Erie Canal
by Cynthia Van Ness, MLS

Millions of Americans have ancestors who immigrated to the US from Europe and took the Erie Canal to get to Great Lakes steamboats and settle the midwest. The mighty city of Chicago, for example, was a direct beneficiary of population brought by the canal.

Most of you also know, from the songs you learned in grade school, that the canal began in Albany and ended in Buffalo, NY, where I live, and was built with a large amount of Irish labor.

A little history about where the canal ended in Buffalo: our canal district, virtually in the shadow of our City Hall, was perhaps the most notorious and seamy waterfront in the whole country. The innocent-sounding song, "Buffalo Gals (Won't You Come Out Tonight)," is actually about prostitutes, because Buffalo's Canal Street was lined with brothels.

The district was densely populated with the newest immigrants (Irish, Polish, Italian) and the desperately poor. Disease was epidemic, brawling and murder was common. Paradoxically, alongside the horrific tenements and factories was some of the highest-valued real estate in the country, where 19th century shipping and railroad companies had lavish (for the time) corporate headquarters.

It is likely that fugitive slaves found refuge in the canal district, for there was at least one Black-owned tavern/brothel there before the Civil War, and Buffalo's position on the Niagara River permitted easy crossing over to Canada. Buffalo was an important link on the Underground Railroad.

The area was enough of a local scandal for so long that it was seen as an overdue civic improvement to bulldoze the then "blighted" canal district in the late 1930s and build public housing highrises instead.

These apartments still stand, but under the asphalt parking lots surrounding them are the original street network, foundation walls for the Commercial Slip (the original terminus of the Erie Canal) and some building foundation walls. There may also be railroad tracks and wharf pilings.

Long story short, along comes the Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC), a quasi-governmental agency, to "develop" Buffalo's languishing waterfront. Their plan pays no heed to the architectural, transportation, or social history of the 12 acre site and is full of park-like features that were foreign to 19th century commercial Buffalo, such as curving landscaped walkways, insipid plazas, fake canal slips. To build this plan requires bulldozing what remains of the original district.

This travesty-in-progress needs national attention, for the Erie Canal is arguably the most famous canal in the world and played a key role in populating the continental US. Will tourists, many of whom know that their ancestors traveled the canal, come to see a fake "attraction" that bears no resemblance to history? Will travelers following Underground Railroad routes be satisfied with mere signage and photos of what once was?

To learn more about what is presently taking place in Buffalo, visit the Preservation Coalition of Erie County
To learn more about the history of Buffalo's Canal District; visit the Buffalo HistoryWorks: The Buffalo Harbor

Read about the grand opening of Phase II of the Erie Canal Harbor.

Chuck LaChiusa's outstanding "Buffalo as an Architectural Museum" website has an FAQ about Buffalo's Local Landmarks.

*New* April 2009 pictures of the Erie Canal Harbor from Chuck LaChiusa.

last edited 23 April 2009

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