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“Ribbon of Steel and Concrete”: A Cultural Biography of the Buffalo Skyway (1955) | Part 2 of 4

Author: William Graebner | See Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

Figure 2: This 1963 map shows the main features of the landscape traversed by the Skyway, including the Buffalo River, the City Ship Canal, and Ohio Street, where a lift bridge over the Buffalo River had restricted the flow of automobiles. Courtesy, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Soon after the bridge opened, a letter to the Courier-Express described the Skyway as “a real achievement in the traffic world. If ever a route like that was needed, it was needed in this city.”17 The technical sub-head on the front page of the Buffalo Evening News told the same story: “Lift Bridges, Switching Tracks, Narrow Streets/By-passed at Last By Mile-Long Cut-Off.”18 It was widely and accurately predicted that the Skyway would be the first of many area highway projects, including the first section of the Kensington Expressway, the Scajaquada Creek Expressway, and the mate to the Skyway, an elevated bridge over the Union Ship Canal at the Buffalo-Lackawanna line, designed to eliminate the last of the major lake shore bottlenecks. All would come to fruition within a decade.19

The relationship of the high-level bridge to the city’s Lake Erie waterfront and harbor was more ambivalent. In most discussions of the proposed bridge, the water-based commerce of the Buffalo River, the Union Ship Canal, and the City Ship Canal was understood to be an obstacle to the development of the area’s industrial economy and to the movement of people and vehicles between city and suburbs. In the late 1940s, after state legislation had authorized the Niagara Frontier Authority to construct a bridge or tunnel to deal with the obstacle of the Buffalo River, the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce weighed in in favor of a high-level bridge, emphasizing that the failure to build it would put at risk the 9,800,000 tons of goods that passed on the Buffalo River as well as the 50,000 freight cars that came through the area each year.20

Still, the idea of a high-level bridge does not appear to have played any significant role in the interminable discussions, beginning in the mid-1920s, about what to do about the relative decline of the Port of Buffalo—relative, that is, to Cleveland, Duluth, and other cities, which had somehow managed to obtain federal funds for harbor improvements.21 There was even some opposition to the proposed span on the grounds that a “hideous viaduct” would make waterfront improvements impossible, although the author of those remarks, real estate developer Joseph Boehm, appears to have been motivated by the desire to prevent interference with Fairhaven Village, a development he proposed to build in the area.22 The warning of a 1944 engineering report, that a tunnel “would permit more extensive reclamation of the area than a bridge,” went unheeded.23

The Skyway’s location induced a curious rethinking of the city’s relationship to water-borne commerce and to the small businesses and warehouses in the area.

Instead, the Skyway’s location induced a curious rethinking of the city’s relationship to water-borne commerce and to the small businesses and warehouses in the area. On the day after the ribbon-cutting opening, the Courier-Express offered editorial comment on the span’s significance, setting the Skyway within what it described as the “grand dream of a progressive, utilitarian and lovely community here at the foot of the Great Lakes.”24

The Buffalo News described the Skyway as a “dream come true” and emphasized the bridge’s relationship to the city’s history as a “harbor town.” “Today, though long since spread into the metropolitan hinterland, it looks waterward again, to greet the new concrete span lifting its traffic 100 feet over the busy river, man-made ship canal and rail and street networks that compose its great harbor.”25 For Buffalonian John Johnson, Superintendent of the State Department of Public Works and a speaker at the opening ceremonies, the Skyway was one of several improvements that would allow the city to “once again resume that appropriate title, ‘Queen City of the Lakes.’”26 A 1950 ground-level sketch by Edward P. Lupfer’s engineering firm captured this perspective, showing the high-level bridge as a structure of modest size, linking a variety of existing commercial and industrial waterfront buildings.27 Most of the early comments on the experience of driving over the Skyway emphasized the spectacular view it offered of Lake Erie.

Figure 3: This 1962 winter view of the Skyway reveals the structure’s four curves and its setting, between banks of grain elevators. Courtesy, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Yet in the midst of this celebration of the city’s waterfront heritage and of the Skyway’s contribution to it, one could hear other voices that were clearly uncomfortable with the working waterfront of the 1940s and 1950s, and for whom the Skyway was a means of transcendence. The idea was not new. In the nineteenth century, Americans ill at ease with the class, ethnic, and cultural contrasts and disparities that were immediately obvious at ground level in larger American cities had found comfort in removed, “birds’ eye” views, offered by the artists and illustrators of the day, which imaginatively reconstructed the urban milieu as a coherent, unified, harmonious entity.28

Examining the work of nineteenth-century American landscape painters, Albert Boime argues that these landscapes provided the “magisterial gaze,” an optimistic, elite perspective embodying a “fantasy of domain and empire,” in which the viewer was positioned on the “heights” [for our purposes, the Skyway], looking on “a scenic panorama below”29 [that is, the waterfront and Lake Erie]. In the twentieth century, the “magisterial gaze” was available from the “spectacular perch” of the skyscraper, offering owners, tenants, and tourists what historian David E. Nye has described as a “sense of mastery” and “fantasies of domain.” From this perspective, which anticipated the urban renewal attitude of the late 1950s—one is reminded of the eighty acres of St. Louis waterfront, torn down in the 1940s to make way for a massive park that would eventually house the Gateway Arch—the Buffalo waterfront was a “cluttered” and “unsightly” area of “tortuous,” “narrow, congested streets,” “dilapidated docks and rock pilings,” and conflicting modes of transportation that frustrated the movement of people and goods into and out of the city’s southern gateway and prevented economic development.30

A self-serving resolution of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, calling for a tunnel because it promised to produce more work for its members than a bridge, described the area in 1941 as “terribly blighted” and “considered dead.”31 This view was related to the anti-traffic jam perspective that had activated high-level bridge advocates from the beginning. But it went further than that, suggesting that the Skyway could be the mechanism for getting rid of a certain kind of industrial-era ugliness by bypassing, even converting, a functioning waterfront and harbor into a grand entrance of the sort that would appeal to tourists and other visitors.32

For two Common Council members thinking about a bridge in 1941, the structure was understood to furnish a point of observation where one could feast one’s eyes on the area’s “fine natural surroundings”; “such vistas,” they emphasized, “are tourists’ attractions.”33 A somewhat different reading, based on the frequent references to the lakeward “panorama” that the span offered, would emphasize the Skyway as a high perch from which Buffalo’s historic relationship to water-borne commerce could be recapitulated, if only in the imagination—a kind of nostalgia perhaps, or wishful thinking.

Buffalo’s Lake Erie outer harbor was hardly a hubbub of economic activity at the time of construction—acres of land, adjacent to the structure, were being used for automobile storage—and preparations for the Skyway would not require demolition of single-family homes or apartment buildings, a phenomenon that accompanied other inner-city highway projects in Buffalo and across the nation.34 Nonetheless, the “renewal” mentality of the era meant that planners and others would see the project as a way of taming what was understood to be an unruly waterfront. An early engineering study twice referred to “old type buildings” that stood in the path of the proposed bridge at its northerly end and suggested that “the removal of some of the old buildings from this area will tend to improve the neighborhood.”35

The enthusiasm for a cleansing renewal was vividly revealed in 1963, eight years after the bridge opened, when the Buffalo Courier-Express published a photograph of the outer harbor, taken from the base of the Skyway, looking southwest along the water. The harbor was empty—no warehouses, no factories, no vessels, no swimmers, no people—just “gently sloping grasslands reaching to the edge of the water,” in the words of the accompanying text. The story presented the Skyway—indeed, the larger system of thruways of which it was a part—as an agent of reclamation. “Until a few years ago,” it said, “much of the property along Fuhrmann Blvd. [which paralleled the Skyway and its ground-level extension] from the mouth of the Buffalo River to Tifft St. was a rat-infested dump which also served as the home of numerous squatters who were down on their luck.” The Skyway had initiated the cleanup. “Today, the picture is much different. The dumps, rats and squatters are gone. The road [Fuhrmann Blvd.] is becoming a modern expressway.”36

For most of the 300 public officials, engineers, clergy, and interested citizens gathered at the foot of the Skyway in downtown Buffalo to celebrate the completion and opening of the high-level bridge on a chilly mid-October morning in 1955, the mile-long structure before them was more than a solution to traffic congestion, more than a ray of hope for waterfront development, and more, certainly, than the flawed idea of trading a working waterfront for tourists and a splash of public relations. Although a response to specific local transportation problems, the Skyway was also a representative structure, typical of the age. Buffalo’s bottlenecks and traffic jams were local versions of dramas played out in most eastern and mid-western cities; the sense of crisis these conditions engendered is delightfully captured in the 1939 Ralph Steiner/Willard Van Dyke documentary, The City (filmed mostly in Pittsburgh), with its honking horns, frustrated motorists, and threatened pedestrians. For social planners and engineers, the obvious solution was to take some of the vehicles off surface streets and put some of them below ground level and others above it. But tunnels were expensive, and bridges had greater appeal to the human spirit; elevated vehicle-moving systems were at the center of Le Corbusier’s 1922 sketches for his Ville Contemporaine and of the futuristic designs of both the 1939 and 1964 world fairs.

A number of the high-level bridges of the traffic-congestion era shared the Skyway name.

A number of the high-level bridges of the traffic-congestion era shared the Skyway name. New Jersey’s Pulaski Skyway took vehicles 135 feet above the Hackensack River and the Meadowlands, between Jersey City and Newark; it opened in 1932. The 7.8 mile Chicago (or Calumet) Skyway opened in 1958, crossing the Calumet River above the city’s east side industrial area. Other Great Lakes structures included the Burlington Bay Skyway Bridge (1958) and St. Catharines’s Garden City Skyway (1963), both within sixty miles of Buffalo in Ontario, Canada, on the highway to Toronto. The first incarnation of the now-famous Sunshine Skyway, built between St. Petersburg and Bradenton, Florida, was completed in 1954. Elevated highways not designated “Skyways” were ubiquitous; Boston’s $14.8 billion downtown “Big Dig” tunnel was designed to replace one of them, a “rickety eyesore built in 1959,” in the words of a Los Angeles Times writer.37 At 336 meters, higher than the Eiffel Tower, a French bridge most deserving of the Skyway name is known instead as the Millau Viaduct (2004).

Among those critical of the postwar boom in elevated structures was urbanologist Lewis Mumford. In “The Skyway’s the Limit,” a 1959 New Yorker essay, Mumford lamented a planned suspension bridge over the narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Like the Buffalo Skyway, the narrows bridge had to be high to accommodate ships passing beneath, and its height inevitably meant an elevated roadbed and the displacement of thousands of Brooklyn residents as the structure reached land. For Mumford, the narrows bridge (opened in 1964 as the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge) was just another “skyway”—a tall bridge with adverse social consequences—and skyways were an unfortunate throwback to the elevated railways that were proven failures. “At the very moment,” he concluded, “that we have torn down our elevated railways, because of their spoilage of urban space, our highway engineers are using vast sums of public money to restore the same nuisance in an even noisier and more insistent form.”38

Figure 5: The Skyway under construction, April 14, 1955. Courtesy, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Mumford’s discouraging words found little support in Buffalo, where the Skyway was imagined as big and tall, sleek and exciting—a modernist dream come true. Although Buffalonians understood that the Skyway was a practical necessity for their crowded city, they also admired, appreciated, and celebrated the structure in ways—ways embedded within mid-1950s American culture—that could not have been anticipated by the traffic engineers who had first imagined a high-level bridge and, at the turn of the next century, had been forgotten. Indeed, despite its utilitarian origins, the Skyway, like other “products” of what historian Thomas Hine has labeled the Populuxe era (1954–1963), was understood psychologically and celebrated emotionally.

In January 1951, when work had begun with the driving of sixty-five steel test piles into the frozen ground off Fuhrmann Boulevard, the Courier-Express had called it a “day of rejoicing” and asked readers who “can’t picture a bridge that high” to understand and appreciate its stature by thinking of it as equivalent to the five-story building that housed the newspaper’s staff. Reporters could not resist the startling statistics that revealed the extraordinary mass of the structure: 5,904 feet long, 22,000 tons of steel deck, 10,000 cubic yards of concrete, 10,000 gallons of paint.39

Lead image – Figure 4: Two weeks before the opening of the Skyway, city and state officials walked a portion of the span during an “official inspection trip.” From left are John Leone, Charles T. Love, John K. Vane, Elmer G. H. Youngmann, Mayor Steven Pankow, and Walter Mayday. 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

For additional information about this article.


17. Letter T. M. (Buffalo), Courier-Express October 23, 1955, 28A.

18. Sub-head to Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming Over Skyway.”

19. “Skyway Called First of Big Projects,” Courier-Express, October 20, 1955, 18; editorial, Courier-Express, October 20, 1955, 26.

20. City of Buffalo, Proceedings of the Common Council, 1947 (n.p., n.d.), 1711, September 2, 1947.

21. The discussion over Buffalo’s lake commerce can be followed in the newspaper articles collected in Buffalo Harbor, vol. 4, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Local History Collection.

22. “Boehm Protesting High-Level Span,” Courier-Express, March 26, 1948, 17.

23. Niagara Frontier Authority, Proposed Buffalo River Vehicular Crossing at Buffalo, New York, Ralph Smillie and J. C. Evans, engineers, October 6, 1944 (n.p., n.d.), 13.

24. Courier-Express, October 20, 1955, 26, editorial.

25. Buffalo Evening News, October 19, 1955, Section 5, 68, editorial.

26. Quoted in Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming Over Skyway,” 1. See also the advertisement for commercial banking, Buffalo Evening News, October 18, 1955, 3, 44. 27. Sketch, Courier-Express, April 8, 1950, 15.

28. John F. Kasson, Rudeness & Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990), 73-74.

29. Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830–1865 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 5 (“scenic panorama”), 20-21 (“magisterial gaze,” “heights”), 38, 56, 75 (“fantasy of domain and empire”).

30. Courier-Express, October20, 1955,26, editorial(“tortuous”);“C of C Tour Spurs Drive for New Span,” Courier-Express, September 9, 1947, 13 (“dilapidated docks”); “Viaduct Seen Essential to City’s Growth,” Courier-Express, January 14, 1940, in Traffic Control in the Buffalo Area, vol. 1 (“unsightly”); “Work Started on Long-Anticipated $8,000,000 High-Level Bridge,” Courier-Express, January 13, 1951, 15 (“narrow, congested”); David E. Nye, American Technological Sublime (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), 106-107.

31. City of Buffalo, Proceedings of the Common Council, 1941 (n.p.,n.d.), 2805-06, November 25, 1941.

32. “Council Okays Bridge Over Buffalo River,” Courier-Express, December 27, 1947, 9 (City Councilman-at-Large George J. Young: “It will beautify our waterfront which has long been criticized by visitors to the city.”); “High-Bridge Link to Fuhrmann Drive Urged for Defense,” Buffalo News, July 19, 1941, in Traffic Control in the Buffalo Area, vol. 1; and John Johnson, quoted in “Traffic Streaming,” 10. Phil Patton writes that the modern superhighways were “the roads of the future; their construction turned all other roads into byways of the past, objects of nostalgia.” The Skyway had this impact on the waterfront beneath it. Patton, Open Road, 14.

33. City of Buffalo, Proceedings of the Common Council 1941, 2127, July 22, 1941.

34. On waterfront auto storage, see untitled article in Buffalo Business, March 1954, in Buffalo Harbor clippings, vol. 1, no. 4, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Local History Collection. Many scholars have remarked on the removal and dislocation of urban residents by “urban renewal” housing and highway projects. See, for example, Martin Anderson, The Federal Bulldozer: A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal, 1949–1962 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1964), 6-7, 52- 70; Thomas H. O’Connor, Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950–1970 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993), 126, 131, 134, 138-139; E. Michael Jones, The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), 206, 216; and Raymond A. Mohl, “Planned Destruction: The Interstates and Central City Housing,” in From Tenements to The Taylor Homes: In Search of an Urban Housing Policy in Twentieth-Century America, eds. John F. Bauman, Roger Biles, and Kristin Szylvian (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 226-245. On the impact of the Ellicott Urban Renewal Project and the Kensington Expressway on white ethnics and African Americans in Buffalo, see Goldman, City on the Lake, 18-25.

35. Niagara Frontier Authority, Proposed Buffalo River Vehicular Crossing, 10, 13.

36. “PropertyAlongWaterfrontGivenFaceLifting,”BuffaloCourier-Express,May26,1963, in scrapbook, Buffalo Harbor, vol. 3, in Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Local History Collection; “Rapp Calls for Waterfront Cleanup,” Buffalo News, October 21, 1955, section 2, 26.

37. On The City see Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (1974; rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 122-124. Le Corbusier’s sketches are noted in Patton, Open Road, 97. For Norman Bel Geddes’s “Futurama” design for the 1939 fair, see Dawn of a New Day: The New York World’s Fair, 1939/40, The Queens Museum, Helen A. Harrison, Guest Curator (New York: New York University Press, 1980), 100-101. The 1964 fair is described and analyzed in Michael L. Smith, “Making Time: Representations of Technology at the 1964 World’s Fair,” in Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears, The Power of Culture: Critical Essays in American History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 223-244. On Skyways other than Buffalo’s see, accessed October 18, 2007 (Pulaski Skyway) and, accessed October 18, 2007 (Garden City Skyway). On Boston’s tunnel, see Elizabeth Mehren, “After years of construction, light at end of Boston tunnel,” Buffalo News, December 22, 2002, H-1 (“eyesore”).

38. Lewis Mumford, “The Skyway’s the Limit,” in Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 219-220 (quotation on 220).

39. Thomas Hine, Populuxe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 65, 159; “Work Started on Long-Anticipated . . . Bridge,” 15 (“rejoicing,” comparison to building); Wallenhorst, “Traffic Streaming Over Skyway,” 10 (statistics), 1 (“four great curves”). On the automobile as an object of desire, see also Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 129-162.

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