could now travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the far shores of Lake Superior in northen Minnestoa. That worked for everyone but Buffalo. We were no longer a main transshipment stop for freighters from the interiors or train cars from the east coast. The area began its sharp economic decline, a condition that we struggle with even today.
Along the riverbanks we see the detritus of our industrial past strewn in weed grown fields and piles of junk. A small bright spot appears. It is the Bison City Rod and Gun club with its tidy anchorage and neat clubhouse.
This time as we approach the Ohio Street lift bridge, the mighty cogs of the well greased span click into gear. The bridge rises noiseless in her rectangular mounts to allow us passage further upriver. We slide under the bridge looking upward at the amazing engineering feat of thee bridge.
The Cargill elevators, Pillsbury and other names stare at us in an unblinking stenciled signage, a memoir to our past. The cement columns stretch across the landscape in an eerily quiet industrial graveyard of times past. Not many I think tread here now where thousands had once made their livelihood. The banks of the river are heavily treed and leafy. I wonder what it would look like to visitors some hundreds of years in the future as they walk amidst this stone cemetery of our industrial past.
We are approaching the Tiff Farm Nature Preserve. Once an expanse of our ugliest abuses of nature, the area is now a wetland for water foul and a nature preserve, where all manner of animals thrive. I can remember driving down Tiff Street in years past and seeing bright pools of lime colored green, effervescent yellow and the bright red of discarded chemicals, all open to the air and ugly in their abuse of the land. Now the area shows great promise for future generations to come and enjoy this wooded expanse on the lake.
At the massive complex of rotting cement silos known as Center Island, we turn the boat around and motor back along the river. Seeing again the many grain silos and their varied architectures and storied history. I see the ghosts of many Christmases past along these shores. Hundreds of my own family had lived and worked here living out their lives in what manner they could secure in this new and bustling land. I wonder what they would now think could they but join me cruising up and down this river of yesterday?
We slide under the Ohio Street Bridge and I see a sign for “Swannies” pointing inland towards that storied saloon of long past. Remnants of our history always survive if we but look for them. I guess that’s why I am here today sitting on this boat reviewing the glory that was once Buffalo. Can we make it anew as once it was? The political will doesn’t seem to be there. There are many fine people in public office, but their view seems myopic. A good squabble seems preferable to accomplishing anything of purpose. Maybe it was always so. As I get older, I realize that it isn’t government that can make things happen but the various barons of private industry that we so cavalierly castigate in the media for their excesses. This isn’t a revelation to me, just thoughts passing through my head as I stream by the industrial might of an ancient city. It seems like we are passing by the coliseum in Rome or the mighty pyramids in Egypt looking at ancients sign posts of the a glory that once was.
The Ship passes the D.L & W terminal. The second story looks like an ideal venue for shops and markets and offices in a thousand applications. I wonder why it sits empty now? No one seems to have an answer.
The Miss Buffalo glides into her dock and the hands make fast the lines to the bollards along the shore. Our tour is over.
I have much enjoyed the ride, but am somewhat unsettled by what needs to be done to revive the area. I wonder if the younger generation coming up has any interest in helping out? Most are still fixated on their new beamers, condos and vacations in Europe.
Who will speak for those who have come before us I wonder? What testimony will be given about our heritage? Groups like the Industrial Heritage Committee, and dozens of others, labor mightily but there is only so much they can do. A mental shrug of what I have been thinking leaves me free to get off the boat. We thank Lorraine for the tour and express interest in hearing about the committee’s progress. Then, we walk off the boat into the sunshine of a gorgeous afternoon on Buffalo’s storied waterfront. I smile to my self when I think that there is always hope as long as someone remembers.
Joseph Xavier Martin
August 12, 2010