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Buffalo, Queen City of the Great Lakes

As she turns 190 years old, Buffalo remembers good times and bad. She wonders what is ahead.

Author: Christine H. Boldt


They called me, “The Queen City of the Great Lakes,” and why not?  The Erie Canal had been completed across New York State in 1825 ending at my very doorstep.  By the time of my incorporation, in 1832, river boats routinely shipped goods from New York City, up the Hudson River to Albany, where they turned west, and then churned along the Canal to reach me. Tools, dishes, and foreign delicacies arrived in a third of the time it had taken to go by land.  It is true, that young upstart the railroad had imitated the canal by stretching across the state as early as 1853, but I graciously accepted his presence.  By 1900, the New York Central was just one of seven companies whose trains passed through my railyards before moving west.

Of course, it is just when things are going well that one must be most careful.  One wrong decision can upend the most careful plans.  For me, that was the decision of city fathers to showcase my achievements by holding a fair that would celebrate the achievements of the Americas: a Pan-American Exposition.  

Oh, I knew risks came with such an enterprise. The U.S.’s first World’s Fair, in Philadelphia, in 1876, celebrating the nation’s Centennial, had flopped and bankrupted the city.  The Columbian Exposition in 1893, that celebrated 400 years since Columbus arrived in America, had lost a million dollars.  But 27 million people had visited that fair.  It put Chicago on the map.  There was a rumor that a serial killer had worked under the cover of the Columbian Exposition, and it was true that Chicago’s mayor had been killed on the last day of the fair, bringing it to an abrupt end.  But for my police force, that was just a needed “heads up.”  I believed they would be ready for anything.

When talk began about a World’s Fair that would celebrate the Continents of North and South America, city fathers eagerly put forward my name as a prospective site for the event.  What better location could there be?  In addition to my economic preeminence, I had a series of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who had created New York’s Central Park).  I also had the first cast iron skyscraper, as well as views of Lake Erie and the Niagara River to show guests.  I was a beauty.  Being chosen as hostess for an international fair would set me above rival cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Cleveland. 

After all, look what else I had to offer.  In 1901 I was the eighth largest city in the United States, the second largest in New York State, and (after Chicago) the second largest terminus in the country.  Goods heaped on my docks came from all over the world to be shipped west on the Great Lakes.  Grain arrived from the heartland, to be processed in Buffalo and sent east.  The widening of the Sault Ste. Marie Canal, in Michigan, also allowed cargo ships of iron ore to be sent from west to east through the Great Lakes to stop at my port.

Of equal importance, the thundering waters of Niagara Falls, the very landscape feature that made me an economic hub by preventing water access between Lakes Erie and Ontario, had begun to provide me with cheap electricity. The first hydroelectric power plant had been built there in 1895.  Factories, streets and street cars were being lighted by electricity.  Companies that had moved farther west were returning to me because of the economies of a cheap power source. The Lackawanna steel mills had just decided to forsake Scranton, Pennsylvania, to move to my Lake Erie shores. 

My attractive features also included a steam-powered grain elevator and factories that built steam engines. The Pierce Arrow Automobile Company was headquartered within my city limits. And although it was not something I liked to speak of in polite company, because of its noise and odors, I had one of the largest stockyards in the country. I was quite the gal at the turn of the century.

Teddy Roosevelt, New York’s Governor, signed the papers authorizing the Pan Am in 1897. The following year the U.S. Congress voted to spend $500,000 in support of the fair.  Then it was a waiting game while the powers-that-were ironed out the details. Of course there were some naysayers, but along with most of my people, I eagerly waited to see what would happen next.  A 35-acre farm was chosen as the site of the fair. Architects, some of the best in the country, began to draw plans. Twenty months before the fair was to open, the go-ahead was given to begin construction: 90 buildings to be completed in less than two years!  I was beside myself with anticipation.

Twenty months before the fair was to open, the go-ahead was given to begin construction: 90 buildings to be completed in less than two years!

Most of the fair structures were made of timber and steel frames, covered with panels of “staff,” a mixture of plaster and straw.  They were intended to last only for the duration of the fair, from May to October 1901.  Then they would be knocked down and the rubble hauled away.  That seemed like a waste to me, all that effort and expense for a few months of glamour.  But that was how things were done then.  And who knew in what architectural wonders my people might clothe me, once the fair was over.

A factory in Patterson, New Jersey turned out 500 sculptures in six months.

The temporary nature of their constructions didn’t discourage the architects from creating elaborate palaces.  The fair’s theme of Cooperation among the Americas was intended to soothe the ruffled feathers of Central and South American countries.  They had been alarmed by the notion of U.S. expansionism suggested by the Spanish American War of 1898. Consequently, the preferred style of architecture for fair buildings was Spanish Colonial—ivory adobe walls and red tiled roofs.  But many buildings looked suspiciously like other well-known edifices:  There was a reasonable facsimile of the Palace at Versailles with its elaborate facade.  At least two buildings, including the Temple of Music, bore a marked resemblance to the Roman Pantheon, each complete with a plump dome and a circular skylight.  

A factory in Patterson, New Jersey turned out 500 sculptures in six months that were all shipped to me for installation in and around the buildings.  To protect the fairgrounds as far a possible from unfavorable comparisons with Chicago’s earlier White City, both the plastered walls and the gigantic statues were given delicate shades of color.  This color scheme earned me the sobriquet, “The Rainbow City. “One of my lovely statues, The Goddess of Light, was completely gilded—all 18 feet of her.

Fair designers created an artificial lake and linking canals so that reflections of the lights outlining those electrified buildings would gleam in the water as guests traveled by, seated in gondolas.

Fair designers created an artificial lake and linking canals so that reflections of the lights outlining those electrified buildings would gleam in the water as guests traveled by, seated in gondolas.  I would wear that feature as another beautiful woman might wear a tiara, to enhance my natural beauty.  I was well on my way to having myself a fair.

On May 20, Roosevelt, who had been elected Vice President in the years since he had authorized the fair, appeared for opening day.  Works of science, ethnic villages from all parts of the world, and great art were on display.  More than 30 states had buildings celebrating their manufacturing, mining, and agriculture products, as did Canada, Mexico, and an assortment of other Latin American countries.  Baby incubators, an X-ray machine, an improved typesetting machine and phonograph were among the wonders that people would come witness and discuss.

Baby incubators, an X-ray machine, an improved typesetting machine and phonograph were among the wonders that people would come witness and discuss.

How do I explain the energy generated by the sharing of ideas among people from different parts of the New World?  Perhaps it was something like the TED talks that are offered in the 21st century, in terms of intellectual exchange.  However, the excitement of walking the grounds among thousands of strangers comparing their reactions to your own, hearing conversations in other languages, could never be matched by attending a lecture with a few hundred people. The experience of the 8 million fair-goers stands in even sharper contrast to that of the curious people today, who learn of advances in science, technology, and education, through the lonely observation of a computer screen.  

True, the fair was not a perfect experience.  The weather didn’t cooperate.  Much of the summer was rainy and chilled.  I had a reputation for moody summers so that wasn’t entirely unexpected—but fair planners knew that lower attendance would cut into the profit they anticipated.

Yet I couldn’t have been prouder of my people and my resources, until Sept. 6, when U.S. President McKinley arrived to glad hand the fairgoers.  After having spoken to a crowd of 50,000 the day before, he returned that day to host a receiving line.  George Cortelyou, McKinley’s personal secretary, had urged him to cancel his second appearance, recalling the assassination of King Umberto I at a public gathering, in Italy, the previous year.  McKinley paid him no mind.  Minutes after he entered my lovely Temple of Music, a jewel in the crown that was my fair, he was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz.  The terrorist, a second generation Polish-American, claimed McKinley’s policies, including the Gold Standard and high tariffs, worked against the common man. However the rumor that started among my people, as soon as the President was struck, was that Czolgosz was simply insane.

My world shattered the moment the shots were fired: the fair closed immediately, $4 million dollars in debt—$120 million in today’s dollars.

My world shattered the moment the shots were fired: the fair closed immediately, $4 million dollars in debt—$120 million in today’s dollars.  President McKinley was taken to a nearby home where he seemed to rally.  Each new rumor about his condition swept through my streets, hope and despair chasing one another. But then began a slow decline.  A week later he died from gangrene caused by a bullet still lodged inside him.  

A cascade of ironies surrounded the President’s death.  The newly invented X-ray machine on display at the fair might have located the bullet inside him, but no one was brave enough to use its unproven technology on the president.  Despite all the dazzling lights offered by the fair, the only light available to guide the doctors who operated on the president was sunlight reflected by mirrors.  The inside of the fairground hospital had not been electrified.

Roosevelt, who had had been with me to open The Pan Am, returned to be sworn in as the new U.S. President, in a house not a mile from the fairgrounds.  Months later, the man who shot the president was killed in the electric chair, which had been invented 10 years before, by a Buffalo dentist.  These were not the events I had expected my fame to rest upon. But I know I am not the first woman to have sobbed, “If only,” to what she was given to bear.  How I identified with Dallas, in 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated—another city punished when all she did was try to embellish her reputation, to make the most of herself, by hosting a dignitary. 

Although I continued to grow for another 50 years, my population ranking immediately began to slide.  I do not know if I owed my loss of reputation to the shame of having a president die on my watch.  The cause might have the increasing power of the railroads and automobiles, which had first given me preeminence, but in the end allowed millions of people to ignore me.  I never recovered the pride I had experienced at the opening of the fair.  For decades, the grit of steel mills clouded my air space.  I resented this until automation and foreign manufacturing made those mills unnecessary.  Then I realized I was even worse off without them.  

In 1957, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened.  I was no longer a terminus for the Great Lakes, just a stop along the way.  Commerce that chose to do so could pass me by without a glance. For many years, one of my few remaining charms was a silted river used for pleasure boating.  Those visitors I did have came to tour the empty grain elevators and derelict steel mills of my glory days.  

But then I experienced a transformation.  Those grain elevators that, for decades, I had thought a disfiguring scar, were suddenly deemed a beauty spot.  The soil around them, long considered a dead zone, began to be nourished and planted with wildflowers that attracted passing butterflies.  Monarchs fluttered around me looking for places to feed. Volunteers filled outdoor spaces giving me the kind of beauty treatments I had been accustomed to in my middle years. 

New noises began to echo in my old empty silos.  No longer just the “Drip, Drip” of rain finding its way from leaky roofs to the cement floors 120 feet below.  The sounds of cellos and woodwinds, and blues vibes, filled the towering edifices, as well as the exclamations of audiences awed by reverberations that went on for 8 to 9 seconds.

Poetry readings and theatrical presentations sounded from ersatz stages.  The clatter of dishes filled a new café.  Banners and art work enlivened my spaces. Again and again I heard the name “Silo City” on the lips of visitors.  Of course, my thoughts turned back to the “Rainbow City” of a century before.  Could it be me they were talking about.  “Silo City” is perhaps a less eloquent soubriquet, but a woman of my advanced years has to make the most of each opportunity.  

More than 100 years have passed since the rubble from the Pan-American was hauled away.

More than 100 years have passed since the rubble from the Pan-American was hauled away.  A marker on a traffic island commemorates the fair. But as I prepare to celebrate my 190th birthday, I no longer think of myself as just another Rust Belt city, used and cast aside.  The men who created me followed their economic interests westward, seeking the next new thing, the next confluence of transportation, invention, and energy, the next pretty city. But new men and women are in charge now. For the first time in many years I am looking forward to what might happen to me in the next decade, and to the celebration of my bi-centennial.    


Christine Boldt, a retired librarian, grew up in Buffalo. She attended School 81, and graduated from School 54 and Bennett High School.  She keeps tabs on her hometown from Central Texas where she has lived for forty years.  She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, and lived in Italy during the 1970s.  Christine has been published in Christianity and Crisis, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and Working Mother.  Her poetry has appeared in Christian Century; Windhover; the Texas Poetry Calendar; Enigmatist; Bearing the Mask; Adam, Eve, and the Riders of the Apocalypse; the Poetry Society of Texas Book of the Year; the Red River Review; Ilyia’s Honey; and Encore. Her collection Missing, One Muse:  The Poetry of Sylvia St. Stevens was selected as the winner of the 2018 ASPS Morris Memorial Chapbook Competition.  Her book, For Every Tatter, was published this year by Lamar University Literary Press.


References

Brush, Edward Hale.  Scientific American Supplement, Nov. 10, 1901.

buffalonews.com/multimedia/pages-in-history-president-mckinleys-assassination/collection, retrieved September 3, 2020.

Eck, Susan J.  “Doing the Pan,” 2001.  Retrieved Oct. 31, 2021.

Escher, Kat.  How President William. McKinley’s Assassination Led to the Modern Secret Service.  Smithsonian.mag.com. Sept. 14, 2017.   Retrieved September 3, 2020

Fox, Austin M. “Symbol and Show, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.  Myer Enterprises, Buffalo, 2000.

Grunge.com/198264/the-untold-story-of-william-mckinley’s-assination. Retrieved, Sept. 3, 2020

Numismatic Guaranty Company.  The Pan American Exposition.  Posted Jan. 16, 2018.  Retrieved October 31, 2021.

Official Handbook of Architecture and Sculpture and Art Catalogue to the Pan-American Exposition, David Gray, Buffalo, 1901.

Restoration at Silo City.  Buffalo Arts Studio. January 22, 2021.  www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKX9CzAXK1E

Wikipedia Contributors (2020, May 17)  “Pan American Exposition,” Web 8, August 2020 including the picture,  “Pan-American Exhibition, panorama view, from The Latest and Best Views of the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York. Robert Allen Reid, 1901.”

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