Skip to main content

The Glory That Was Buffalo

Spring 1995 | Volume 10 |  Issue 4

WE ALL KNOW THAT CHICAGO was once the “City of the big shoulders,” as immortalized by Carl Sandburg. It was also the city whose citizens the architect Daniel Burnham supposedly challenged to “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Though times have changed, Chicago and its satellite burgs across the Indiana border still conjure up apocalyptic images of raw industrial power. So, too, does Pittsburgh, which someone once described as “Hell with the lid off.” And so does Cleveland, which the writer John G’fcnther said reminded him of the “inside of a dynamo.” He meant it as an unflattering remark, but places like Cleveland, Chicago, and Pittsburgh really were our dynamos when America was abuilding. And there was another among them, which, though never as much in the limelight, has an industrial heritage every bit as grand and deserving of its rightful place in the sun, a place that has managed to keep more of the monumental relics of that heritage intact than any of its more famous cousins—Buffalo.

For years my vision of Buffalo was of a city in the night seen from a train window. From that point of view it was a quagmire, where all the trains seemed to founder in a tangle of switches and tracks that led away in every direction, twisting and complaining as they threaded between factories and warehouses. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but an unrelenting industrial landscape. One enormous, mysterious shape after another would loom up outside the window and disappear again into the night. Some I easily recognized as grain elevators, blast furnaces, and refineries of one sort or another. Others, some quite ominous-looking, passed by without so much as a clue to their purpose. The view was constantly interrupted by the unbroken brick walls of factories close by the tracks. Then there were the bridges, staunch steel trusses mostly, built to carry the heaviest freight trains. There was also feral forgotten land filled with the debris of industry, a never-ending trail of obsolescence.

A metropolis of the Rust Belt brims with the relics—grain elevators, steel mills, rail yards—of its years of industrial greatness

On cloudy nights the sky glowed red above the fires from the furnaces of the steelworks. Then, nearing the harbor, the gigantic grain elevators that have always been Buffalo’s leitmotif appeared like temples built by some ancient culture—which today they have more or less become. They seemed all the more monumental rising above the “long boats,” lake steamers, that were tucked up against them. There were nights when Buffalo’s watercourses shimmered with the reflected lights of steamboats unloading their cargoes of wheat and iron ore. The stench of coal smoke always seeped into the cars as the train snaked past the coke ovens, a reminder that economic prosperity exacts a price. In the foreground ran endless miles of railroad yards, which teemed with busy engines marshaling freight cars. All were reassuring signs that even in the middle of night people were at work; the machinery was humming; Buffalo was a no-nonsense, gritty, hardworking old city.

From the train window there might have been no downtown at all, or one insignificant compared with this scene. But the view from the train is never the whole truth. It reveals only the back sides of cities.

There is indeed a downtown Buffalo, with buildings designed by Louis Sullivan and Minoru Yamasaki. The city proper was originally platted around 1800 by Buffalo’s founder, Joseph Ellicott, who modeled it after the plan for Washington, D.C. It boasts a park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the world-famous Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and a concert hall designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Although it is hard to imagine that anything could be heard over the cacophony of the mills, beautiful music is made in Buffalo, as it is in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, in the middle of the most industrialized cities imaginable. But this is not as paradoxical as it may seem; industry has always been the American Medici.

On cloudy nights, as glimpsed from a train window, the sky glowed red above the fires from the furnaces of the steelworks.

BUFFALO IS A PLACE OF WORK ing-class neighborhoods and waterfront taverns; at one time almost a third of its population was engaged in industrial endeavors of one sort or another. Remarkably, some of these old neighborhoods remain essentially intact, still inhabited by the descendants of those who first settled there more than a century and a half ago.

Like all manufacturing centers in the nineteenth century, Buffalo relied heavily on newly arrived immigrants for its work force. With each generation a new ethnic group rose to prominence, only to be replaced in turn by another. The ethnography of Buffalo has mirrored the pattern of virtually every city of its kind in America. South Buffalo is still the bailiwick of the Irish. Contrary to the common myth that the first Irish there were laborers who dug the Erie Canal, a good number were there before the canal was completed in 1825. By the late 184Os German-Americans outnumbered the Irish, composing a third of the city’s population. A century later they were in turn swamped by the Italians. However, it was the Polish, who began to settle in Buffalo in the mid-nineteenth century, who became its largest ethnic population. Polonia, as the Polish neighborhoods are collectively called, represents the largest community of Polish-Americans in this country outside of Chicago. Today African-Americans are fast becoming Buffalo’s largest minority, representing almost a third of the population.

The neighborhoods of Buffalo still look the same as they did from the trains in the night forty years ago: rows of timeworn frame houses lining forlorn, empty streets, which could as easily be part of any old Northern industrial city. They speak eloquently of generations of men who stoked the fires and tended the forges in the mills and factories and came home to bathe, eat, go to bed, make love, raise families, argue, complain, worship, and get up at dawn to face the day once again. Whether Pole or Czech, whether Smith or O’Brien, it was the same, one generation followed by the next with little change in the basic pattern of existence: routine, predictable, and difficult but secure—until now. Today the industrial core upon which so many relied has disintegrated, and the patterns of life have become unraveled.

It has become a truism that today America’s economy is no longer rooted principally in the making of things and the production of food but rather in providing services. We are experiencing an economic and cultural upheaval as great as during the Industrial Revolution, which transformed Western culture in the mid-nineteenth century. This time the nature of work—of what we do, how we do it, and who does it—is following the shift from a world of coal, steel, and boiler plate to one of miniaturization, microchips, and fiber optics.

Buffalo came into being during that first revolution because of its strategic location at a natural junction for EastWest trade, between the Hudson and Mohawk valleys and the Great Lakes. With the completion of the Erie Canal across New York State, all the way from Albany to Buffalo, the city’s fortunes were assured. Thus situated astride the main street of nineteenth-century America, it was to become one of the nation’s pivotal transshipment points, where goods traveling in either direction had to be unloaded and reloaded, first between lake boat and canalboat and later between lake steamer and freight train. As a result, Buffalo at one time handled more tonnage than Liverpool, which was England’s largest port.

The nearness of Niagara Falls later became equally important to Buffalo’s role. For those who not only marveled at nature’s wonders but sought ways to subdue and harness them, the falls suggested a virtually unlimited source of power. The idea remained a dream until 1878. That year a recently arrived German tanner and flour miller named Jacob F. Schoellkopf bought the rights to a bankrupt hydraulic canal company near the falls at public auction for $71,000. He knew he was buying more than just an unprofitable old plant that had provided power for a flour mill; he was buying the key to the falls. Work began in 1893 on what was to be one of the great technological marvels of the nineteenth century, the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. The Schoellkopf plant, as it was called, was the largest hydroelectric station yet built anywhere.

As Buffalo’s industries prospered, its image inevitably became that of a grimy, swaggering city like Chicago or Cleveland.

It was one thing to generate electricity, another to get it to where it was needed. Until a way could be found to bring the power twentytwo miles to Buffalo, its dream still remained just that. The Croatian-born scientist Nikola Tesla promised that “the power of the Falls will be transmitted to Buffalo as surely as the sun will shine,” and by devising an efficient alternating-current transmission system in conjunction with George Westinghouse, he found a way to turn on the lights in Buffalo. The switch was thrown at midnight on November 15, 1896.

As Buffalo’s industries prospered, its image inevitably became that of a grimy, swaggering city like its big sister, Chicago, and its rival, Cleveland, a place where things were made: flour, automobiles, tires, ships, paint, stoves, china, tools, bridges. As the city grew, the railroads converged on it until it could claim to be either the third or fourth largest railroad center in North America—depending on how one interpreted the statistics. In all, eleven major lines met in Buffalo. In its prime three hundred passenger trains a day arrived and departed from its five terminals.

Once established as a rail and shipping hub, the city became a steelmaking center as well. Iron ore came down the lakes by steamer, and the railroads brought coal from nearby Pennsylvania. At one point Buffalo had more than twenty blast furnaces in operation. The greatest mill of all was Bethlehem Steel’s, in neighboring Lackawanna. In 1949, when it was running at full capacity, it was the sixth-largest producer of steel in the world, employing 14,500 workers and turning out 3 million tons a year.

Unlike many industrial metropolises, such as Pittsburgh, Waterbury, and Detroit, Buffalo did not rely on any single industry. Nonetheless, beginning in the 1920s (when it surpassed Minneapolis), for many years Buffalo stood as the world’s undisputed flour-milling and grainstorage center. Boatload after boatload of grain, primarily wheat, came down from the head of the lakes—from Duluth, Superior, and what is now called Thunder Bay—to be poured into the elevators, where it was either milled or stored for shipment. At the peak 300 million bushels a year were handled by Buffalo’s fifty elevators.

It has become hard to imagine that at the turn of the century there were those who believed that Buffalo, not Chicago, would become America’s second city; the town has lost almost a third of its population in the last twenty years. But they had every reason to think so. In 1900 it had a population of 352,387 and ranked eighth among American cities. Fifty years later, although it was no longer in the top ten, it had reached its zenith. Its population peaked at 580,132. In the 1990 census, at 328,123, it ranked fiftieth.

Now the view from the train is of an entirely different place. The sky on stormy nights no longer glows fiery orange. The monumental shapes of Buffalo’s industry still loom up out of the night as they always did, but they are mostly dark, unlit—ruins that speak eloquently of an only too recent ancient time.

The very geography that once so favored Buffalo proved in the end to be its undoing. The city’s pre-eminence as a port lasted barely a century. The decline began in 1932, with the completion of the enlarged Weiland Canal, which for all intents and purposes made obsolete the New York State Barge Canal, the Erie Canal’s successor. The final blow came less than thirty years later, in April 1959, when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, giving deep-draft oceangoing vessels access to America’s agricultural and industrial heartland. Buffalo’s hope of becoming an international port vanished alongside that of many a lake port as the seaway turned out to be the grand delusion its detractors had always predicted. Foreign ships loaded with grain could now sail all the way from the head of the lakes to any port in the world and back without so much as a glance in Buffalo’s direction. Half the grain traffic that had been carried in U.S. flag vessels was siphoned off by these “salties,” and most of the rest went to Canadian vessels that either off-loaded it directly into oceangoing freighters far down the St. Lawrence or stored it in recently built grain elevators in the most unlikely of locations, such as Baie Comeau and Port Carder, Quebec, on the river’s barren north shore about as far away from wheat country as one could imagine.

It’s hard to imagine that at the turn of the century some people thought Buffalo, not Chicago, would be America’s second city.

The decline of old-line industry in America has scarred Buffalo as it has many once-eminent manufacturing centers, and today the city lies at the center of what has become known as the Rust Belt. Its immense steel industry is dead save for the massive coke ovens at Bethlehem Steel’s Lackawanna works, which remain amid the wasteland where all the other mills once stood. Republic, the Hanna Furnace, and Shenango Ingot are all closed down or gone. The huge Socony/Mobil oil refinery stands unused. Even Trico, maker of windshield wipers and a long-time Buffalo institution, has moved south of the border.

Although too many of its factories are silent and its elevators empty, Buffalo is far from belly up. The American Brass foundry is very much alive and well, full of fire and smoke and sweat. Pratt & Lambert still manufactures its well-known brands of paint in Buffalo. Several of the city’s once-plentiful machine shops continue to operate, including the E. & B. Holmes Machinery Company, which still uses its belt-driven equipment. Buffalo China fires tableware for restaurants and hotels coast to coast. Tools are made at the venerable Buffalo Forge Company’s plant, as they have been since the 1870s, and Mentholatum, that nostrum for wearied backs and tired, aching feet, is still made at 1360 Niagara Street, as it has been since 1919.

The site of Larkin Company’s plant is one of the most architecturally notable industrial complexes in America. Once the home of the largest mail-order concern in the country, it remains, in its various buildings, one of the finest examples of reinforced-concrete-and-glass “daylight” factory architecture anywhere—even though its most famous building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, was torn down in 1950. Another outstanding example of reinforced-concrete architecture is the old Fierce-Arrow automobile factory, which was conceived in part by the great architect Albert Kahn. Although the Pierce-Arrow is long gone, that building still stands, and the manufacture of automobile parts, from axles and body panels to tires, accounts for the largest part of Buffalo’s manufacturing economy today.

Buffalo lately has been emerging as a medical research center and a banking center. Today a quarter of all U.S.-Canadian trade is processed by the city. And where once Buffalo was flour miller to the nation, today it is nationally known for food processing of another sort. The Rich Products Corporation, maker of the nondairy creamer Coffee Rich, has burgeoned into one of the largest frozen-food packagers in the country. Meanwhile, from the weeds of feral industrial wastelands yacht basins and marinas have begun to sprout, along the lakeshore and riverbanks. Upscale restaurants and condominiums are abuilding in the shadow of defunct elevators.

EVEN TODAY, DESPITE ITS CHANGING PHYSICAL and economic landscape, Buffalo is still a city of grain elevators. They remain its most singular architectural landmarks. Once described as the “first fruits of the New Age,” they are today mostly defunct and stand as vivid testimony to the fact that technology inevitably sows the seeds of its own destruction. Nonetheless they are among our most eloquent symbols of a boisterous, raw young America, of a confident, productive nation accomplishing whatever it sets out to do.

In fact, the very principle of the grain elevator was a Buffalo invention. It was the inspiration of one Joseph Dart, who in 1842 devised a gravity feed mill filled by a bucket conveyor. However, the great concrete elevators for which the city is now famous were developed in Minneapolis after the turn of the century. Although these monumental concrete edifices might today be considered architecturally unimportant, they were not always. They were once greatly admired by such Europeans as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Erich Mendelsohn, who were instrumental in bringing about the revolution in building design known as the International style, which for years determined the course of modern architecture.

It has been said that photographs of Buffalo’s elevators reproduced in European publications had a real influence in shaping the nature and progress of modern architecture the world over. According to Gropius, the elevators, among other examples of American industrial architecture, “present an architectural composition of such exactness that to the observer their meaning is forcefully and unequivocally clear… . They are not obscured by sentimental reverence for tradition nor by other intellectual scruples which prostrate our contemporary European design and bar true artistic originality.” Even as relics they provide an iconography, a kind of gauge of the city’s former grandeur. The massive concrete towers that line the banks of the Buffalo River are like few other structures ever created—or likely to be again. Stand by the river amid their desolate grandeur, and you will find it hard not to be overwhelmed by what seems an almost Egyptian monumentality. Like the pyramids, they are the indestructible monoliths of bygone grandeur.

A FEW OF THE ELEVATORS are still in use, as Buffalo’s three remaining mills go on milling grain. Cheerios and Wheaties and Gold Medal flour are made there. General Mills, Pillsbury, and ConAgra do business there. Lake steamers still tie up beneath the elevators to have their cargoes dipped and scooped out of their holds the way they have been for 150 years. The “scooping” of grain is unique to Buffalo, and it has been carried on from generation to generation by the same Irish families, from the same ward, that first started it. So far as is known, the method is used nowhere else in the world.

Until a few years ago, if you wanted to find vintage lake steamers, one of the best places to look was Buffalo. Although the last of the classic six-hundred-footers, the standard bulk cargo boats on the lakes for most of this century, are gone, Buffalo is still the domain of the straight-deck bulker. In season you can almost always see a telltale line of steam trailing from the stack of an old laker somewhere along the Buffalo River. If your curiosity is aroused by such things, a little exploration of the riverfront may reveal one of the Kinsman Lines’ steamers lurking amid the grain elevators, unloading a cargo of prairie wheat.

I remember being seduced by one of those wisps of steam while driving across Buffalo’s Skyway Bridge one evening just before Christmas. I turned off the highway and found my way to an old friend, the venerable William A. McGonagle , unloading the season’s last load of wheat at an elevator far up the river. I had my family with me, and as we were expected for dinner at my wife’s mother’s place, I sensed a mutiny about to become inevitable.

Christmas Eve was tomorrow, and the last thing in the world the children, or my dear wife, had on their minds was a steamboat. Nevertheless, I insisted that we stay by the river for “just a minute,” under the pretext that the children should be aware of the historical significance of these antediluvian boats, that their horizons would be expanded immeasurably by knowing about such things, that there was more to the world than Nintendo, that you didn’t learn everything in school, and so on. I rolled down the window, so that all could revel at the sound of the steam and feast on the sight of the McGonagle in the twilight.

“Do you see that boat?” I asked my son, Philip, in a tone that I hoped would leave no question of the importance of what he was looking at. He turned dutifully in the steamer’s direction, but his mind was plainly elsewhere. I tried to find a way to convey why we were there and not at his grandmother’s house trimming the tree. Then I remembered that he had named his three pet mice Iceberg, Disaster, and Titanic. Appeal to his sense of drama, that was the key!

“It was built just four years after the Titanic sank,” I said triumphantly.

While I waited for him to ponder this fact, my daughter, Karen, made the obvious response. “Will it sink?”

I felt like saying that symbolically it already had: that its era, all steamers, the grain elevators, all that was in sight had been swallowed up by the sea like Atlantis. Instead I merely replied that I hoped not and urged her to “take a very good look, because this may be the last time you ever see it. It will probably be scrapped soon.”

I had hoped that they would give something their father loved so much more than just a second glance. I had hoped for too much. The McGonagle didn’t even belong to my own generation; how could I expect my children to go into raptures over it?

“Can we go now?” they asked in unison after we had been there barely five minutes, and even I realized that one of the last steamboats in America could not compete with Santa.

Two days later we passed by the McGonagle again. Her pilothouse was shuttered, and there was nary a wisp of steam to be seen. Rumors grew rife that winter that she would never sail again. But she had not quite reached her end. She was renamed the Henry Steinbrenner , for George’s grandfather, the patriarch of the company that owns her, and steamed in and out of Buffalo for two more seasons. Though the Steinbrenner lives no more, Buffalo remains one of the few ports of call in the world where steam vessels regularly outnumber diesels.

Buffalo’s heritage in many ways exemplifies the golden age of American industry, when the nation ran on a full head of steam. Smokestacks, steel mills, and grain elevators still signify for most people the essential industrial scenes. Despite the fact that today’s industrial landscape contains few of them, those monumental works of the nineteenth century afford us a visual and symbolic resource on a scale unparalleled by anything we have created since. Fiber optics and the microchip may have revolutionized the world, but the workplace from which they come is devoid of anything that would imply heroic endeavor. There is no drama, no steam, no deafening roar, no forges or furnaces glowing white hot. Today’s counterpart to what used to be called the factory floor rarely reveals the nature and importance of what happens there.

Not so Buffalo. Even in its dotage the city epitomizes the energy and aspirations of nineteenth-century America better than almost any place anywhere.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.