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NSG Meeting July 22, 2006

Discovering Buffalo's Industrial Heritage


Donovan A. Shilling

It looked like rain and we weren't disappointed. It did rain! However thirty plus members and friends of the New Society of the Genesee arrived on Saturday, July 22, 2006, to board the Miss Buffalo II. Through the tireless scheduling efforts of Alan Oberst we joined the Industrial Heritage Committee's tour of Buffalo's industrial and commercial history. Starting at Erie County's Naval and Serviceman's Park, our vessel departed in the wake of a huge lake ship just passing our berth. The ship had delivered a cargo of cement to St. Mary's Cement Company's terminal and a small tow boat was returning it to Lake Erie.

As we passed the USS Little Rock with its ominous looking rocket launchers, we were treated to an extensive account on the opening of the Erie Canal and its aid to Buffalo in becoming a major lake port and the state's second largest city. Buffalo's golden attraction was grain, its delivery and storage. It was the heart and flow of the city's growth. By 1924 "Buffalo led the world in handling grain." By 1930 more than 60 million bushels of grain were being stored in scores of grain elevators lining the Buffalo River.

As we passed banks of these tall and impressive cylinders, we were informed of their history and construction evolution. In the autumn of 1842 Joeph Dart built the Nation's first elevator of wood (or maybe it was Robert M. Dalzell of Rochester that really built the first grain elevator). Located at the junction of Buffalo Creek and the Oliver Evans Ship Canal, it became the model for many more to follow. By 1979 only one of the early wooden type remained. Those were eventually replaced by elevators containing steel bins making them more explosive resistant and still later, by the scores of concrete grain elevators we observed while floating by aboard the Miss Buffalo II. Coming so close to the structures, there were times aboard our vessel that one could swear that they smelled the sweet aroma of Cherios! Imposing too, were the Ohio and Michigan Avenue bridges that lifted to allow our passage beneath them. What we did miss was seeing Buffalo's historic fireboat, the oldest still in service in the nation.

Lunch was scheduled at the "Hatch," a small but efficient restaurant just a few steps in the rain from the tour boat's berth on the Erie Basin Marina. Boy! Buffaloians sure injoy their charcoal grilled hots, hamburgers and kielbasa.

Our next stop was a visit to the Colonel Ward Water Pumping Station next to DAR Drive. Ten gigantic Birdsall Holley steam-powered pumps drew water from Lake Erie. The sixty-foot-high, triple-expansion engines, were built in 1876, each featuring a giant, twenty-foot-high fly wheel. Jerry Malloy of the Water Department tried to explain their function, however booming echoes created by the cavernous building greatly muffled whatever he was presenting. Never-the-less the facility, now using electric pumps, continues to pump 50 million gallons of Lake Erie water to serve the city.

Our final visit was to Buffalo's New York Central Station that dominated the city's East Side skyline with it 271-foot-tall, 15-story tower. Rail passenger service ended in 1979 followed by sixteen years of neglect. The grand old terminal soon became a vast, unrestrained playground for some of Buffalo's most energetic vandals.They ripped, sundered and pillaged the proud structure, shattering hundreds of windows, prying marble off its walls and looting all of the lighting fixtures and anything else that looked valuable, finally smashing whatever was left. How it escaped a major fire can only be attributed to the structure of tile floors, marble walls and otherwise total construction of brick, tile and stone. Today a private group has undertaken a program to restore the terminal to a bit of its former glory.

A car show as taking place in the terminal's grand concourse during our visit. The show, hosted by the East Side Car Club, featured several vintage cars and trucks including a classy, two-toned 1955 Bellaire Chevrolet and a 1929 Ford coupe complete with rumble seat. Those neatly restored autos sure brought back a few happy memories. The event was one of several scheduled by the non-profit Central Terminal Restoration Corporation to generate support in restoring the "awe-inspiring structure." It was a full day of discovery and inspiration, well worth the trip even in the soggy weather. Thanks again to Alan Oberst for arranging such an interesting set of historical tours.

© 2006, Donovan A. Shilling
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