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Buffalo at the Turn of the 20th Century

Labor Day Parade in Buffalo, ca. 1900.
Until 1817, Buffalo was a small village like many others along the Great Lakes. But that was the year work began on the Erie Canal, which would link Lake Erie with the Hudson River. Completed in 1825, the Canal was a very costly, and risky, public works project. But it was wildly successful and would assure the prosperity of New York State--and, even more particularly, that of New York City, at the base of the Hudson, and Buffalo, at the western terminus of the Canal.

Elevators, canal boats, lake steamers & harbor ferry.
At a time before railroads, or even serviceable highways, goods could be brought to Buffalo by ship and transferred to canal boats. Grain was the main cargo of the ships arriving from the Midwest, and Buffalo soon became a major distribution point for wheat and other grains. In 1842, the first grain elevator was built in Buffalo. The elevator used steam-powered conveyers to unload the grain from ships and into bins within the large wooden tower. Throughout the 19th century, the towers grew in number and size, even as railroads supplanted the Canal.


By 1900 Buffalo held a key position as a transportation hub. Grain, iron ore and lumber came in from the west, while coal and other goods arrived from the east. As a consequence, both flour and steel mills developed into major industries. And since all the major railroads of the northeast serviced Buffalo, they too became major employers. The population of the city was growing rapidly and stood at 350,000. Buffalo was then the 8th-largest city in the U.S. (in 2011, it was #72).

As with a lot of American cities, Buffalo was in the middle of a great building boom. In 1896, Ellicott Square (above) was completed. Taking up an entire city block, it was at the time the world's largest office building. What's more amazing, it still is intact.


Another amazing thing about Buffalo is the devotion of its fans to its history. One of the best local history sites on the Web is Chuck LaChiusa's Buffalo Architecture and History, which has individual pages for individual buildings as well as architects. For instance, there is a page for  Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed a number of Buffalo's parks, including Delaware Park, seen above on a busy day.

But no discussion of Buffalo in 1900 can be complete without mention of the grain scoopers and the harbor ferries, both explored at local history sites well worth visiting.

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