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Olmstedian Scajaquada: The Scajaquada that Was and Wasn’t

Earlier this year, two comments from “nuvaux” led down a rabbit hole of historic research that yielded new insights into how the Scajaquada corridor evolved, particularly on the western end. This evolution and history, I believe, are essential to thinking about and planning the future of the corridor. Following these threads took many interesting and unexpected turns, and there always seemed to be something new around the next bend. If you would like to follow along, I’ve put each thread in a section below, and tied them together at the end for what they say about our modern task of re-thinking the corridor.

Along the way, so many people provided research assistance and information and images that I now understand why book authors include acknowledgments, which I’ve done at the end.

The Politician Who Presciently Predicted the Park

William Findlay Rogers. Source: artconservation.buffalostate.edu (via Wikimedia)

Mayor William Findlay Rogers, according to Wikipedia, “… is probably best remembered today as the mayor and parks commissioner who hired Frederick Law Olmsted [and Calvert Vaux] to design Buffalo’s park system and its showpiece, Delaware Park.” And indeed, Rogers was one of many Buffalo civic leaders who, in the 1850s, wanted to see the creation of a large park in the city that was growing geographically and economically by leaps and bounds.

When research for this article sent me back to Dr. Frank Kowsky’s indispensable book The Best-Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System (along with Charles Beveridge’s Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape, one of the two books that I believe are essential reading for rethinking the Scajaquada corridor), a passage about Rogers I’d overlooked in earlier readings jumped out at me. Although Dr. Kowsky recounts the great moment when Olmsted first saw the farmland that would become the Delaware Park Meadow, famously saying, “Here is your park, almost ready made,” he also mentions that Rogers stated a year earlier that just such a place was where Buffalo should be looking to locate a park. (Note: you can read the relevant chapter in PDF here.

But even more interesting than (in a way) beating Olmsted to the punch was how Rogers chose to make that suggestion. Before becoming mayor, Rogers was the city comptroller, and the city comptroller was required by law to deliver a written annual report. You can find these reports at the library, and they are all dry, pro forma compilations of budgets and accounts and line items and numbers upon numbers. With one exception: Rogers’ comptroller’s report for 1866, delivered in 1867.

More than anything, this report reads like a campaign platform. And indeed, the following year he ran for and was elected mayor. His report called for a number of things, like better roads and sanitation, and new civic buildings. Because Buffalo had gotten rich during the Civil War, and before the war the city’s boundaries had expanded several-fold, many civic leaders believed the moment had come to create the things associated with large cities. In his report, Rogers clearly casts his lot with those men.

Among the things those forward-thinking civic leaders wanted for their city was a large park, and in his report Rogers made the case:

Public attention has been directed for several years past to the propriety of securing a tract of land, within the present limits of the city, for a Public Park, and I take the liberty of inviting your attention to this subject now, while the city has the opportunity of securing what will, eventually, be considered a great public necessity. The territory embraced between Main and Niagara streets, beyond Forest Lawn, would prove an advantageous and most accessible location, and on which the improvements are now of comparatively little value. This territory is traversed by the waters of Scajaquada and Cornelius Creeks, from which artificial lakes could be supplied, and the grounds so laid out and improved as to render it quite as attractive, to both citizens and strangers, as the far-famed Central Park of New York City.

Consulting an atlas from the time, you can see the truth of what Comptroller Rogers said. The area from Main to Niagara north of Forest Lawn, made part of the City of Buffalo only in the previous decade, was at that time a sparsely settled swath of farms and estates. With the exception, it is important to note, of Black Rock, west of the present-day Grant Street.

North Buffalo, from 1866 Stone and Stewart Atlas of Erie County. REPRODUCTION BY PERMISSION OF THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, BUFFALO, NEW YORK

It’s intriguing how prescient then-Comptroller Rogers was about siting the park. Also, about citing Central Park as an example, given that it wouldn’t be long before its designers were working in Buffalo. But even more, as relates to the Scajaquada, how he suggested that one of the North Buffalo creeks could be used to create an artificial lake for a park. As we know, the creation of Gala Water, now Hoyt Lake, from Scajaquada Creek would be a centerpiece of the park Olmsted and Vaux designed. And as we’ll see in another section, in the 1890s a second, linear lake was also created west of Elmwood Avenue by damming Scajaquada Creek near Grant Street.

As for Cornelius Creek, which once ran along Hertel Avenue (originally, Cornelius Creek Road), it would also come to be used just as Rogers envisioned – at least for a time. The short-lived Delaware Avenue Cemetery, which existed for about a decade (1882–1893) at Delaware and Hertel Avenues before the land was sold for residential development and the interments were removed to Forest Lawn, seems to have dammed the creek to create a series of small lakes within the grounds. The layout of that cemetery can be seen in this detail from the popular “The Park” poster of 1891, available for sale (on sale for half off last time I checked) from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library (perhaps sketched from aerial photos taken from a balloon):

Delaware Avenue Cemetery, detail from “The Park” poster of 1891. REPRODUCTION BY PERMISSION OF THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, BUFFALO, NEW YORK

But the largest question raised by then-Comptroller Rogers’ prescient statement is this: if a principal reason for locating a large park in North Buffalo was to take advantage of creeks that could be used to create park lakes, why not use the large body of water that was already there: the Scajaquada harbor? As pointed out in a previous article in this series, that harbor was once roughly the same size as the park lake that Olmsted and Vaux created artificially. Also, it originally had bays, headlands, and even an island – all things that would have to be created artificially in Delaware Park. So why go to all the trouble and expense to create a new lake with the size and features of the one that already existed?

As a location for a park, the Scajaquada harbor would have been ideal in another way: as described in the next section, it had direct access to the Erie Canal and Black Rock Harbor, meaning that steam (and later, electric) launches could have brought visitors directly to the park by water. In an age of bad roads and before widespread streetcar service, for years park officials sought water access to Delaware Park – and Olmsted even included a landing for such purposes in the park – but were never able to pull it off. Given that the Scajaquada harbor had that access from the beginning, why wasn’t it the site for, or part of, the park?

The answer is in the next section.

“The Business End of the Scajaquada”

In the 1890s newspaper photography was still in its infancy, so the Sunday Illustrated Buffalo Express, with its photo-illustrated features, must have been the talk of the town. In the fall of 1896, with several changes in the works for the Scajaquada Creek corridor west of Delaware Park (and likely to compete with a Courier story two weeks earlier), an Express reporter and photographer (both unidentified in the article, unfortunately) embarked on a ramble along the creek that took them from its mouth all the way to Cheektowaga. Published in two parts, the story may be the first documented exploration of the creek across the entire city, at a time when east of Main Street the creek still had a largely rural character.

“The business end of the Scajaquada.” Source: Illustrated Express, September 27, 1896.

But not the west end, which the reporter aptly dubbed, “the business end of the Scajaquada.” And indeed, at the time of the story the west end of the creek had been doing business for over a century, beginning with a sawmill near its mouth in the 1780s. The sawmill plus the safe haven from the swift-flowing Niagara River made the creek mouth a natural location for ship building, and the shipyard there not only famously built or refitted some of the ships Commodore Perry used to win the pivotal Battle of Lake Erie, but also built the first steamship on the upper Great Lakes, the Walk-in-the-Water.

Yet despite its advantages, shipbuilding and industry on the Scajaquada were initially limited by the challenge of getting ships upriver into the upper Great Lakes against the stiff current. Even the Walk-in-the-Water, under full steam, had to be helped by the “horn breeze” – teams of oxen pulling along the river bank.

All that changed when the Erie Canal and Black Rock Harbor were built. The Black Rock Harbor was created by building the Bird Island Pier, which brought Erie-level water all the way north to the Black Rock Lock and Black Rock Dam. Scajaquada Creek now flowed directly into the Black Rock Harbor, rather than the Niagara River. Suddenly the last mile of the creek became a harbor in its own right (at least for canal boats, if not for masted ships blocked by the Niagara Street bridge), connected by water to all of the Great Lakes, all of New York State via the Erie Canal, and all of the world via the Port of New York.

New historical marker at 1660 Niagara Street, on the original mouth of Scajaquada Creek. Source: Author photo

Nomenclature note: I capitalize “Black Rock Harbor” in this piece because the name was used geographically and historically (see pictured marker). I do not fully capitalize “Scajaquada harbor” because I was unable to find the term used historically. I use it here as a helpful way to refer to the wide area of the creek west of present-day Grant Street, and because that area could be used as a harbor and boat basin by canal boats. Masted lake ships could not go past the Niagara Street bridge, which was fixed. Only the mouth of Scajaquada Creek (the small portion west of Niagara Street) was used by lake ships, and in fact was the site of a shipyard. The mouth of the creek, therefore, was considered part of the Black Rock Harbor (again, see pictured marker), along with the Black Rock Channel and a section of the Erie Canal. Mules could pull canal boats through the harbor on a towpath along the east side of the Black Rock Channel, walking across the mouth of the creek on a light movable bridge that could be slid out of the way when a masted ship needed to enter the mouth of the creek (see image below).

A portion of the Black Rock Harbor showing the mouth of Scajaquada Creek, the movable towpath bridge, and (presumably) the bridge tender and bridge tender’s house. Source: Illustrated Express, September 27, 1896.

Over the next few decades, those extensive water connections turned the Scajaquada harbor into a thriving industrial area, but not without a major impact on the creek’s hydrology. The slack-water of the Black Rock Harbor and Erie Canal couldn’t absorb the creek’s outflow as well as the free-flowing river had, causing flooding upstream that eroded banks and killed old-growth trees. At the same time, after heavy rains floodwaters from the creek would inundate the canal. To help protect against that, in 1849 the state gave a contract for exactly $14,185.19 to one Enos Steel to construct a diversion ditch from the present location of Grant Street northwest to Cornelius Creek to help draw off the overflows. This “State Ditch” can be seen on many old maps.

Scajaquada harbor, 1866, from Stone and Stewart Atlas of Erie County. REPRODUCTION BY PERMISSION OF THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, BUFFALO, NEW YORK

By the time of the Civil War, industries were located all around the Scajaquada harbor, as you can see from the 1866 atlas. Largest was the Buffalo Malleable Iron Works of Pratt and Letchworth, which by the end of the Civil War employed eight hundred workers. One of its three principals, Pascal Pratt, was an advocate for the park system and became president of the city park commission. Another principal, William Pryor Letchworth, would donate his Glen Iris estate in the Genesee Valley to become the nucleus of one of the largest and most beloved state parks in the nation. But as much as they may have supported parks, the industrialists operating around the Scajaquada harbor weren’t about to move their factories to make way for one. And no one would have considered asking them to do so. Despite its potential advantages as a park site, the Scajaquada harbor would continue to industrialize downstream from the site that ultimately became Delaware Park, and it would remain industrial until nearly the present day.

As much as they may have supported parks, the industrialists operating around the Scajaquada harbor weren’t about to move their factories to make way for one.

But even more than water transportation, it was the railroads that industrialized the Scajaquada harbor. Two of the region’s earliest railroads – one horse drawn and one steam powered – crossed the mouth of the creek, linking Buffalo and Niagara Falls. In 1855, with the opening of the suspension bridge in Niagara Falls, that railroad connection extended across the border. In the 1870s that arms-length connection to Canada became a handclasp with the construction of the International Railway Bridge near the mouth of the creek. To gain access to it, by the 1880s every major railroad serving the city was  laying rail nearby. In particular the New York Central Belt Line, completed in 1883, closely tied the once-remote Scajaquada harbor to every part of the city.

This accelerated industrial development around the Scajaquada harbor led to a War Department study in 1885 of deepening it to accommodate ships (not just canal boats). The proposed depth of 10 ½ feet was about the same depth as the Welland Canal at that time. This study came just two years after the Lehigh Valley Railroad had secured the extension of the City Ship Canal to their enormous operation at Tifft Farm, so it was clearly a time when industrial interests around the city were looking for ways to ship directly to other ports, skipping the step of having to transfer goods between ships and canal boats. Ultimately, though, this project was never done, perhaps because it would have required replacing the New York Central railroad bridge and Niagara Street bridge with swing bridges.

Upgrading the Scajaquada harbor for ships would also have precluded what came next: the railroad laid an industrial spur across the harbor on a trestle. Now, the east side of the Scajaquada harbor could industrialize to the same degree as the west side. This also marks the point when industrialization began to affect the shape of the harbor when the spur cut off one of the salamander-shaped harbor’s “feet.”

It was this industrialized landscape that greeted the Illustrated Express reporter and photographer in 1896 at the west end of Scajaquada Creek. But within three decades, as we will see later, accelerating industrialization would render even that landscape almost unrecognizable.

When Delaware Park Extended West to Grant Street

In the debate over the 198 I often hear that removing the western part of the expressway would give us the opportunity to extend Delaware Park westward. And even though I was aware (as I wrote here) that a Scajaquada Drive once existed between Elmwood and Grant Street, until I followed up on the “nuvaux” comments I wasn’t aware that the park actually had, at one time, extended westward. This westward extension was far more than just a carriage drive laid down along the south shore of the creek, but rather a very Olmstedian plan involving a substantial swath of both land and water.

As if that wasn’t enough, that Olmstedian extension was joined during the Great Depression by an extensive public recreation complex on the former farmland north of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane that was enjoyed by a generation before it was all taken away. And taken away it all was: by 1955 it had all disappeared on the ground and today it has all but disappeared in our collective memory. Like a good mystery, the villains of the story will be unveiled at the end, although you have enough clues to guess their identities. But first, let’s learn more about the victims.

When the Illustrated Express reporter and photographer took their Scajaquada ramble in 1896, they stopped at Elmwood Avenue to document the changes in the works there. Those changes, including the extension of Elmwood Avenue across the creek on a massive stone bridge, and the extension of the Elmwood Avenue streetcar, actually made it easier for them to get to a spot that had formerly been the province of those with horses and carriages. They included a photo of the bridge and streetcar.

Modifying Scajaquada Creek for the new linear park lake. Inset: Elmwood Avenue streetcar on then-new park bridge over Scajaquada Creek. Source: Illustrated Express, September 27, 1896

Heading west, they photographed the work underway to dredge and widen the creek bed in preparation for creation of the linear recreational lake, which they described in detail [sic]: “Two hundred men and about 60 or 70 teams have been engaged in the work since the 1st of August. By the excavation a basin is prepared that will give an average depth of water of from four to six feet, 3,000 feet long and 150 to 250 feet in width.” The lake would cover about fourteen acres.

Crews at work west of the original Elmwood Avenue bridge, creating Scajaquada Parkway and excavating the creek bed for the linear lake. Source: Courier, September 13, 1896
Children along Scajaquada Creek with Scajaquada Parkway as a work in progress in the background. Source: Illustrated Express, September 27, 1896

In one of the images “nuvaux” left in his comments, from a Buffalo Courier story published two weeks before the Illustrated Express story, there is an even clearer view of the work in progress. The image is perhaps sketched from a photo.

Walking west of Elmwood Avenue, the Illustrated Express photographer took a picture of some children by the creek with what appears to be the unfinished parkway in the background. According to James Mendola, volunteer historian of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, it seems to fit the description of the parkway in a park commissioners’ report: “The average width of the upland is 150 feet, sufficient when the narrowest parts are widened by grading for a parkway with ample space for a drive, a ride and a walk with belts and borders between for planting spaces.”

The children in the photo may be on or near the dam that was built to back up the creek to create the linear recreational lake. It was probably the same dam shown in this 1929 newspaper photo:

Scajaquada dam at Grant Street. Source: Courier Express, September 10, 1929

Unknown to me until the “nuvaux” comments, while the parkway and the linear lake were under construction, there was also a plan in the works for a parkway on the north side of the creek. It would have had similar dimensions to the parkway on the south side. Several of the property owners on the north side were willing to donate their land for the project, certainly knowing that it would make the remainder of their holdings more valuable. Eventually the city acquired much of the land it needed and even began filling on the north bank to create a level surface for the parkway. But although the parkway is shown on some maps, it was never created. Although the land remains city parkland to this day, it is largely unused except for a basketball court and the Jesse Kregal Pathway.

Nye Park promotional material. Source: Buffalo Architecture and History

The full scheme as it could have been is perhaps best illustrated in real estate promotional material for Nye Park, the residential subdivision of the land north of the Delaware Park where the Pan-American Exposition was held in 1901. Middlesex Road would have extended across Elmwood Avenue to the north parkway. Along with the northern extension of Lincoln Parkway, also created as part of the Nye Park subdivision, residents there would have had access to parkland and parkways in three directions. That included Elmwood Avenue, which just north of the park was laid out with a series of curves and provided with planted medians.

Today, there is not just a lack of images showing what this landscape could have been, but also a surprising lack of pictures of what it actually became. Of the parkway, there are only glimpses, like the Illustrated Express photo with the children in the foreground. Perhaps the best known picture is the one incorporated by Mike Puma as the lead image for a 2015 article about the expressway. In that photo, the parkway arch under the original stone Elmwood Avenue viaduct frames a glimpse of the eastern end of what appears to be a very park-like parkway.

Another photo James Mendola made me aware of is this article’s lead image from the collection of the Buffalo History Museum (full image credit at the end), which he believes was taken along the parkway. It shows several cyclists taking a break from a ride and boats lined up by the linear lake. While not dated, it was likely taken after 1898, when a cycle path was added to the parkway.

Picturesque Scajaquada Creek scenes. Source: Courier, June 3, 1894

That cycle path became part of a larger network developed around the city, more extensive than the one we have today. Some of it involved “side paths” along existing roads, but much of it involved paths added to the parkways and within the parks. Cycling would help democratize the park system, as it was available to many more residents than carriage driving. In fact, in the image below from the Buffalo Courier accompanying an article on the picturesque quality of Scajaquada Creek, it is cyclists, not carriage drivers or horseback riders, shown enjoying Humboldt Parkway (crossing the three-arch culvert over Scajaquada Creek). (Note: the book Old Wheelways: Traces of Bicycle History on the Land by Robert McCullough has more information about the role of Olmsted parks in Buffalo and around the country in the development of cycling.)

Images of the linear lake created by damming the creek are easier to come by, such as the iconic image used in 2014 to represent Scajaquada Creek Talks II at the Burchfield Penney. Those images, however, have led to confusion, giving the false impression that this was the original state of the creek, rather than an artificially made recreational lake created by damming the creek. In fact, in an earlier installment in this series I got this flat wrong when I asserted that Buffalo’s park creators had “left the creek alone” west of Elmwood Avenue. In actuality, they spent tens of thousands of 1890s dollars to extensively modify the creek and its shorelines.

Scajaquada Creek Talks II (2014)

In his book on the park system, Dr. Kowsky indicates that the idea for the Scajaquada Parkway apparently did not come from Olmsted and Vaux but was part of a “parkway mania” sweeping the city. In every section of the city there were parkways and rumors of parkways, especially from real estate development interests who wanted to emulate the powerful effect the parkways had in development of the part of the city we now call the Elmwood Village. Development plans for Nye Park, discussed above, are a prime example of this, although the north Scajaquada Parkway never became more than a “paper parkway.”

Efforts to link the new Riverside Park into the parkway system via the Scajaquada Parkways also never got past the paper stage; the last effort apparently being made in 1913, as shown below.

The incredible transformation of Scajaquada Creek between Elmwood Avenue and Grant Street illustrates the extraordinary growth and reach of the Buffalo park and parkway system in its first three decades, both driven by and helping to drive the city’s prosperity.

Proposed Riverside Park–Delaware Park Boulevard. Source: Buffalo Evening News, July 12, 1913

During most of that time, it had the ongoing involvement of Olmsted, the solid backing of the first generation of park commissioners, and the implacable leadership of legendary park superintendent William McMillan.

In the same way, the failure of the parkway on the north shore of the creek and of efforts to tie Riverside Park into the rest of the system illustrate how that engine began to stall at the end of the century. By then, Olmsted was retired, Vaux was dead, and city leadership began to be dominated by gilded-age industrialists and the bankers, architects, and elected officials who served them. A new majority of park commissioners voted to fire McMillan, who was gone in 1898 and dead a year later.

As Dr. Kowsky writes,

With McMillan’s departure, the Olmsted era of the Buffalo parks ended. It was around this time that the park system’s beauty and integrity reached its apogee; henceforth would begin a gradual but steady erosion of Olmsted’s legacy in Buffalo.

Fun fact: McMillan wanted to call Scajaquada Parkway/Drive something else, because he asserted that “Scajaquada” was too long a name for people to remember and say. He was overruled.

The Recreation Complex that Was but Isn’t

In the early 20th century the growth of North Buffalo and changes in recreation habits led to increasing demand for active recreation facilities like ballfields, ball courts, play grounds, and swimming pools that couldn’t be easily be accommodated in the main part of Delaware Park. In the 1920s, when the state asylum stopped using the northern part of their land for farming, the city began to eye it for active recreation uses that could be easily reached from the surrounding residential communities via the Scajaquada Parkway. What ultimately developed was an extensive recreational complex built largely by the WPA during the Great Depression.

Portion of story on popularity of bait casting featuring Long Beach Casting Club. Source: Popular Mechanics, July, 1945

The first part of this complex was a large bait casting pool. Hard as it is to imagine today, in the early 20th century bait casting, an essential part of fly fishing, became a major competitive sport. Initially, the south bay (the “toe”) of the park lake became a mecca for the sport, because it was just the right size and easy to get to. But as I wrote here, the WPA project to convert Delaware Avenue through the park into a new Robert Moses-style parkway cut off the “toe” of the lake.

US bait casters gather in Buffalo for national tournament. Source: Courier-Express, August 15, 1937

But the bait casters not only had all the right moves with the fishing rod, they had clout, and got the WPA to agree to build a new bait casting pool for them. The pool was octagonal on the outside, with a circular “pond” in the center. I couldn’t find the exact dimensions, but a competition pool built in another city around the same time was 130′ in diameter. The pool was designed by Buffalo’s John Burdick, a national leader in the sport, who also happened to be the automotive engineer who designed the first all-aluminum automobile (ALCOA’s automotive division got its start in Buffalo). Not only was the pool enormous, but it a included 350′ clear zone all around for “back casting.” WPA workers scrambled to finish the pool in time for it to be the site of a major national tournament.

The WPA even built a lodge for the bait casters, something they hadn’t had at the south bay. According to one news report, it had lockers, a ten-foot porch, and a “huge” stone fireplace.

Even before it was complete, children discovered that the bait casting pool was ideal for wading, a simple summer pleasure that may have been denied to a generation or two of neighborhood children due to the increasingly foul condition of the creek (as described in the next section). That may have been an impetus for construction of an actual pool and playground on Rees Street near the Scajaquada Parkway. Known as the Rees Street Playground, it became an extensive recreational complex in and of itself, with an Art Deco bath house to serve the pool and several other buildings, all built by the WPA. So far, the only photos I have been able to find of any of this complex are specifically of the pool and bath house, in the new book, A Pictorial History of Black Rock. I haven’t used any here because a process for photo permissions hasn’t been established. Perhaps the full extent of the complex can best be seen on these 1951 aerial photos, despite the awkward gap in coverage:

Parkway (green), bait-casting pool (blue), and recreational complex (yellow), using 1951 aerial photos.

This recreation complex proved to be a godsend during World War II. With factories operating around the clock and employing many women, hours were extended at the complex so that women workers and their families could use the facilities whenever they needed to.

Yet despite its critical wartime service, the entire complex was gone after serving but a single generation. 1954 was its last season, and it disappeared soon after. It is remembered today by very few.

The culprit(s) will be revealed in the next section.

The Walls Close In

When the Illustrated Express reporter and photographer visited the Scajaquada harbor in 1896 they called it “the business end of the Scajaquada” because of the commercial and manufacturing operations they found west of Grant Street. Yet they still described the location as “picturesque” and mentioned seeing historic features dating back to the War of 1812. The wide basin still retained, essentially, its original footprint. But over the next three decades that landscape would change beyond anything they would have recognized.

What drove those changes? Power, money, concrete, steel, and steam. The month after the Illustrated Express articles, Niagara Falls electricity arrived in Buffalo for the first time, just down the street from the Scajaquada harbor. It was initially put to use on the streetcar line that crossed the creek on the Niagara Street bridge, but would soon power an industrial boom on the Scajaquada and around the city.

As for money, the month before the articles gold was discovered in the Klondike. The ensuing Alaska Gold Rush would expand the money supply, yanking the nation out of a depression and ushering in what Republicans would call the “McKinley Prosperity.” At the same time, reinforced concrete was coming into use, along with structural steel, leading to a boom in construction of all kinds. Railroads began a period of breakneck expansion and upgrading that would last until the nation’s entry into World War I, in the process making Buffalo the nation’s second-largest rail hub.

The very first USGS topographic map of Buffalo, made at the time of the 1901 Pan-Am Exposition, gives us one last look at the Scajaquada harbor as it was before this “perfect storm” of industrialization descended. It also gives one of the best illustrations of the similarity in scale between the park lake and the harbor that I discussed in a previous article.

Western Scajaquada Creek, showing comparable size of Scajaquada harbor and Delaware Park lake. Source: USGS topographic map, Buffalo quadrangle, 1901 (detail).

Because the dominance of rail transportation made shipping by water less important to the growing industries located around the Scajaquada harbor, they began to eye the water for expansion space and also as a convenient place to dispose of the dross of industrial processes. At the same time, residential development in North Buffalo led the city to find the harbor a convenient place for a dump, which they located at the north end of Dart Street.

Trash picking at city dump on Scajaquada Creek at Dart Street. Source: Illustrated Express, May 11, 1902

When the Illustrated Express returned to the creek in 1902, they found a very different landscape from 1896. Their words and pictures weren’t pretty. As quoted by Angela Keppel in her great blog, Buffalo One Street at a Time, “Through the scene of desolation winds the Scajaquada Creek. Once it was a picturesque stream, but here its glory is departed.  It has banks of ashes six or eight feet high and between them flows the noble stream in a sluggish, dirty current. Its channel obstructed by peach baskets, bottomless coffee pots, kerosene cans, bed springs, tin cans and other materials which the moucher rejects.”

James Lee, a life-long neighborhood resident, told me that the house he grew up in on Dart Street had once been the gatehouse for the dump. When utility work has to be done on Dart Steet, he told me, workers are often surprised by the things they dig up.

So in the first quarter of the 20th century, like Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, the harbor gradually began to fill. Plans were floated to enclose the creek west of Grant Street in a conduit, putting the increasingly foul water out of sight and smell, and allowing the entire harbor to become industrial land. It’s not clear why that didn’t happen, except that around that time New York State, in an effort to keep its canal system competitive with the railroads, undertook a massive statewide embargement of the Erie Canal. Sal the Mule and the wooden boats she pulled were retired, and replaced with larger self-powered vessels. Industry may have wanted to keep their water transportation options open, which would have precluded entirely burying the creek.

Still, the fill went on, and by the entry of America into WWI the creek west of Grant Street was hardly recognizable as a harbor. What once had the character of a small lake was now more like a wide channel. In fact, a 1916 atlas shows a footbridge across the creek at what was once the widest part of the harbor. And by 1927 an early aerial photo shows the creek approaching the narrow channel we see today. A decade later, in 1937, an act of Congress declared the creek – except for the tiny bit west of Niagara Street – “nonnavigable.”

Scajaquada harbor filling in. Source: 1916 atlas and 1927 aerial photo.

What was once a wide, picturesque harbor became a ditch, foul and offal-filled, bending its way through an industrial canyon not unlike parts of the Buffalo River at that time. In addition to the fill, it is hard to overstate the effect that creation of the Scajaquada Drain in the early 1920s had on the western end of the creek. Where once pollutants like sewage overflows had the chance to settle out as the creek twisted and turned through the east side, and be filtered by vegetation in and along the creek bed, the new concrete tunnel simply sent  everything downstream to Black Rock. What water was left got fouler and fouler, and Scajaquada Creek was well on its way to a sad future in which it became, according to the Investigative Post, “the only waterway in the Niagara River watershed deemed unfit for aquatic life by the DEC.”

Black Rockers couldn’t help but notice – if not with their eyes, with their noses. By the late 1920s they considered the creek a nuisance and asked the city to revive the plan from years before to bury it in a conduit. By then things were so bad – “Our end of the Scajaquada Creek has become clogged with reeking mire,” one leader said – that they wanted the section from Elmwood to Grant buried too, despite the linear recreational lake created decades earlier. This effort was spearheaded by business groups such as the Polish Black Rock Business Men’s Association – ironic, given that today Polish-American businessmen in Black Rock are among the creek’s biggest boosters. But again, it didn’t happen, perhaps because of the onset of the Great Depression, and perhaps because of the WPA project that later alleviated the problem somewhat by sending Scajaquada overflows into the Delavan Drain instead of downstream.

The Concrete Curtain Descends

Surely things couldn’t have gotten any worse for Scajaquada Creek. Yet they did. From Mirror Lake on Lincoln Parkway to Niagara Street on the Black Rock Channel, a concrete curtain descended across the landscape. After World War II, with help from state and federal highway programs, Buffalo set about creating a network of urban expressways to divert cars and trucks from the street grid. An east-west route in North Buffalo was considered essential, and the Scajaquada corridor, with it’s continuous swath of public property and forlorn western end, proved to be the path of least resistance.

In 1953 a proposal was announced for the “Scajaquada Parkway Expressway,” perhaps called that because its authors couldn’t decide which of those things it was. It did propose to use the then-extant parkway on the south side of the creek for eastbound traffic, and use the city-owned property acquired for the never-built parkway on the north side of the creek for westbound traffic. Perhaps to soften anticipated opposition, the proposal made a nod to the fact that the expressway would run through parkland most of its length.

But as the plans quickly advanced they just as quickly dropped any pretense of being anything like a parkway, and the project became a civil engineer’s wet dream. As Angela Keppel wrote about the expressway in her great blog, Buffalo One Street at a Time, by 1958 the engineers were even trying to include a north-south link across the Delaware Park Meadow that thankfully was never built.

CAPTION: Proposed Delaware Park Shortway. Source: Courier-Express, September 5, 1958.

A century after forward-thinking civic leaders devoted decades of their lives to the creation of one of the world’s most notable park systems, their successors seemed only too eager to cooperate in its dismantlement and defilement. In 1955, the city gave the state Scajaquada Parkway along the creek, the casting pool and the lodge, and the Rees Street Playground – not just to build the expressway, but also to expand Buffalo State College. Today, outside of a few remaining members of the World War II generation, there is no recollection that Delaware Park once extended west to Grant Street, and that south of the creek was an extensive public recreation area once enjoyed by thousands of families. Uncannily, it is as if the memory of what was there was erased as thoroughly as the landscape.

How can that be? Perhaps the post-war generation was so focused on raising families and building the bright, new, space-age world seen on TV that they had little concern for the loss of things associated with the horse-and-buggy days or even the Depression era. But for old timers, the trauma of so much loss all at once may have been too much. In quick succession, between 1955 and 1957, the city turned over parkland to build the 198, all the fishing clubs along the Niagara waterfront were wiped away to build the 190, and Black Rock and Riverside residents held a mock funeral for the old canal towpath they were losing. These waterfront neighborhoods were suddenly cut off from their waterfronts by a curtain of steel and concrete, until the Riverwalk and Jesse Kregal Pathway gave some access back.

By 1960, things were looking like this:

Industrialized west end of Scajaquada Creek with expressway under construction, 1960. Image credit: E.H. Butler Library, Buffalo State College.

The Once and Future Creek

All of this has been a very long walk down Memory Lane – and Memory Parkway and along Memory Creek. Interesting for history buffs, but also essential knowledge for re-thinking the western Scajaquada corridor. How so? In two primary ways.

First, it is compelling to realize that the Scajaquada harbor would almost certainly have been used for park purposes if it hadn’t already been industrialized. As discussed above, it fit Comptroller/Mayor Rogers’ criteria to a T. It also had all the things that Olmsted had to design into the Delaware Park lake: a sinuous shoreline, bays, headlands – even an island. It was naturally Olmstedian. Plus it had the direct water connection for boats to the rest of the city that was long sought, but never realized, for the park lake.

Now, 150 years since the design of the park (yes, the original design by Olmsted and Vaux was released in 1869), we have that rarest of opportunities: a do-over. The Scajaquada corridor west of Grant Street has largely de-industrialized, and with the recent demolition of the former Buffalo Structural Steel buildings at the auto impound, there aren’t many permanent structures left on the footprint of the former harbor. The western end of the Scajaquada is no longer “the business end” of the creek.

Demolition of former Buffalo Structural Steel plant at the auto impound site. Date: September 8, 2019. Source: Author photo.

This presents the opportunity to restore much of the harbor, but this time as a recreational water body, ringed around by a green buffer for land-side recreation, as at Jamaica Pond in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. The Tee-to-Green site could be part of that green buffer, with plenty of extra space for active recreational uses to help compensate for what was lost when the city turned the Rees Street Playground over to the state in 1955 – and new uses like disc golf. It could even be a great place for floating concert performances, with spectators ringing the harbor with folding chairs and blankets on the grass.

What would it take for all that to happen? Broadly speaking, we would have to agree to remove the 198 from the creek, and we would have to outline the former harbor plus a green buffer on a map and agree not to build any new non-recreational structures inside the line. Further land-use planning could then identify what kinds of new development the community thinks would make sense outside those lines. After that, creek restoration and creation of the new recreational asset would happen inside the lines as funding allows (in cooperation with willing property owners), and development would happen outside the lines at its own pace.

Using Jamaica Pond in Boston’s Emerald Necklace as an analogy shows just how much scenic recreation can be created even from a narrow green buffer around a lake. These City of Boston publicity photos from the recently upgraded pathway network around the pond give a good sense of that, especially this one:

Recently upgraded Jamaica Pond pathway, November, 2019. Source: City of Boston press office.

Would that be a heavy lift? For sure. Would it be doable? For sure. In many ways, the situation is analogous to that of the Outer Harbor. Olmsted found the Lake Erie shore to be an ideal site for a park, but Buffalo decided to let the Outer Harbor industrialize instead. For a century, those industries contributed mightily to the city’s prosperity, but now they have all closed. Not long ago, organizations such as 21st Century Park and Our Outer Harbor saw the opportunity to return to that vision of nature and recreation, but had just a brief window to protect the necessary land against development pressure. With a smart campaign, bolstered by elected officials like Congressman Brian Higgins and Assemblyman Sean Ryan, they succeeded. There may be a similarly brief window for the western Scajaquada.

Second, what does all this mean for rethinking the Scajaquada corridor between Elmwood and Grant? Could Delaware Park be extended westward once again? Due to the expansion of Buffalo State, removing the expressway won’t allow the return of the pre-1955 landscape and parkway. And recreating the linear lake in that section would require damming the creek again at Grant Street, which would run counter to modern ecological ideas of stream management. But removing the expressway would still allow the creation of a new, more ecological type of scenic and recreational landscape there akin to the Back Bay Fens in Boston’s Emerald Necklace, as I wrote here. Ironically, the land that the city acquired on the north side of the creek for the never-built north Scajaquada Parkway could help make this possible – over a century later, helping justify its acquisition.

So removing the 198 entirely west of Elmwood Avenue, if also accompanied by smart land-use planning, gives us the unprecedented opportunity to restore what no one alive today has seen: the Scajaquada harbor in its full extent, surrounded by a buffer of green. And also recreate what few alive today still remember: a westward extension of Delaware Park along Scajaquada Creek.

So removing the 198 entirely west of Elmwood Avenue, if also accompanied by smart land-use planning, gives us the unprecedented opportunity to restore what no one alive today has seen: the Scajaquada harbor in its full extent, surrounded by a buffer of green. And also recreate what few alive today still remember: a westward extension of Delaware Park along Scajaquada Creek.

Source: Illustrated Express, September 27, 1896

And maybe all that restoration will help Buffalonians make common cause with Cheektowagans and Lancastrians to renew the entire creek corridor, with a determination to transform it from one of the most degraded water bodies in the state to something more like the picturesque corridor discovered by the Illustrated Express reporter and photographer over a hundred and twenty years ago.

Acknowledgments

In addition to commenter “nuvaux,” so many people and institutions helped me with research for this piece and with photo permissions that I want to say “Thank you!” Including James Mendola, volunteer historian for the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy; Tony James, preservation architect; Charles Alaimo, Marguerite Cheman, Rhonda Hoffman, and Amy Pickard of the Grosvenor Room of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library; Cynthia Van Ness and Amy Miller of the Buffalo History Museum; Aaron Lowinger of The Public; Chris Hawley of the Buffalo Preservation Board; E. H. Butler Library at Buffalo State College; and all the folks from the Black Rock Historical Society, Grant-Amherst Business Association, and Black Rock-Riverside Alliance who collaborated on the recently published A Pictorial History of Black Rock. Dr. Frank Kowsky, whose book on the Buffalo park system is, as I’ve said many times, essential reading, provided a key insight for this article.

Lead image courtesy of The Buffalo History Museum Research Library, General Subject Collection – Canals & Waterways – Creeks – Scajaquada. Prints or hi-res downloads (minus watermark) available for purchase here.

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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