Author: Jeff Z. Klein
(A version of this article appeared in the July 9, 2020, edition of Belt magazine, and in the anthology “Best of Belt 2020: Dispatches From the Rust Belt, Vol. III”)
What does it mean when a city loses all memory of what it once was?
Once a bustling Great Lakes port famed for its ships and reviled for its dockside brothels and bars, Buffalo was the brawling crossroads of 19th-century America, a maritime city where the Erie Canal ended and the open water began, with a rich legacy of gales, songs, yarns, shipwrecks, and lives saved and lost on the lakes’ treacherous, storm-tossed waters. One of the easternmost points on a vast inland sea, it was a harbor town so big and infamous that it became a byword for the raucous nautical life of its itinerant sailors; Steelkilt, Melville’s swashbuckling mutineer in Moby-Dick, was a Buffalonian, and even the famous sea chantey “Blow Ye Winds,” which begins …
Tis advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo
Five hundred brave Americans, a-whaling for to go
… illustrates just how highly the Buffalo of the mid-1800s ranked in the roll call of American port cities.
And yet, while in Cleveland, across Michigan and elsewhere on the Lakes the region’s maritime heritage is observed and celebrated, in Buffalo that heritage is all but forgotten. The city’s harborfront park today features three oceangoing World War II–era Navy ships and a sprawling series of monuments to American service members who served in overseas wars — and barely a word to honor the tens of thousands of immigrants and settlers who boarded ships in Buffalo and settled the Upper Midwest, or the literally hundreds of souls lost when those ships went down in Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior.
“Unless the memory of something like that is commemorated,” says Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture and for decades the city’s leading preservationist and urban planner, “it remains suppressed forever.”
This strange amnesia for Buffalo’s maritime past seems even odder in view of the extensive preparations underway to mark the Erie Canal’s bicentennial in 2025. The canal’s terminus, excavated and saved from developers 20 years ago through efforts led by Tielman, now serves as the centerpiece of the harborfront park, aptly called Canalside. When gatherings are allowed again after the pandemic, the public will watch as students and volunteers hand-build in a waterside pavilion an 1825 canal packet boat, to be completed in time for the anniversary.
All this is a fine commemoration of Buffalo’s Erie Canal history. But it’s as if the city’s role in settling the Midwest began and ended when homesteaders and European immigrants got off their mule-pulled canal boats at the Central Wharf, while the other, more dangerous half of the journey — boarding sailing ships that often foundered in sudden storms or steamboats whose boilers tended to explode in hellish infernos — goes singularly unremarked upon.
“I think it’s really unfortunate we’ve lost touch with that history,” says David Gerber, a University at Buffalo professor emeritus who also played a key role in saving the canal terminus from developers. “It’s like any part of history that’s lost to our imaginations and to our knowledge. We’ve lost sight of any context or conditions or situations that formed us.”
Why did the city’s maritime past recede so thoroughly from its own collective memory? One reason undoubtedly is the decline in maritime traffic through the 20th century and into the 21st, as first passenger and then freight shipping dwindled on the Lakes — and especially in Buffalo, bypassed by the St. Lawrence Seaway since 1959. And yet other Great Lakes ports, like Toledo, Detroit and Duluth, experienced huge drop-offs in shipping tonnage but still proudly remember their nautical past.
“It’d be fabulous to see something here, a memorial or monument that showed immigrants with a baby, a sailor with a pipe, some barrels of grain,” says Shane Stephenson, director of collections at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, the waterfront museum that pays tribute to Western New York veterans. “Something that showed what the Central Wharf once was.”
Fabulous it would be indeed. But nothing is there now, and despite the imminent influx of millions in infrastructure funding downtown, nothing is currently planned.
Lead photo: Detroit Publishing Co., Great Northern elevator and shipping, Buffalo, N.Y., ca. 1900. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.