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EC200 | A Brief History of the Tonawandas

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.


Sometimes the origin of a name is simple – example being Lackawanna taking its name from the Lackawanna Steel Company. The name Tonawanda is wrapped in a little more mystery. Historians have settled on two possible, albeit very similar meanings: “swiftwater” or from the Tuscarora word Tahnawá•teh meaning “confluent stream.” These waters would play a role in Tonawanda’s future and growth.

The first known European to settle on the land that would become Tonawanda was Henry Anguish in 1809. By 1811, he would open a tavern in the area. By the spring of 1823, with the authorization of Erie Canal Commissioners, Samuel Wilkeson and Dr. Ebenezer Johnson began construction of a dam and lock at the mouth of the Tonawanda Creek. This would become part of the Erie Canal leading to Little Buffalo Creek and the Western Terminus of the canal. The canal would open in 1825 and it would be then that we see the first use of the name Tonawanda in association with the community. At that time it only was made up of 12 buildings.

Tonawanda’s growth was stimulated by the opening of the canal. Tonawanda’s location at the Western Terminus of the Erie Canal coupled with its harbor facilities at the Eastern end of the Upper Great Lakes, attracted lumber companies. Lumber companies like the East Boston Timber company can be credited with stimulating Tonawanda’s growth from a small hamlet of 12 buildings to an incorporated village by 1854. Timber from the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada were all shipped to the Tonawandas and by the turn of the century the Tonawandas were briefly the “Lumber Capital of the World.” This wouldn’t last as the forests of these regions dwindled because the timber industry at the time caused deforestation in these areas and the industry had not replanted new trees.

By the 1850s petty squabbles and a bitter controversy over a load of gravel caused the north side to separate from the village in 1857. It would be incorporated into a village and later as the City of North Tonawanda in 1897. The Village of Tonawanda was incorporated as the City of Tonawanda in 1903. The Town of Tonawanda was established in 1836 after it separated from the City of Buffalo. At that time, it included what would become the City of Tonawanda, Grand Island (established in 1852) and the Village of Kenmore (incorporated 1899).

As the lumber industry dried up, other industries started to grow in the Tonawandas. By 1915, the Huntley generating station had opened, bringing electricity to the area. This allowed the Tonawandas to grow to become the principal industrial center on the Niagara Frontier. Manufacturing of office equipment, paint, fiber and laminated products, steel bars and chains, boxboards and other products. The Town of Tonawanda saw Dupont and General Motors as well as the now defunct Wickwire Steel, the Wood and Brooks Piano Key Co., McKinnon Dash Co., the American Cabinet Co., and the Excelsior Steel Ball Bearing Co.

The Town of Tonawanda would play an important role in the success of World War II. Some historians posit that part of the success of the war was linked to the development and breakneck production of the P-40 fighter plane. Thousands would be constructed in the Curtiss-Wright plant on Vulcan Street. This was such a huge undertaking that Life magazine sent a photographer to witness the round the clock assembly lines.

As the post-war era dawned and transitioned into the modern age, the Tonawandas, like the majority of rust belt towns and cities, saw a rapid decrease in industrial production. Many either closed or moved. Today the municipalities have adjusted to focusing on bringing in the tourist trade, fine restaurants and cultural activities throughout the year. The National Trust for Historic Preservation convened in Buffalo in 2011 and its bus excursion to the Town of Tonawanda’s Green Acres neighborhood was a hit. “All those 1950s-era houses! Still standing, still beautiful and still in use!”


The Tonawandas have also been home to individuals who have gone on to do great things. Gladys Parker, who not only was a well-known fashion designer in New York City and Hollywood, also became nationally known for her creation of the comic strips Flapper Fanny and Mopsy. St. John Neumann spent time in the area as a missionary, ministering to area Catholics in the early 1800s. The movie Saving Private Ryan, and the character of Private James Ryan, is on Sergeant Fritz Niland and his brothers, all of whom are natives of the City of Tonawanda. Wolf Blitzer calls Kenmore West High School and the University of Buffalo his alma maters. Athletes who have called the Tonawandas home include Joe Mesi, Bill Scherrer, Tom Askey, Burt Lewis and Fred Brumm.

About Western New York Heritage

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.

495 Pine Ridge Heritage Blvd, Cheektowaga, NY 14225 | 716-893-4011
Website | Facebook | Download the WNY Heritage App


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