On April 2, 2021, Erie County celebrated its bicentennial anniversary, kicking off a year of celebration. This significant milestone is an opportunity for the community to reflect on the history, stories, and legacies of the many men and women who came before us.
Prior to 1842, the area which we know today as the City of Lackawanna was part of the Buffalo Creek Reservation. The Seneca Indians sold it and by 1851, the town of Seneca was incorporated. (It would change its name to West Seneca in 1852. At this time, Lackawanna was still a part of West Seneca, with sections going by Limestone Hill and Stony Point. In 1899, the Lackawanna Steel Company, which was based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, purchased land along the shore of Lake Erie, having been drawn to the area because of its access to the Great Lakes and multiple rail lines.
Construction began on July 14, 1900. While the plant was being constructed, the company built or expanded rail lines so that upon completion raw material could easily be delivered to the plant. They also constructed a company town around where the mill was being built. By 1902 the Lackawanna Steel Company relocated to the area. The plant officially opened in 1903. The company and the town of West Seneca would be at odds because they wanted large investments in sewer, water, gas, and road improvements, but wanted the town to pay for everything.
With the company’s relocation to West Seneca, came an influx of workers from Pennsylvania, which led to substandard housing tracts in parts of the town as well as outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and influenza. The people of West Seneca proposed separating the area around the steel mill, allowing it to incorporate as its own municipality. This was initially met with opposition from Lackawanna Steel. After the two year long Panic of 1907, which nearly bankrupted the Town of West Seneca, the company finally relented and the people voted to split the City of Lackawanna from the Town of West Seneca.
As the Lackawanna Steel Mill was just beginning the process of acquiring the land it would need, several miles away Father Nelson Baker was actively working within the community. He first developed “The Association of Our Lady of Victory.” He wrote to postmasters in towns across the country requesting the names and addresses of Catholic women, who he would write to seeking help in caring for the orphanage. For 25 cents a year, they could join. This, along with the publication of the journal “The Annals of the Association of Our Lady of Victory” ensured that the parish and organizations under the parish’s umbrella remained debt free.
In 1891, a gas well was discovered on the Our Lady of Victory Homes’ land, which would not only pay for heating costs but brought in additional money to the parish. By 1898 a working boys home had been built. He would continue to expand parish services, which would include the construction of an infant’s home in 1907, a maternity home in 1915, Our Lady of Victory Hospital in 1919 and The Basilica of Our Lady of Victory in 1926. Father Baker would continue to lead his parish as well as the various charities he established until his death at the age of 94 on July 29, 1936. Even after his death, his legacy still reverberates through the region. His social programs would eventually become Baker Victory Services and Baker Victory Services Adoption Program. The Catholic Church named Father Baker a “Servant of God” in 1987, which is the first step in Canonization to sainthood. In 1999, his remains were reinterred in the basilica .
On January 14, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI approved in the document “Congregation for the Causes of Saints,” which declared Father Baker as “Venerable, another important step in the canonization process.
By 1922, the Bethlehem Steel Company purchased the Lackawanna Steel Company. During the Second World War, the company was ranked seventh in its value of wartime production contracts with the United States. Its shipbuilding subsidiary would build more than 1000 ships for the U.S. Navy, more than any other builder during the war and nearly a fifth of the total ships in the fleet. At its peak, the plant employed 20,000 people and would attract immigrants from around the world. This multiethnic growth was best reflected on Gates Avenue, which was known locally as the “Street of Nations” because of the variety of ethnic and racial groups in residence.
From 1949-1952, Bethlehem Steel had a contract with the United States to roll uranium fuel rods for nuclear reactors. At the time, workers were neither aware of the dangers of the hazardous materials they were working with nor were they given equipment that would protect them from radiation. As countries rebuilt in the postwar era, steel mills in other countries, with more modern techniques, would begin to produce steel that was much cheaper than U.S. Steel. By 1982 the company was reporting losses totaling over a billion dollars. This coupled with increased property taxes would contribute to the plant’s decline and ultimate closure in 1983.
Since the loss of its major employer and taxpayer in 1983, the city has been undergoing revitalization, especially in its First Ward. Projects have included the cleanup and reuse of steel plant property for new businesses. Construction began on the Steel Winds project in 2006, shortly after the EPA ruled that the brownfield site that was a portion of the old Bethlehem facility could, after remediation, be removed from the Superfund list. Today, there are 14 wind turbines on the property. The creation of new industrial parks and the construction of new housing soon followed, as did a greenway, a new community center and plans for additional renewable energy installations.
Lackawanna has some residents who are important not only in a historical context but also culturally. Among those is Colonel John B. Weber, who at the age of 19 became the youngest colonel in the Civil War. Col. Weber would go on to be appointed as the first Commissioner of Immigration at the port of New York, opening Ellis Island on January 1, 1892. A number of athletes have called Lackawanna home including Joe Hesketh, former MLB pitcher for the Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, Ron Jaworski, former quarterback for the Eagles, Rams, Dolphins and Chiefs, and Mike Mamula, who went on to be drafted by the eagles. Children’s author Connie Porter set her book “All-Bright Court” in Lackawanna. Actor and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson set his musical “Lackawanna Blues” in 1956 Lackawanna.
WNY Heritage Magazine has for the 2021-2022 Erie County Bicentennial published an 80-page legacy publication that highlights events, people, and places across Erie County’s history. This includes profiles of towns, cities, and Native territories, and never before published images. WNY Heritage has the goal of fostering a pride of place through the knowledge and appreciation of the art, architecture and history of Western New York. When you purchase a 2 year subscription to WNY Heritage Magazine (a bargain at $60),you will receive “Erie County, 1821-2021: A Bicentennial Profile,” this Erie County Bicentennial Commemorative publication. You can also pick up a copy at their website for $10, at Talking Leaves, the History Museum Shop, and other select retail locations.