The opening of the Buffalo Skyway in October 1955 was an occasion for celebration and rejoicing. Rising out of the city’s downtown, the massive structure crossed the Buffalo River at a height of 110 feet and spilled onto the city’s outer harbor on the shore of Lake Erie more than a mile to the southwest. The span promised to be the beginning of the end of the traffic congestion and delays at busy lift-bridges that for three decades had made commuting irritating and frustrating for some 40,000 workers at the Bethlehem Steel Plant in the first-ring suburb of Lackawanna and the Ford stamping plant, just beyond. Speaking at the elaborate opening ceremonies, Dexter P. Rumsey, chairman of the Citizens’ Committee for Better Roads in Buffalo and Erie County, spoke for most Western New Yorkers when he characterized the Skyway as “the finest public improvement the community had received in decades,” and “the start of a new era—a period of civic progress in mass transportation.”1
The Skyway’s two twenty-four-foot lanes, separated by a five-foot mall, beckoned to motorists eager to experience a highway unlike any they had ever driven.
The Skyway’s two twenty-four-foot lanes, separated by a five-foot mall, beckoned to motorists eager to experience a highway unlike any they had ever driven. They joined the official opening-day cavalcade, taking the big curves slowly, “their attention caught by the panoramic vistas of docks, lake steamers, the Coast Guard base, grain elevators and buildings far below.” “I just crossed it to see what it was like,” said a city-bound motorist, referring to the Skyway as if it were a great river to ford. “The view is terrific.” A driver from the suburb of Hamburg described his virgin voyage over the Skyway as “a thrill I’ll never forget. The waterfront area certainly has no claim to beauty at close range, but seen from the Skyway it compares favorably with famous views around New York City. There is breath-taking beauty in every direction—all this and time- saving, too.” (With many of the first round of motorists tooling along at twenty or twenty-five miles per hour and hugging the pedestrian sidewalks to get the best view, the first commuters actually didn’t save much time).2
On the Sunday after the Wednesday opening, the bridge was bumper-to-bumper from ‘noon to bedtime.’
On the Sunday after the Wednesday opening, the bridge was bumper-to-bumper from “noon to bedtime” with curious and enthralled motorists, some, incredibly, defying common sense to stop at the top and get out for a better look or to take photographs of Lake Erie, its waters seemingly suspended in mid-air over the open metal railing. Within a week, the span had produced its first speeders, caught at fifty-five miles per hour, or fifteen miles over the limit. One of them was a suburban man so moved by the pleasures of the Skyway that he seemed blissfully unconcerned with the $35 fine that came with his transgression. “It’s just such a wonderful highway,” he told the judge. “I’m afraid I wasn’t conscious that the speed was creeping up on me.” “It’s not only the best free joyride in town,” editorialized the Buffalo News in a statement that captured the Skyway’s aesthetic qualities and acknowledged the emotional charge that the bridge had for area residents, “and a special pleasure to anyone who ever got tangled up in any of the traffic jams down below—but it also gives a completely new and breathtakingly sweeping panoramic view of what somehow seems a much greater city from “‘way up there.’”3
An advertisement for Hengerer’s, a department store eager to bring suburban shoppers downtown, presented the structure as exciting and playful, exaggerating its curves and height and changes in elevation, and adding the words, “The Buffalo Skyway . . . A Great New Highway.”4 Some years later—the exact date is unknown—the Skyway was memorialized in a painting by Buffalo artist Ross (Rosario) Joseph Drago. As a young man, Rosario had worked at the Andrle Stained Glass Studio in Lackawanna, participating in the creation of the stained glass windows that graced the nearby basilica. “My father was an inventor as well as a painter,” his son recalls. “He loved new ideas. When the Buffalo Skyway was built, I believe he was the first to see it as a thing of great beauty. They say no one ever saw a sunset until Constable painted it.”5
If the Dragos’ unabashed fondness for the Skyway appears a bit overdone, Dexter Rumsey’s optimism, typical of postwar boosterism in Great Lakes cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Chicago, and Milwaukee, seemed more than justified. Although Western New York had lost its airplane industry with the end of the Second World War, a 1946 New York State report bristled with economic good cheer, citing the area as a “great railroad center” with “diversified industries” and unparalleled access to Canada. This report noted that Westinghouse and the Twin Coach Company had recently acquired two of the larger aviation facilities and mentioned that wiper-blade manufacturer Trico Products had announced a major expansion of plant and facilities. In July 1951, the nation’s fifteenth largest city and its third largest steel producer was featured on the cover of Fortune magazine; inside, a dozen pages of photographs on the theme of “Made in Buffalo” confirmed the city’s role as a center of industry. Although fears that lack of effective leadership would consign the region to second-class status as a transportation hub had surfaced in the local press by the mid-1950s, the city’s population was at an all-time high, the region was participating in the national economic boom, and the St. Lawrence Seaway, due to open in 1958, was generally viewed as a positive development. A prominent business leader predicted that, within a decade, employment in the Buffalo area would increase by about 50%.6
A half century later, and in a very different economic climate that had generated the term “rustbelt,” the latest generation of politicians, journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens appear eager to tear down the Skyway, hoping that its demolition will jumpstart development on a stretch of Lake Erie waterfront where nothing much has happened for decades. In their urgency to get the bridge torn down and out of the way of “progress,” the advocates of demolition present a variety of complaints, some of them worthy of consideration, others offered in an effort to cast the structure as a demon thwarting the city’s best efforts to remake the vast outer harbor, an area that edges Lake Erie at its eastern end and touches downtown Buffalo, near the buried terminus of the Erie Canal.
The Skyway, the critics argue, is costly to maintain, dangerous to drive on, prone to weather-related closings, and out of date, the product of a bygone era, when the Buffalo River carried commercial ships and when steel and the workers who made it were central to the region’s economy.7 Decades removed from the aesthetic considerations of the age of Eisenhower, the Skyway’s critics labeled a bridge once described as a “ribbon of steel and concrete” and offering a “breathtakingly sweeping panoramic view” as an “ugly dinosaur” that “nobody particularly likes.”
Business First, the area’s business weekly, lauded Democratic Congressman Brian Higgins’s calls for demolition, labeling the bridge a “monstrosity.” And the area’s most prominent advocate of regionalism, a Harvard-educated liberal, when asked what he would most like to tear down if he were “king,” responded: “There is one thing that has to be removed: the Skyway. I dream this stuff.”8 In March 2006, the campaign was joined by two national organizations, The Congress of New Urbanism and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which had agreed to include the Skyway, along with similar structures in Louisville and Seattle, in a study dealing with the removal of infrastructure barriers. Announcing the inclusion of the Buffalo roadway, Congress of New Urbanism president and former Milwaukee mayor John O. Norquist described the Skyway as “brutally ugly” and “unnecessary.”9
Some of the arguments for demolishing the Skyway have reason and substance, and the decision to do so could be the right one. Yet the alacrity with which civic leaders have joined the raze-the-Skyway bandwagon suggests that the current enthusiasm may be driven less by a thoughtful consideration of aesthetics and more by the desire to do anything that might produce economic activity in a stagnant city and region. A proper assessment of the Skyway’s future requires that citizens and planners come to terms with the span’s past; that is, it requires an assessment of the Skyway’s complex historical, cultural, and aesthetic relationship to the Western New York community and to mid-century American values—what I have labeled a “cultural biography.”
A proper assessment of the Skyway’s future requires that citizens and planners come to terms with the span’s past.
The term “cultural biography” has been used to describe objects at least since 1986, when anthropologist Igor Kopytoff referred to the “cultural biography of things” as a way of examining an object as a “culturally constructed entity, endowed with culturally specific meanings, and classified and reclassified into culturally constituted categories.” Linda Merrill uses the term to explain her approach to the Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room, a splendid Victorian interior decorated by James McNeill Whistler for the London home of a Liverpool ship owner. “The larger intention,” she writes, “is to restore the fuller dimensions of the Peacock Room’s history: to clarify the work’s ancestry and assess its influence, to retrieve the reputations of some of its participants, and to consider it in correct historical perspective, securely in the context of its time.” Most recently, archaeologist Richard Fletcher applies the concept to a piece of pottery found in a Sardinia tomb. Literary historians David S. Reynolds and Peter Conn use the term to describe their treatments of people—Reynolds’s Walt Whitman, Conn’s Pearl S. Buck. Both employ “cultural biography” to emphasize the importance of placing their subjects in historical context. I use the term to suggest that the Skyway was a “thing” with a history, and that it should be understood in historical context, and as subject to changing conditions and perspectives, although my own emphasis is on recuperating the meaning of the Skyway in the 1950s.10
The Skyway had its origins in practical concerns, reflected in the prosaic name “high level bridge” by which the structure was known in the planning and construction stages. Chief among these were concerns over traffic congestion and a related problem, the conflict between automobiles (and trucks) and the requirements of water and rail transport—problems common to other Great Lakes cities, among them Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, Chicago, and Gary.11 The high-level bridge was first proposed in 1922 in a report prepared by the Buffalo Common Council’s City Planning Committee,12 just a decade after Henry Ford’s moving assembly line had revolutionized the production of automobiles and made it possible for millions of ordinary Americans to think about acquiring an inexpensive Model T.
The high-level bridge was first proposed in 1922 in a report prepared by the Buffalo Common Council’s City Planning Committee.
By the late 1920s, traffic congestion and traffic safety had become virtual obsessions in city government. In 1929, the city’s ratio of traffic deaths to population was the fourth highest in the nation, behind only Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee—like Buffalo, all cities in which the circulation of vehicles was restricted by water.13 A 1939 study by the federal Works Progress Administration blamed Buffalo’s traffic density on the city’s failure to expand its geographical boundaries, as well as on the city’s belt line railroads, whose tracks formed a “ring of iron” and forced traffic through five “funnels.”14 A 1946 report of the New York State Department of Public Works, a product of recent state laws that authorized new thruway construction and made it possible for state government to pay for urban connecting roads such as the high-level bridge, conceptualized Buffalo in anthropomorphic terms: a healthy organism, but one whose vitality was in imminent danger, threatened by a “creeping paralysis of congestion” that if unabated promised to “strangle city property and tax values.”15
Motorists using lakeshore routes to the southwest, to and from the mills and factories of Lackawanna and Blasdell, were as rigidly funneled as those in other sections of the city. Their options were limited to Fuhrmann Boulevard and Michigan Avenue, and on these routes motorists could find themselves waiting for the New York Central or for ships at the bridges over the Union Ship Canal, the City Ship Canal, or the Buffalo River. At mid-century, with the city’s population approaching a postwar peak, the Buffalo News reported “almost daily, serious jams” at Michigan Avenue near the Buffalo River, and a News photographer captured the long delays on Fuhrmann Boulevard at the Union Ship Canal, where at 4 p.m. on a working day it could take thirty minutes to go from Ridge Road to Tifft Street, a distance of less than a mile.16 Like the Niagara Branch of the New York State Thruway and the Kensington Expressway, the Skyway was one solution to the problem of traffic congestion between Buffalo and its suburbs. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 did the same for dozens of American cities.
Lead image: Looking south from downtown Buffalo, October 19, 1955, one hour after the official opening ceremonies. Courtesy, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
This article was originally published in the journal American Studies in 2007 | American Studies, Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2007, pp. 77-100 (Article) | Published by Mid-American Studies Association | DOI: 10.1353/ams.0.0051
1. Ralph Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming Over Skyway Heralds New Era for City,’’ Buffalo News, October 19, 1955, 10 (Rumsey).
2. Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming Over Skyway,” 1 (“panoramic vistas”); “Skyway Comment: A Beautiful View and a Time-Saver,” Buffalo News, October 19, 1955, section 5, 71 (“view is terrific”); letter to editor from “Hamburger,” Courier-Express, October 28, 1955, section 3, 32 (“thrill,” “breath-taking beauty”); “Skyway ‘Delivers’ Workbound Traffic Without a Hitch,” Buffalo News, October 20, 1955, section 3, 45.
3. “Skyway Attracts Sunday Visitors,” Buffalo News, October 24, 1955, 20; “Partyka Im- poses $35 Fine on First Skyway Speeders,” Buffalo News, October 27, 1955, 1; editorial, “Ride that Skyway,” Buffalo News, October 20, 1955, section 3, 46 (“free joyride”). In terms relevant to the Skyway experience described here, Phil Patton labels the 1984 Linn Cove Viaduct, in the Blue Ridge Parkway system, as “cinematic architecture” that creates “the modernism of the transported eye, of flowing sight as well as flowing space.” Patton, Open Road: A Celebration of the American Highway (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 126, 129.
4. Hengerer’s advertisement, Buffalo News, October 21, 1955, section 1, 7.
5. Drago’s painting of the Skyway and his son’s remarks were at www.eastbayartists.com/images/Alchemists-006.jpg, accessed August 9, 2002.
6. New York State, Department of Public Works, Report on New York State Thruways and Arterial Routes: The Buffalo Urban Area/Erie County, New York (n.p., ), 13-14, 116; Editorial, Buffalo Courier-Express, October 30, 1955, 30-A (leadership); Melvin Levin and Norman A. Abend, Bureaucrats in Collision: Case Studies in Area Transportation Planning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1971), 147 (population); “Buffalo Area Jobs at Highest Level in Nearly 2 Years,” Buffalo News, October 20, 1955, section 4, 75; editorial, “Niagara Frontier Gets Inkling of Future,” Buffalo Courier-Express, October 21, 1955, 18; “Buffalo Area Jobs to Rise 44% by 1965, Baker Predicts,” Buffalo News, October 18, 1955, section 4, 57. On the city’s wartime prosperity, see Mark Goldman, High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), 232-41. The Fortune story is described in Mark Goldman, City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1990), 167.
7. “Work on High Level Span to Begin in Spring,” Buffalo Courier-Express, March 12, 1950, section 5, 1; Robert J. Penders (Buffalo Police Department), letter to editor, “Skyway is Unsafe: Must be Replaced,” Buffalo News, December 1, 2002, F-3.
8. Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming Over Skyway,” 1; editorial, Buffalo News, October 20, 1955, section 3, 46; editorial, Buffalo News, November 15, 2002, C-10; editorial, “Real Support for Dumping Skyway,” Business First, August 26–September 1, 2005, 62; “People Talk,” interview with Kevin P. Gaughan, “First Sunday” section, Buffalo News, August 4, 2002, 4.
9. Sharon Linstedt, “Effort to Raze Skyway Gets National Push,” Buffalo News, March 24, 2006, D1-2.
10. Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cam- bridge University Press, 1986), 66-68 [quotation 68]; Linda Merrill, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1998), 19; Richard Fletcher, “The Cultural Biography of a Phoenician Mushroom-Lipped Jug,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 25 (May 2006): 173; David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), xi-xii; Peter Conn, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), xviii. This essay might also have been subtitled “Fact and Symbol,” following Alan Trachtenberg’s example in Brooklyn Bridge. Alan Trachtenberg, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965).
11. “C of C Tour Spurs Drive for New Span,” Courier-Express, September 9, 1947, 13.
12. Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming over Skyway,” 10.
13. “Higgins Acts to Invoke Safety Measures Here,”Courier, September 23, 1926; and “Need for Science Seen For Aiding Traffic in City,” Courier, February 12, 1929 (Buffalo traffic deaths), both in Traffic Control in the Buffalo Area, vol. 1, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Local History Collection.
14. Nat Gorham, “Ring of Iron Makes City Traffic Dense,” Buffalo News, March 22, 1939 (no page number), in Traffic Control, vol. 1. The funnel outlets were at Delaware Avenue, Genesee Street, Colvin Avenue, Broadway, and Abbott Road.
15. New York State, Department of Public Works, Report on New York State Thruways and Arterial Routes, 1, 71.