It was once tagged the "Keystone of the Niagara Frontier." Certainly, it remains one of the leading towns in Western New York. The Town of Tonawanda can boats of spawning the Niagara Frontier's pioneer suburban village, becoming the first to develop an extensive and varied industrial base, and being the first town to exceed a population of 100,000 people. The Town of Tonawanda's history has passed through successive stages of agriculture, industry, and suburbanization over the past century.
The earliest settlement of the area that would be incorporated in April 1836 as the Town of Tonawanda took place along Tonawanda Creek. In 1805 a handful of pioneers to Western New York began to clear a "slash" in the dark forest that covered this region, thereby commencing the agricultural development of the area, which was complete by the time of the Civil War. Other farming communities were established during the early years along the Indian trail that became Delaware Road, at "Mohawk" on the famous Military Road built through the town in 1802-1809, and at "North Bush" on a trail that eventually became Englewood Avenue. Most of the farmers who established their homes in the town were conservative, deeply religious people of German descent, largely Protestant, although the North Bush settlement was Roman Catholic.
Good transportation benefited the area's economy early in its history. The Niagara River, the 1825 Erie Canal, and the 1836 Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad, one of the nation's earliest, gave the town a distinct advantage for industrial development over its neighbors. The Erie Canal enabled the East Boston Timber Company to ship the fine white oak they logged on the Grand Island portion of the town to markets on the eastern seaboard. Grand Island became a separate town in 1852. Tonawanda's population center was concentrated at the junction of the three transportation arteries, and in 1854 the Village of Tonawanda was incorporated within the town.
While most of the township had developed a mature agricultural economy by the close of the Civil War, the Village of Tonawanda began to awaken to opportunities in the lumber trade. Eastern lumber buyers, made aware of enormous supplies of high quality white pine in the forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, investigated the possibilities of marketing the lumber via the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. It was easily loaded on lake barges at upper lake ports convenient to the forests, towed four or five barges at a time by a steam tug, then transshipped at Buffalo and the Tonawandas (North Tonawanda was incorporated as a village in 1865) for a trip on a lumber boat east along the Erie Canal.
It was J.S. Noyes who, in 1861, created the first practical lake barge by dismasting an old lake schooner and removing its deck. By the 1870's, hundreds of such barges plied the lakes, hauling millions of board feet of timber every round trip. In addition, there were huge log rafts towed from ports in Canada and Michigan. Some of these rafts consisted of 3,000,000 feet of long timber. They too, were towed by large steam tugs.
Tonawanda unloaded its first cargo of lumber for distribution in 1867. The business increased at a rapid rate until, by 1890, over 700,000,000 feet of sawed lumber was docked. In addition, large quantities of other forest products were docked at the Tonawanda: shingles, laths, fence posts, railroad ties. At one time as many as forty lake vessels wintered in Tonawanda harbor.
In 1867, while the nation celebrated its centennial at Philadelphia and was shocked by the news of Custer's disaster at Little Big Horn, an important industry was established in Tonawanda, the manufacture of shingles. J.S. Bliss and Company became the second largest manufacturer of shingles in the world, turning out as many as 56,000,000 white pine shingles of all shapes and sizes in a single season. Wood lath was also made in great quantities, as many as 17,000,000 pieces per year.
By the turn of the century Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, jointly known as "The Lumber City", was the largest lumber supply center in the world. Though they held that distinction only briefly, they were second only to Chicago for many years.
Due to its extensive manufacturing and commercial development, the people of the Village of Tonawanda wished to secure the advantages of city status under New York State Law. Town and village government was too restricted in that it was designed for governing rural communities. Thus, on March 23, 1903, Tonawanda was incorporated as a city and was separated from the Town of Tonawanda, leaving the township with its present boundaries. The largely rural township was left with a population of less than 2,000 persons.
The years following the Civil War saw Buffalo's rapid growth as an industrial, commercial, and transportation center. The 1890 census showed the city with a population of nearly a quarter million, placing it among the leading cities of the United States. There were many people in the city who missed the "small town" atmosphere of pre-Civil War Buffalo. The nation was rapidly becoming city-oriented and many Americans were already becoming nostalgic for the "good old days" of small towns where it seemed you knew everyone, the pace of life was slower, and politics was an honorable avocation, rather than an opportunity for personal gain.
Clealy, it was time for men of foresight to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them by the times; to provide an outlet for the restless desires of Buffalo citizens, and to turn these desires to profit, both for themselves and for the community as a whole. James Byron Zimmerman, whose family pioneered farming along Delaware Road, was supervisor of the Town of Tonawanda when these knew opportunities arose. He encouraged a young Buffalo realtor, Louis Phillip Adolph Eberhardt, who bought land in the southern part of the township and subdivided it into lots for suburban homes.
L.P.A. Eberhardt recognized that many of Buffalo's restless citizens could be attracted to new housing developments in the Town of Tonawanda if lots were made available, streets developed, and transportation to their city jobs was reasonably convenient. In 1888, he purchased land from the Charles Ackerman farm and began building the first suburban home in Western New York. Within a decade the pioneer suburb he founded would be ready for incorporation as the second village in the township.
Another early pioneer in the new village's development was Myron Phelps who erected the second suburban home in the community which was to become Kenmore. Early residents proposed calling the village "Eberhardt" after its founder, but L.P.A.'s aversion to personal publicity caused him to seek an alternative. While telling people that a village called Eberhardt might be nicknamed "Dutchtown," he looked for a name with enough "class" to suit the image of the community he was helping to develop.
At that time the Erie Railroad had a new station under construction in the northeastern part of Buffalo near Main Street and had chosen the name "Kenmore" for it. The most notable use of the name Kenmore in this country had been the estate of George Washington's sister in Fairfax County, Virginia. The name probably came to this country from the village in Scotland called Kenmore. The name suited L.B.A. Eberhardt and a sign soon appeared at the intersection of Delaware and Kenmore Avenues with "KENMORE" printed on it where all could see it as they crossed the line. Because he both founded and named the village, L.P.A. Eberhardt was affectionately known as the "Daddy of Kenmore" for the remainder of his long life.
The Erie Railroad renamed its station "Kensington."
The southeastern portion of the town, known as the Kenilworth section, was the site of a large racetrack (developed by Buffalo interests) from 1902 until 1908, when changing state laws regarding horse racing caused its closing. The conservative, temperance-oriented residents of Kenmore were not unhappy about its demise. "Palace Park," an amusement resort at Delaware and Knoche Roads, had already met a similar fate in 1901.
Attracted by extensive water frontage, many industries began to locate along the Niagara River around the turn of the century. This Riverside section of the town attracted a considerable number of workers from Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary who provided the work force for the new riverfront industries. The employment opportunities, industrial tax base, and restriction of heavy industry to the western portion of the town encouraged additional suburban growth in Kenmore. By the 1920s the town was a home for electrical power generation, and steel, rubber, chemical, and aircraft plants. Other industries, such as oil refining and auto manufacturing, would follow a decade later.
The decade from 1920 to 1930 was a period of tremendous growth in the Kenmore portion of the town. The village population increased from 3,160 to 16,482 in ten years, and most of the available land in the village was built up. Further growth would have to be outside the village limits. The people who made Kenmore their home were mostly working-class people, both blue collar and white collar, with a substantial number of professional and business men who saw career opportunities in the village. Family-o riented, the new residents continued the traditions of thrift, temperance, and political conservatism which had guided the founders of village.
The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed the pace of industrial and residential development in the town. Sheridan Drive, the much-heralded cross-town highway designed to open up the town to further development, appeared to be an expensive mistake as the area's economy floundered. Though certainly scarred by the decade, village and town residents weathered the ordeal better than most communities. There were no local bank failures, and by 1938 industrial growth was once again on the rise.
A rapid immigration of new people to the town who were employed by the burgeoning war industries necessitated construction of low-cost housing in a community which was very "middle class." Much opposition was raised to the construction of the Sheridan Parkside housing project, with fears expressed that such housing would encourage permanent settlement of people who were "not characteristic" of the majority of town residents.
Two changes of note occurred in the population after the war. An increasing number of people from different ethnic backgrounds began to move into the village, especially from Buffalo's west side. The formerly "WASP" Kenmore took on a more cosmopolitan character as Italians, Poles, and by 1964, African-Americans made their homes in the village. At the same time, especially in the 1950's, there was extensive development of new middle-class housing throughout the town. Within that decade most of the idle farmlands were developed by builders, and hamlets such as Brighton, Ellwood, and Kenilworth became hard to identify as separate communities. The town's population nearly doubled from 55,270 in 1950 to 105,032 in 1960. In order to ensure the quality of life residents of the town had come to expect ,a new water treatment plant, modern sewage and garbage disposal, and a vast storm sewer system were constructed.
One of the greatest challenges to the community was to provide education for a rapidly increasing school-age population. Prior to World War 1, small country schools had provided the predominately rural population with basic education through the eighth grade. Gradually, Kenmore's School District No. 1 absorbed the country school districts until Union Free School District No.1, which covers 80 percent of the town, grew to become the seventh largest school district in the state, with over 22,000 pupils enrolled by the mid-1960s. During the 1970s the district's enrollment declined by over 50 percent as the "Baby Boomers" grew up at the same time the nation's birth rate nose-dived. During the 1990s modest growth has taken place in the school population. Th e northeast portion of the town is served by the Sweet Home School District, which has seen even more spectacular growth as new housing continues to be built in the Amherst portion of the district. Through farsighted educational leadership, both school districts have maintained a reputation for excellent scholarship and fine athletic teams.
The development of recreational facilities paralleled that of education. Perceptive town government provided land for parks, such as Lincoln and Sheridan Parks, as early as the 1920s. Aqua Lane was a cooperative project with the Would University Games of 1993. Today the town recreational department oversees the operation of the four pools, two ice-skating rinks, two gold courses, a driving range, and other recreational facilities throughout the town and village.
Government in the town has traditionally been characterized as forward-thinking, yet fiscally responsible. Town government has been almost exclusively Republican, though Democrats captured control of the village government for a time during the early 1970s. Democrats representing the town and village government have also won most of the seats in the county legislature, the state assembly, and the U.S. House of Representatives in recent years.
Nearly all of the residential land in the town has been built up; the last few years have seen extensive apartment development in the northeast sections of the community, and of senior housing in Kenmore. Business activity remains generally healthy in spite of increased competition from the newer shopping malls outside the town. As older industries close their doors, town government has been successful in attracting new firms to locate here, especially in the developing Fire Tower Road industrial park.
Today the Town of Tonawanda is virtually a city in itself. It offers every municipal service and a broad range of housing, business, and employment opportunities. Its people come from every walk of life, from the low-income through the well-to-do, though they are predominately middle class. All major faiths are represented in the numerous churches and temple throughout the community. Varied ethnic backgrounds provide the town with a cosmopolitan population, though less than 1 percent of the residents are non-white. Probably the greatest challenge facing the town is ensuring the continuation of the high quality of life here in the face of an aging infrastructure and changing social and economical pressures.