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On This Day, July 6, 1863, Irish and Blacks Riot by Site of Dug’s Dive; Buffalo is the Barbary Coast of the East

In the movie, “All About Eve” Bette Davis says: “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night,” and I can promise you no less from today’s story. This true Buffalo tale is chockfull of riots and fun, emancipation and war, booze, broads, battles and more.
First, however, did you ever hear the phrase “what a dive,” maybe in reference to a pub? This “pub-as-dive” concept comes to the world’s locution from the etymological derivations from Buffalo. In literal truth, it meant you had to dive down the physical set of stairs at William Douglas’ Dug’s Dive on Buffalo’s Canal. Today, there are good dives, bad dives, and even the finest dives squatting at every marina and waterway commercial strip in the world.
William Douglas–call him “Dug”–(of Buffalo’s “Dug’s Dive”) was a former Tennessean slave who came to conquer Buffalo’s Canal marketplace, as a businessman, in the mid-1860’s. This was a time that our canal was known as the Barbary Coast of the East–it was a wild and wondrously wicked, absolutely ruddy hell of a place.
Dug was a black man who would run a grand little business in Buffalo. But, what was his problem, after all? Last night, while preparing today’s story, I sat out in the garden and listened to the airy blues of a CD with Louis Armstrong, called “Black and Blue.” The lyrics sung by Armstrong say it all:
“My Only Sin is in My Skin,
What did I do to be so black and blue?”
Now, for the rest of the story, let me introduce you to the author, Dave Baker, who takes it from here today. He is the president of the Friends of the Buffalo Canal District. The following is published in cooperation with the Preservation Coalition, and published in November 1999, but it rings true to call for action today:
“The site of Dug’s Dive, a waterfront basement saloon and boarding house run by former slave William Douglas is very close to being irretrievably lost because of a state agency’s desire to build a series of artificial boat slips as tourist attractions on the Buffalo River. The site is in what was formerly known as the Canal District, where the great Erie Canal had its terminus and a tangle of streets, alleys, and waterways connected to make Buffalo a city of the first rank and the Canal District a zone of economic and social ferment and not a little notoriety.
The Canal District, stretching from the foot of Main Street to Erie Street (the lake side of the Marine Drive Apartments), was leveled in various urban renewal schemes from the 1930s right up to the late 1960s. This past summer entire streets and the Erie Canal itself came to light in exploratory excavations linked to the state development project.
Uncle Dug, as Mr. Douglas was known, offered food, drink and shelter to black men and women for more than 20 years. The fact that well preserved basement walls have been discovered nearby and that the site was not built upon subsequent to the demolition of the Union Block means there is a Cover: In this view taken between 1855 and 1862, The Union Block, or “Negro Block”, stands on the left, behind the bridge in foreground.
Its basement borders the towpath of Commercial Slip, the terminus of the Erie Canal. The Negro Block was known as such because it housed many African-American – owned businesses, including Dug’s Dive, which could only be entered from the towpath.”

Tennessee Slave becomes Buffalo Businessman. William Douglas was born in Tennessee around 1800 and appears to have made his way to Buffalo by the 1830s. It is not known if Mr. Douglas escaped from slavery or was freed. Once in Buffalo, he became an independent businessman whose customers were mostly African-American sailors, canal boatmen and dock laborers. Dug’s Dive was one out of hundreds of saloons, boarding houses and brothels near the docks that provided entertainment, sustenance, and physical companionship to men who landed at the Port of Buffalo
In many ways, Uncle Dug’s place was no different than all of them. In one way, though, William Douglas’ establishment was different. He was known as a good Samaritan for giving food and a place to sleep to African-Americans in need of help who found his door. Undoubtedly, these unfortunate souls included many fugitive slaves finding their way to Canada with nothing but the shirts on their backs
Dug’s Dive was located in the basement of the Union Block, a narrow triangle sandwiched between the Commercial Slip of the Erie Canal and Commercial Street, just north of the Water Street Bridge. Aboveground, the Union Block appears to have been composed, at the beginning, of discrete, multi-story units, somewhat like a rowhouse. Dug’s Dive, however, seems to have occupied the continuous basement beneath.
Above the basement level, the Union Block was three stories high. It contained several African American residences and businesses, including a mixture of saloons, brothels and hoarding houses. For this reason, the block was also known as the “Negro Block.”
Uncle Dug’s basement saloon was entirely below the level of Commercial Street, and could be reached only from the “back,” or canal side, like a house or barn tucked into a hill. The land had naturally sloped to the watercourse of Little Buffalo Creek. (Adapting buildings to slopes in this manner is common. When the Commercial Slip was filled in the 1920s, the natural slope and the man-made terracing that followed were lost below a uniform grade across the site.)
There was no official street address, the 1855 city directory listing the location of Dug’s Dive as a “recess” at the corner of Commercial and Water Street. Later directories list various numbers on Commercial Street or just “Union Block- Commercial Slip.”
According to an 1874 newspaper article, the way to get to Dug’s Dive was to go down the Water Street bridge stairs onto the towpath and then to head north twelve to fourteen feet. Once you found the door, you still had to go four or five steps below the towpath to get into Uncle Dug’s place.
Being below the streets and even below the canal towpath, the inside of the saloon was generally described as damp and unsanitary. The basement of the Union Block would occasionally flood when storm surges raised lake water levels, and Uncle Dug openly talked of how he expected his end would come from drowning.
Newspaper articles of that period describe Dug’s Dive as a rundown place where a man of normal height could not stand erect. There is no doubt physical conditions were appalling by today’s standards. Even under these poor conditions, though, Dug’s Dive was regularly filled, some eating, drinking and socializing, while others slept on benches in the bar, the kitchen and the “parlors,” as Uncle Dug called his boarding rooms.
A likely Underground Railroad site. J.C. Furnas, a writer on the Underground Railroad, has said “practically every clump of Negro settlers in the free states was an Underground depot by definition, for the runaway considered a black skin an even more reliable promise of help than a Quaker broad brim” (1956). So, it seems logical to assume fugitive slaves found refuge in Dug’s Dive, along with many of the other establishments in the Union Block. For Buffalo, this “Negro Block” would have been especially important, with runaways arriving regularly down at the wharves by ship and overland, each needing to quickly find assistance.
Refuge was a life or death matter in Buffalo’s African American community during the 1850s and early 1860s. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed (under the Administration of Buffalonian Millard Fillmore, who ironically owned property a cobblestone’s throw away on Hanover Street, also to be destroyed by the state project), long-settled blacks up north were faced with the possibility that they could be dragged hack to slavery, and any person helping them could be criminally implicated.
Particularly at risk were runaway slaves who worked on boats traveling the Great Lakes, never knowing who might he waiting on shore at any port of call.
One example was Buffalo’s own fugitive slave case of 1851, wherein a man named Daniel Davis, working on a Lake Erie steamer, was arrested at the dock at the foot of Commercial Street (where in later years the Canadiana, the “Crystal Beach Boat,” was docked) within 200 feet or so of the Union Block. Following an initial magistrate’s ruling that he must be returned, Mr. Davis was released by a federal judge in Auburn, NY on a technical interpretation of the law. Evidently not wanting to test his luck or the law further, Davis then made his way to Canada.
With the ever-present threat of capture, fugitive slaves on ships calling at Buffalo would likely seek out convenient yet obscure places like Dug’s Dive, in the midst of, yet apart from, Buffalo’s bustle.
In midst of Civil War Tensions, a Redoubt During Riot of 1863. Dug’s Dive also was a sanctuary for many during a violent riot on the docks on July 6, I863, culminating a tense spring and summer. The nation was in the midst of civil war, and the President Lincoln was implementing an unpopular draft.
New York Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat, had taken office earlier in the year, saying the Jan. 1. I863 Emancipation Proclamation was a violation of the constitution that carrying out the liberation of 4,000,000 slaves would require the North to resort to military despotism. These words reflected great tensions, coming from the leader of the most populous and prosperous state in a time of national crisis.
All spring, Army enrollers went house to house across the city, seeking able-bodied men between 20 and 45. Physical and family exemptions could be had, but also, upon payment, of $300 cash, a man could designate a substitute to go to war for him. As only the rich had recourse to $300 in ready cash, the poor viewed this as a class war.
On July 4th, I863, Governor Seymour told an Independence Day audience just getting news of the Battle of Gettysburg that the country was an the “very verge of destruction” because of government coercion, “seizing our persons, infringing upon our rights, insulting our homes…men deprived of the right by trial by jury, men ton from their homes by midnight intruders.” Seymour’s speech, and a similar one delivered by former President Franklin Pierce, was widely disseminated by the newspapers.
These sentiments, filtered down to the burgeoning foreign-born population, 50 percent of whom were Irish, became simplified as a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. The slaughterhouses of Shiloh, Bull Run, and Antietam were not the best recruiting tools, and the draft, a military necessity, was politically and socially divisive.
In this climate, on July 6th, a fight broke out on the Buffalo docks. A mob coalesced, and the fight quickly escalated to the point where hundreds of Irish dock workers attacked blacks at random. At least two blacks died.
When the rioters decided to “clean out” the Union Block, a mob quickly surrounded the building. A large force of police fought their way in and rescued a large number of men from “the Douglas dive” who were taken to jail for their own protection.
The situation cooled down in Buffalo, but in New York, a week later, an apparently more organized uprising took place. In three days of the draft, offices were looted and burned, the mayor’s house ransacked, and 30 blacks were hanged, shot, or beaten to death by mobs.
For all these reasons, the canal District (which later became known as Little Italy, with its own historical contributions), the Union Block and Dug’s Dive are important parts of Buffalo’s heritage. Sites like the Union Block, its possible links to the Underground Railroad, and the urban geography and street life o the Canal District are worthy of intensive scholarly study. Still, this history is easily forgotten or misremembered without tangible evidence, such as that unearthed this summer.
The Union Block was torn down around the turn of the century last century. However, since nothing was subsequently built on the site but temporary shacks, the chance still exists to save and perhaps reconstruct this site.
If we look for the basement walls of the Union Block now, there is a good chance they will be found. Inside, in addition to artifacts from the slavery era, we may find the walls defining Uncle Dug’s saloon and boarding rooms.
State planners, however, want to fast-track Inner Harbor construction. And the site of the Union Block is slated to be destroyed by constructing a new museum for the Naval Park on top of it.
Alternative Plan Calls for Preservation of Dug’s Site. An alternative plan, put forth by the Preservation Coalition of Erie Country, would preserve not only Commercial Street and the Commercial Slip and its towpath, calls for an interpretive pavilion to reconstruct the outlines and foundation of the Union Block. Visitors could descend a set of steps similar to those described in old newspaper accounts, and find themselves in the cramped but evocative spaces of Dug’s Dive. It’s fascinating story does not have to be snuffed out forever. The Preservation Coalition plan would also uncover Lloyd and Hanover streets, which exist to this day intact under the Naval Park parking lot.
Is it too late to do something about this call to action so unheard around our parts? Not sure, for “progress” is leaping over said grounds as we listen. I think the cause to save such historical grounds has taken a dive. The legacy of Poor Dug’s Dive is not dead, however–you can grab a great meal at its reincarnation by restauranteur Tucker Curtin at the site of the old Slip A’Weigh in the NFTA Small Boat Harbor on Fuhrmann.
At least we’ll keep a great story alive, and it is a great Buffalo story at that.

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  • 2148

    two things:
    1. man wouldnt all this stuff make a freaken cool movie a la “gangs of NY” ?
    2. this gets at a great issue of historic preservation, how to interpret comprimised sites. There are a few schools of thought.
    First, and most likely the easiest, is that the context of the site was lost with the demolition of the site and environs and it is impossible to restore. It is very likely no interior plans exist. and even with the existence of the plans, interior uses, finishes, and furnishings would at best be a somewhat educated guess. therefore, any restoration would be disingenuous and misleading to a visitor by presenting a restored building as a faithful recreation (or misinterpreted as the actual structure). additionally, in all likelihood the actual original design would certainly be completely non-compliant to current life/safety codes. therefore, restoration is a undesirable option. use of the land could be a excavation of the foundation with interpretive wayside signage, or could be anything at all (including a bass pro – but i aint touching that).
    A second option would be to build a historic facade. Using photographs, physical site evidence (such as foundations), and first person accounts, the exterior of th building is replicated as faithfully as possible. The National Park Service favors using obviously modern construction so visitors do not incorrectly assume they are seeing the original structures. The interior would be furnished with modern materials and construction, again, so the structure is not misidentified as the original by unknowing visitors. Ths structure would then be used as the owners saw fit (ie housing, shops, ahem -bass pro).
    Thirdly, and obviously the most difficult, is the complete restoration of the block, both interior and exterior. In all likelihood, this would require a significant amount of research. even upon the compilation of all available information, it may be impossible to put forth even partially honest recreation. And of course, a complete restoration would likely limit the structure(s) to museum space – or historic bar. Then of course, this raises issues of staffing, funding and ownership.
    In each case, im sure the state historic preservation office would want a say. perhaps even the NPS folks. all would require (and should require) a fairly large scale archeological dig which is both time consuming and expensive (im not saying we shouldnt do it!).
    I know you didnt ask me my opinion, but here goes: rebuild the facade for whatever use (yes even a big box store), in the basement incorporate a museum and recreated Dougs Dive. The profits from the restaurant fund the museum – self funding prophecy! and finally lets get those cobbles back.

  • 2275

    A man with such obvious intelligence such as yourself is pitiful when your brainy blessings are squandered on racism simply for shock jock sake.
    If your words can spew out so bravely, why hide behind your KKK cloak of hidden identity. Tell us, the readers of BRO, who you are.
    No, let me tell you who you are: you are a misled, myopic, paretic, syphletic fop of a mispent intelligence.
    I seriously challenge you to rewite your post above, challenge you to write it in a way that you can say your peace without trashing our appetites. Could you possibly do that?
    There’s fifty bucks in it for you if you can sound the least bit sane.

  • 2148

    so, then, what about the block again?
    ps – ill double the $50, but youll need to get extra credit by doing it in haiku.

  • 904

    you know who i mean
    he posts with hate and malice
    yes, chris69
    hit the refresh key
    no, the trash won’t go away
    his post is still here
    what a tragedy
    this late in our history
    we have clowns like this

  • 1232

    When is chris69 going to be banned from this site for good? The hate-filed, racist, derogatory comments are just plain juvenile and ignorant. I will ALSO put into the pot for chris69 to fully identify himself/herself with extra credit given for photo of this person to be included in his/her “outing”.
    Absoutely disgusting garbage coming from this person.
    CHEERS to zimmerman for calling out chris69! (and for all of your cool historical posts as well!)

  • 516

    I don’t see the point in challenging him to reveal himself.. Are you going to arrest him or punch him in the face? Are you going to try and change his mind? His comments are ignorant but many of the comments on this site are. Also, why would you sensor any of the content on this website including ignorant comments? Should we pretend that this community is not still filled with racists? Maybe Buffalo Rising should discuss race issues more openly. Get this stuff out in the open.

  • 2275

    As evidenced, Chris69’s comments are removed. It wasn’t my decision, but I applaud it no less. He’s raised comments in recent days about Arabs, Indians, and more. The thrust of his angst is quite intriguing, comes from an intelligent mind, albeit one that’s distastefully twisted.
    You can assault any heredity, ethnic group, race, people or even township with some degree of truth, but when it’s twisted with hate it becomes foul and downright nasty.
    I don’t like nasty. Does anybody? Maybe we all learn from Chris69 how not to be.
    I’d rather be an exciting community welcoming all to come grow and — hey, it’s officially the weekend, time to party Buffalo! Hope to see you out on the lake– call me at 716-880-5154 and come sailing!

  • 510

    Great post, as usual from Zimmerman.
    Something told me before I even opened the article that Chris69 (also known as L) would have something to say. Ah well..

  • 2761

    I thank God for people like Bill who I can learn from and curse the day I ever knew the likes of chris69 (L 4 loser)from whom I can learn nothing. We’ve heard it all before and you’re not welcome here if you can’t contribute to the world as it is, not how YOU wish it to be. Stop the stupidity cycle chris69.
    Great Article Zimmerman! YOU’VE given me lots to think about.

  • 800

    William Douglas is one of many Americans who has contributed greatly to this city’s great and fabled story. Thank you, Bill Zimmerman, for shining a light again on Douglas and his part in Buffalo’s making, unmaking, and reconstitution, now underway in the Canal District. You can walk down – today – and grasp clues at how amazing and interesting this little birthplace of Buffalo must have been at one time, at the foot of Commercial Street where many of Buffalo’s dramas played out. Draft riots, underground railroad, crime and vice in a city where “survival” was, and still is, a theme of this city’s ongoing story.
    In 500 years, people will still be fascinated by William Douglas and the little dive he operated aside Buffalo’s terminus of the Erie Canal years ago. And no one will remember a thing about Bass Pro…

  • 683

    Dear Mr. Zimmerman,
    Nobody cares about the underground railroad. Yes, the north was abolitionist but they didnt want freed blacks sent up north….the freed slaves were a southern problem…and canada didnt want them….it was an american problem.
    The irish and italian canal workers didnt want african americans…they depressed already low canal and dock wages as well as poor working conditions.
    These are facts…no one wants to here yet when an african american or some brain dead liberal uses racism for their degrading rap music to defend censorship, or uses racism for job and educational quotas…..or to slander our entire city with unfounded accusations of segregation….that people will listen and discuss!
    and when Buffalo State which should be the equivalent of Buffalos RIT….regresses under a black female president…YES REGRESSES…to the point that Schumer wants to put a Center for Teaching Excellence in Rochester when Buffalo State is a teaching college….and other slights…there can be only one reason why. An unqualified african american woman who satisfies two diversity quotas (black and female) sits at her desk with ambitious goals of doing little more than secretarial work shuffling papers.
    and when we finally get a black mayor what is his first action….why its to lift the control board obolish its wage and hiring freezes instilled by the control board WITH multiple step increases and promotions…..and do it all before the next contract negotiations. Even spitzer thought that was stupid….since as governor he had to ask himself just how much more money could albany redirect to Buffalos mayor and unions! Again, yet another example of an unqualified african american paper pusher in a position of responsibility though shockingly Brown does give me the impression of having more brains than Masiello but Brown isnt demonstrating that he is using them since Masiello accepted the Control Board and was happy to ride the Control Board and let someone else take the blame.
    I dont think its racist to say….African Americans have done more to smear libel and denigrate Buffalo than any other ethnic group since a member of the polish community assisinated McKinley at the PanAm….and what exactly has the african american community contributed….sorry….cant think of a thing except for that enormous act of changing names of parks, bridges, post offices and streets (which no one uses anyway: Harriett Tubman Way is still Michigan…MLK Park is still Humboldt….etc)
    No one cares!

  • 683

    If Buffalo cant create tourism with:
    1) LaSalle exploring the great lakes in the Griffon
    2) its role in the French & Indian War
    3) its role in the Revolutionary War
    4) the construction and arming of Admiral Perrys Warships to defend the Great Lakes in the War of 1812
    5) the burning of Buffalo in the War of 1812 (putting Buffalo right alongside DC and Atlanta as famous cities burned during war)
    6) the Erie Canal and the Port of Buffalo
    7) the Pan Am Exhibit
    and Im sure the list could continue. However….now what exactly puts the underground railroad and african american history above any one of the above historically significant pieces of Buffalo History which is being ignored completely.
    Unless of course the real meaning of minority is anyone but a white male
    and unless of course the real meaning of diversity is anyone who isnt white
    or unless you want to give credence to a typical brother that says….thats white mans history…thats white mans mathmatics, thats white mans literature… if to say….that all culture is relative and should be weighted equally which makes just about all literature, science, mathmatics, chemistry, psychology, business, sociology, medicine…fractionally valuable. If so then hhmm I it must be racist that an african witchdoctor, a carribbean voodoo practitioner and a harvard MD do not make equal salaries. Yup, that explains it.

  • 800

    In 1999 the Preservation Coalition put forth an alternative proposal which called for reconstructing part of the Union Block (i.e. “Negro Block”) utilizing the existing foundations, allowing the bar to be recreated and tourists to have a glimse of at least the spatial experience of Dug’s Dive submerged beneath the ground and beneath the canal itself. That option can still be explored. The site need not be an interpretive lawn. Who wants to interpret grass anyhow?
    As time goes on and the build-out of the reconstructed Canal District goes forward – the much publicized “Canal Side” plan, with Bass Pro and parking ramps, may be hitting the road soon after Chris Drury – Dug’s Dive can find its place again. Why not?

  • 510

    This might seem like a dumb question, but were all of the buildings in the area leveled? Why were the slips filled?

  • 510

    WHY were all of the buildings in the area leveled?

  • 499

    Always thought it would be great to “house” the site with a glass or see-through building that archaeology students could use as a covering for a dig. Display cases could be set up for the findings and the building could be temperature controlled. That way visitors and residents alike would be able to observe the dig. It could be an attraction that would encompass the likes of the Science Museum, UB, and others.

  • 1745

    drl, Most of the old Canal District was leveled during the 1930s for “slum clearance”. Decades after the Erie Canal lost its significance the area became tenement district for Italian immigrants fresh off the boat. By the late 1920s most of those folks had moved to greener pastures otherwise known as the West Side neighborhoods that were traditionally Italian-American enclaves. Being able to live in a private house with a modest yard was a huge step up for a struggling immigrant family.
    After the old district emptied out, the weathered collection of decaying multistory tenements (likely wood framed with load-bearing brick walls) didn’t really have much of a viable use any longer, so logically the whole shebang was torn down. The mindset at the time was probably “Good riddance!”.
    Built in the Canal district’s place were a number of new things. The first “improvement” was a new collection Le Corbusier-inspired low-income housing project buildings known today as the Marine Drive Apartments. Back then, this “towers in a park” high-rise apartment complex was called “Dante Place Apartments.” The Naval Park and Erie Basin Marina account for the rest of the old district, along with all the barren parcels that lie underneath the Skyway.
    Bringing back anything resembling the old Canal District would be economically unrealistic not to mention foolish. The Erie Canal terminus was the ultimate reason why this district even existed. The canal and the neighborhood are long gone. A commercially-viable destination attraction that pays light homage to the old district is the right way to go in terms of how to redevelop this land.

  • 1745

    And to answer your second question….
    The slips were filled in because they were no longer needed. Railroads and then subsequently cars and trucks (and the roads that conveyed such traffic) rendered freight shipping by canal obsolete.