Author: Richard Sullivan
After snoozing for decades, the once-bustling and seminal riverside intersection of Hamburg and South streets is humming once more thanks to Mutual Riverfront Park. This project, spearheaded by Peg Overdorf, executive director of the Valley Community Association, illustrates in a profound and inspirational way how drastically a thoughtful urban renewal project can revitalize a neighborhood.
Today’s popular kayak launch at Mutual Riverfront Park lies just a hundred yards or so upstream from the little dock where one hundred years ago the half-thousand-dollar custom-built sculls of the Mutual Rowing Club at 148 South St. were routinely launched for daily training and for the club’s legendary regattas. According to dozens of Buffalo newspaper articles from that time chronicling these massive events, the MRC regattas attracted up to 10,000 spectators dressed in their Sunday finest to witness, picnic and cheer.
The Mutual Rowing Club, located on South St. just around the corner from Hamburg, was the social heart of the 1st ward for five decades, beginning in 1881 and ending in the early 1930s when the Depression was at its dismal apex.
In 1881 Mutuals founder James E. Sullivan, who lived with his parents and brothers at #16 Hamburg, gathered along with his brother John P., and future millionaire Fingy Conners, forty interested men at Triepel’s barber shop on the corner of Hamburg and South and drew up a club charter. MRC members, many proficient in builders’ trades, constructed a beautiful wooden Eastlake-style clubhouse at 148 South St. It was topped by an ornate gazebo under which the Adelphi Band sheltered from the hot sun as it serenaded the regatta crowds. The first elected club officers were James E. Sullivan, President, and William J. “Fingy” Conners, Vice president. It is believed that Conners, newly made rich by the very curious sequence of inherited estates of family members whose deaths occurred in short order, bankrolled a significant portion of the project.
A fire ten years later in 1891 destroyed the building. A fine and much larger brick structure was constructed to take its place. Curiously, within 18 months, fire also completely destroyed the MRC-adjacent homes of then-Detective James E. Sullivan, BPD, and that of his brother and next door neighbor, Buffalo Alderman John P. Sullivan, as well as the headquarters of the alderman’s Sullivan-Nunan Ice Company on Columbia St. The brothers happened to be on the “outs” with Fingy Conners during this time period in which Conners had established his own competing — and struggling — athletic club.
Predominantly Irish in membership, the Mutuals churned out police officers and firefighters, captains and chiefs, judges, theater empresarios, and many a successful local businessman. Not a month went by without a Mutuals shindie, smoker, talent show or other social event that attracted the likes of Sullivan cousin, heavyweight champion of the world John L. Sullivan, and every other sort of celebrity who played in Buffalo’s vaudeville theater district, including W.C. Fields.
Dominating the intersection of South & Hamburg beginning in 1860 was the overwhelming presence of the Palmer, Wadsworth, Thompson & Co. Union Ironworks. The Union Ironworks property was completely fenced in, and within that barrier was established an entire little hamlet, Uniontown. It was built to house, feed, entertain, quench the thirst of and separate from their paycheck its employees, who were discouraged from patronizing the saloons and entertainment just outside the gate. Uniontown’s streets — Pioneer, Monitor, Excelsior and Mill — were of dirt along which ran raised plank walkways. Prone to seasonal flooding, thin-boarded company housing designated for families was elevated upon stilts and pilings atop mounds of discarded slag to keep them dry.
Mrs. Dennison’s Boarding House, located at the end of Excelsior where it met Mill St., known today as Katherine, housed and fed bachelors. On Saturday nights the furniture was cleared from the dining room for the weekly shindig. Kegs of beer were tapped and local character Blind Joe from Michigan St. played the fiddle and called to the dances, his faithful guide dog General Porter lying at his feet.
James E. Sullivan worked here as a young man in the 1870s in the dangerous job of puddler. It’s difficult to imagine the level of noise, stink, toxic fumes, acrid smoke and fish-poisoning water pollution the Ironworks inflicted against those living in close proximity. Residents spoke of the hot summer sun, barely penetrating the heavy industrial haze, reflecting off a shower of millions of tiny flecks of silicon that filled the air with shimmering glitter-like speckles which found their way into their homes through any possible opening, as well as inhabitants’ lungs.
Hamburg & South Street residents somehow tolerated the ever-shrieking steam work whistle that signaled the Ironworks’ commands and warnings and the beginning and end of every work shift and lunch break, round the clock. The clanging streetcar ran down to the foot of Hamburg St. as well, transporting Ironworks workers, and in the mid- 1890s, Alderman Sullivan of #12 Hamburg St. connived to have the 1st ward’s 4th district polling place suspiciously located only yards from his front door where he could “keep an eye” on things. Mammoth ships chugging their way upriver required the assistance of coal-smoke belching tugboats, engines howling, horns blaring, to ease them round the hairpin bend in the river here, literally a stone’s throw away from where mothers sweated endlessly over washboards and their babies slept. Hamburg & South was a raucous bustling place.
In the 1890s a line of gargantuan, screeching, clanking, rumbling iron hoists were installed by the renamed Buffalo Furnace to load and unload ships anchored in the Buffalo River. They loomed massively and menacingly over the Hamburg St. houses, causing near panic when one or more failed in the midst of operation while fully loaded, or when gales blowing off the lake caused them to sway precariously. Armies of children claimed the environs of Hamburg & South as their playground. They explored the dangerous Ironworks property, fished, swam, and rafted in the filthy river, and played street games beneath the swaying hoists. The river claimed many a child’s life including that of Detective Sullivan’s 7-year old son John who drowned playing Tom Sawyer with his friends on a makeshift raft, his mother witnessing his fall from a kitchen window as she washed dishes at the sink. In 1907, boys shooting at random targets on the Ironworks property with a .22 rifle exploded a huge stack of boxes containing dynamite, blowing out windows for a mile all around, the percussion causing panic and felt as far away as Crystal Beach and Angola. A 16-foot crater was all that remained of their target.
Saloons dominated Hamburg & South, most of which were an appendix to another business — a grocers, a barber, a dry goods store or other. Indeed many a Buffalo waterfront house dedicated the family home’s street-facing room to the operation of a saloon, licensed or not, to quench the bottomless thirst of ironworkers, sailors and docksmen. In 1893 the Buffalo Express claimed the city of Buffalo had 2300 licensed saloons plus half again as many rogue drinking establishments, more than any other city per capita in the US.
At #10 Hamburg St., Triepel’s saloon doubled as a barber shop. Next door at the rear of #12 was Mrs. Maloney’s Hole In The Wall. At #16 Hamburg, Halloran’s / Sullivan’s saloon doubled as a grocery, as did Zittel’s (later Bennett’s) at #56 which also sold saplings, fruit trees and rose bushes. At #20, Smith’s saloon doubled as a hardware / drygoods store. At #24, Manahar’s also sold hardware. At #28 was John Short’s saloon. Heilbeck’s was at #48. And those were all located within one short half-block.
This excerpt from a news article titled “Reminisces of Uniontown” from an unattributed news clipping recalls what Hamburg & South was like in the 1870s:
Hamburg street from South to the Erie tracks, though without the settlement proper, is so closely allied to Uniontown that in treating the one mention must necessarily be made of the other. This particular portion of the thoroughfare is still known among the older people as The Plank, and at that early time was occupied by one continuous line of business places, principally saloons, with Zittel’s Grocery (56 Hamburg) thrown in. Uniontown differed in this respect from most company settlements of its kind in that the company had as yet opened no store in connection to its plant. The bulk of the grocery business of necessity went to Zittel who though enjoying a virtual control of the trade is ever referred to as a fair man.
It was here that differences which arose among the men were settled on Saturday afternoon apart from such as were adjusted on the grounds in front of Mrs. Dennison’s and it was no rare spectacle to witness two or three fistic encounters in progress on The Plank and as many more within the millyard. The recording of such affairs may tend to give the neighborhood an unsavory reputation and such may easily be the natural result, but inasmuch as these encounters formed a considerable part of the life within the settlement any description of the community would be incomplete without their mention. And I can assure you there were not half the bitterness, backbiting and slander within this neighborhood than exists in the average community at the present day. The men disagreed and fought in a fair manly fashion, then shook hands and the matter was as completely forgotten as if it had never occurred. And all these affairs were conducted in so fair and gentlemanly a fashion that no person engaged in a fistic fight ever received a permanent injury. Moreover, to the credit of the community be it said that among a floating population of 1,300 men during a period of twenty years with practically no police protection not one single murder occurred.
One well-remembered fight occurred in 1877. Edward Cannister and William Hickleton had some argument during the day’s toil. After quitting time they divested themselves of their superfluous raiment and pitched in according to the latest improved methods of rough-and-tumble fighting. Hitting a man when down and kicking were barred. This was understood by the principals to the affair and by the large number of their friends who witnessed the encounter. Every knockdown was a round. Mr. Cannister won after 81 rounds of fierce fighting in one hour and 40 minutes. Both men expressed themselves as satisfied with the result though William would have preferred to have been the winner. He felt that he had behaved like a man and had rendered a good account of himself. He had done his best but had met a better man. The spectators viewed the matter in the same manner and when the men began work the following morning there was nothing in their demeanor or in that of their fellow workmen to denote that anything unusual had occurred the preceding evening.
A barber shop stood at the corner of South and Hamburg streets in the little wing of Jake Triepel’s Saloon. Next door, in the house that now passes as the rear of Alderman John P. Sullivan’s dwelling was the saloon called the “Hole In The Wall” originally opened by James Nolan and Edward Callahan, but which had passed into the hands of Mrs. Maloney and was conducted by her in person at this date. Between these two houses and the street in front of the Union Ironworks office occurred one of the fiercest free-for-all rough-and-tumble fights that ever took place in the annals of the mill. On the evening of Saturday following Thanksgiving in 1879 Sandy Cannister repaired to the barber shop to be shaved for Sunday morning. There he met John Foran and Paddy Haney. Foran being shaved first went next door into the Hole In The Wall to await Mr. Cannister’s arrival. While there he became involved in an argument with a Mr. Noyes. They fought all over the establishment, finally landing in a heap behind the stove just as Sandy opened the door. John Taunton, recognizing him as a friend of Foran, struck him a blow on the face delivered with great force and marked precision. Cannister is a large powerful man and something of a jolt is required to remove him from his pins. Though dazed by the unexpectedness of the attack, Mr. Cannister polished off Mr. Taunton in short order and landed him somewhat dazed but in fairly good condition in the roadway without. He then separated Foran and Noyes with both of whom he was on the best of terms and in a few minutes the trio were discussing a glass of Mrs. Maloney’s best brew as though a cross word had never occurred between them.
Richard Sullivan is the author of The First Ward novel series available locally at Dog Ears on Abbott Rd and Turning Leaf locations, or online at Amazon.com
The First Ward I – http://amzn.com/146363658X
The First Ward II – http://amzn.com/1478172932
The First Ward III – http://amzn.com/1515212513
PHOTOS: Accompanying photos are courtesy of Joan Scahill, who grew up at Hamburg & South