City Spotlight: Buffalo, NY




First settled by nomadic Paleo-Indians prior to 7000 B.C.E., Buffalo is the second largest city within the state of New York. While it now stands as a metropolis on the shores of Lake Erie, Buffalo once was the home of the Iroquois Confederacy and its various tribes throughout the state some 1000 years ago – these tribes, including the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes, were known as the “Five Nations,” and remained dominant throughout the region well into the time of the American Revolution.


While there were many claims made on the land Buffalo now sits on, first by New France in the 1700’s, and later subject to a bidding war between New York and Massachusetts states in the late 18th century, it was not until after the Iroquois tribes had sided with Great Britain during the Revolution that their land began to be carved away by American colonists. By 1804, the Holland Land Company had hired surveyor Joseph Ellicott to complete the town’s street plan, and through a series of treaties, Iroquois reservation land had been reduced to merely 338 square miles.


The town of Buffalo existed in mostly quiet solitude after its founding until the War of 1812, during which the British burned the town. After rebuilding, the town continued its mostly tranquil existence until 1825, when the Erie Canal, or “Clinton’s Big Ditch” was completed. This canal, the first of its kind, linked the waters of the Great Lakes (particularly Lake Erie) to the Atlantic Ocean. This “marriage of the waters” established Buffalo as a center for commerce, and led to a population boom that carried the area into city status. As a result of the canal, many industries moved into the Buffalo area, and the city became a world center for steel production by the turn of the 20th century.


Perhaps one of the greatest moments within Buffalo’s history is its hosting of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, a world fair which showcased inventions and technological advancements from around the world. The 1901 Pan-Am Expo in particular focused on the creation of electricity and electric lighting – due to its proximity to Niagara Falls and other hydraulic sources, Buffalo became one of the first cities to possess electricity, and the very first to have electric streetlights.


Though the city struggled after the fall of the local steel industry, Buffalo holds many claims – the home of Buffalo wings, architectural feats of Frank Lloyd Wright and other virtuosi, and parks of master landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted, the city has modernly turned towards a period of renewal and restoration, pinning its focus on local history and heritage.




Niagara and Franklin. These are the buildings at the intersection of Niagara Street and Franklin Street in the early 1900’s. On the far right is City and County Hall, and in the distant center, St. Joseph’s Church. Reprinted from Buffalo: Good Neighbors, Great Architecture, by Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus (pg. 87, Arcadia Publishing, 2003).


Pan-American Triumphal Bridge

Pan-American Triumphal Bridge. This bridge went over Mirror Lake, connecting the south portion of the grounds to the north portion. Reprinted from Buffalo: Good Neighbors, Great Architecture, by Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus (pg. 93, Arcadia Publishing, 2003).


City Hall

City Hall. Designed by local architects Dietel and Wade, the present City Hall is an imposing art deco building dominating Niagara Square. It was started in 1929 and opened in 1931. In the foreground is the McKinley monument, built in 1907. Current photo by the author. Reprinted from Buffalo: Good Neighbors, Great Architecture, by Nancy Blumenstalk Mingus (pg. 96, Arcadia Publishing, 2003).


Electric Building

Standing 294 feet tall at 535 Washington Street, the Electric Building was designed by James A. Johnson and completed in 1912. It was built as the Niagara Mohawk building and was inspired by the Electric Tower at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition of 1901. The original design was from the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria (Author’s Collection). Reprinted from Buffalo by Stephen G. Myers (pg. 15, Arcadia Publishing, 2012).


Johnson’s Cottage

Dr. Ebenezer Johnson became Buffalo’s first mayor in 1832. He built Johnson’s Cottage on Delaware Avenue in 1834 on 25 acres of land. After his death in 1849, the property was sold to the Buffalo Female Academy around 1851 and served as their first building. The Buffalo Female Academy later changed its name to Buffalo Seminary. Johnson’s Cottage was demolished in 1919 (courtesy of Pat Connors). Reprinted from Buffalo by Stephen G. Myers (pg. 24, Arcadia Publishing, 2012).


Lincoln Parkway

Another street that was home to many of the rich and famous in Buffalo was Lincoln Parkway. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed parkways to be pleasant roads connecting various parks. Lincoln Parkway connected Soldier’s Place to Delaware Park with a peaceful, tree-lined route with room for pedestrians, automobiles, and horses. (Courtest of Pat Farrell.) Reprinted from Buffalo by Stephen G. Myers  (pg. 32, Arcadia Publishing, 2012).


City Ship Canal

In the patchwork of slips and basins that was constructed to expand the Inner Harbor during the nineteenth century, the City Ship Canal was the centerpiece. Excavated by E.R. Blackwell during 1849-1852, the waterway extended south to the Lehigh valley docs on Tifft Farm in the 1880’s. This view shows the point where the Buffalo River (left) and the City Ship Canal (right) diverged at the Watson Elevator. Reprinted from Buffalo’s Waterfront by Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes (pg. 15, Arcadia Publishing, 1997).



The enlarged “Clinton’s Ditch” remained a key component of waterfront activity even during the railroad era. As seen from the Grand Trunk Railway Depot, a multitude of canal boats awaited cargoes or towing near the foot of West Genesee Street during the mid-1880’s. The New York Central tracks crossed the canal on the larger of the two bridges in the background. Stewart Brothers Lumber Yard appears at the extreme right. Reprinted from Buffalo’s Waterfront by Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes  (pg. 19, Arcadia Publishing, 1997).



This 1932 aerial shows the principal waterways that have touched the West Side of Buffalo. The Bird Island Pier divides the turbulent Niagara River from the calmer waters of the 1918 Black Rock Canal; vessels could reach the Tonawandas via the later route. The Erie Canal, still containing a ribbon of water, is also visible. Centennial Park, now LaSalle Park, was being developed south of the Colonel Ward Pumping Station from landfill (right) Reprinted from Buffalo’s Waterfront by Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes (pg. 22, Arcadia Publishing, 1997).



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