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Canalside Archaeology: Digging for the Story of Buffalo

As Canalside gets dug up, in preparation for new developments to come, a series of archaeological digs are underway to unearth pieces of Buffalo’s waterfront history. In order to tell the ‘Buffalo story’, it’s important to learn as much about our past as possible. And if that means uncovering the puzzle pieces one at a time, that’s what archaeologists intent to do this summer at the site between Main Street and Hanover Street, under the Skyway and across from the Webster Block construction.  Digs will be conducted at the site from 9am-4pm on these dates: June 15, 19, and 29; July 3, 13, 17, 27, and 31; and August 7, 10, and 21.
“The Canalside area of Buffalo was at the heart of Buffalo’s and the nation’s 19th century economy and transportation network,” said Nathan Montague, Historian, Archaeological Survey at the University at Buffalo. “Great Lakes ships, Erie Canal boats, and the railroads all came together at Buffalo’s waterfront, to move products of the west to markets in the east and to carry people in the other direction to settle the west. The University at Buffalo’s Archaeological Survey is beginning its second season at Canalside at a site between Hanover Street and Main Street.  See Buffalo’s 19th and 20th century history as it is uncovered and learn about archaeology as it is practiced.
“Where we propose to dig is now an abandoned field, but four- and five-story brick buildings once covered this entire block of land between the canal and the Buffalo Harbor.
“The lower floors of those buildings typically housed businesses like warehouses, wholesale groceries, taverns, insurance companies and hardware stores, while upper floors were used for lodging or storage. Some of the buildings likely were erected in the 1830s and the last ones weren’t torn down until about 40 years ago.
“It’s hard to say what we’ll find down there, but previous digs we’ve conducted nearby have uncovered pipe stems and other personal items, dinner plates, commercial objects, a lot of brick and mortar, coal dust, ash and something that could be a cannonball or part of a ship’s ballast.
“Last summer we turned up building materials, objects related to daily use, ceramics and cups and parts of children’s toys, and parts of tools – all evidence of the daily lives of people living and working here.  We will probably find similar items and even may find a few surprises.
“It’s such an interesting experience for those of us who live here now to be able to connect with a world we don’t remember and can hardly imagine. This excavation is helping to uncover and present artifacts that serve testaments to a rich and fascinating aspect of Buffalo’s history that many of us hardly know.”
Excavation dates for the demonstration archaeology project and more info can be found on Canalside’s events page:
For an intriguing look at the nature of the site, along with historic items that may be unearthed, click on the following PDF.

Written by WCPerspective


Buffalo and development junkie currently exiled in California.

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  • KimMcH

    Very Exciting. When I was in college, I traveled to NYC to do a report about a slave burial site that was found after construction started for a new building on an old parking lot. It was amazing to be a part of the new discovery.

  • RaChaCha

    I dig this! #SomeoneHadToSayIt

  • grad94

    finally, a shovel-ready site that i can get behind.

  • Chenango

    Nice thought – but can you imagine the history ripped apart and cemented over when the Arena was built, and completed ahead of schedule?
    It continues today with the construction of Harborfront.
    Erie Canal history is great, but settlements at the intersection of the Buffalo and Niagara Rivers dates back THOUSANDS of years.
    Kind of ironic, now that we have now come to see Canalside as our connection to history.

  • biniszkiewicz

    re: “thousands of years”:
    My thoughts exactly. There are likely much more interesting things to find at the river/lake intersection than white man relics.

  • Uncle Monty

    Thank you all for your comments.
    The archaeological excavation at Canalside will probably not extend deep enough to reach precontact artifacts. However, the archaeologists are trained to recognize all site types and we are fully aware of the area’s precontact site sensitivity for deeply buried sites.
    When we talk to visitors at Canalside we make sure they understand that the area around the mouth of Buffalo Creek/River has been an important intersection for thousands of years and that, while the bigger habitation sites are likely on higher elevations, like the terrace and up Main Street, there may be smaller, ephemeral sites in our area. These would be associated with temporary fishing/hunting and tool production camps and workshops.

  • KimMcH

    What is done with the artifacts found? With so much history in the area within diverse cultures (Native Americans, African American, Europeans ect..), there must have been many archeological discoveries over the years.

  • Dan

    Indian settlements tended to be along the Buffalo River. There’s a LOT of pre-European archaeological sites in South Buffalo.

  • Dan

    Found at an archaeological site in South Buffalo, 2213.

  • Uncle Monty

    The artifacts uncovered at Canalside in the course of this project will be taken to UB’s Archaeological Survey where they will be catalogued. We have the facilities to warehouse the artifacts until the folks at Canalside decide what they’d like to do with them. Ideally, the artifacts will be stored at Canalside and displayed for the public.