|The Erie Canal made Buffalo one of the most strategic locations in the world for commerce. It was the end of a trans-state shipping canal that was an engineering marvel and little short of a wonder of the 19th century world, and the point at which the canal boats could load or unload cargo from the growing fleet of ships on the Great Lakes.
The District began to take shape during these early years, as development consumed the Flats. Its northwestern boundary was Erie Street, at the foot of which old "Walter John" Keucherer in earlier years had filled his water wagon before making the rounds of the village. On the south and west, the North Pier and wharves lined the Buffalo Creek; Main Street formed the eastern boundary, and the Terrace curved along the northern edge from Main to Erie.
The canal cut through the district at the foot of the Terrace slope, and what once had been the Little Buffalo Creek was deepened and straightened into the Commercial Slip, between the canal and Buffalo Creek. In the early years Prime Slip -- later filled in -- entered the creek just upstream from Commercial. Slip. The Evans Ship Canal and basin soon would cut a waterway through the western point of the District.
The main thoroughfares within the District were from the Central Wharf, connecting to Main via the short Dayton Street. After it crossed the Commercial Slip, it became Water Street and crossed the Evans Slip before reaching Erie. Front Street edged the creek bank itself, parallel to Water and connected to it by Commercial and a few feet of roadway known as Dock Street. East of the Commercial Slip, as the middle of the century neared, Lloyd Street and Hanover Street ran between the waterfront or Prime Street and the canal. West of the slip, the streets paralleling Commercial between Canal and Water included, in order, the newest incarnation of Maiden Lane; State Street; an initially unnamed lane that would later be known as Davenport Alley; LeCouteulx Street (later known as Boiler Street) and Evans Street. Fly Street ran from Evans to Maiden Lane, an intermediate street between Canal and Water; Peacock Street, a block south of Canal, ran between Erie and Evans.
Norton Street provided a diagonal connection parallel to the Evans Slip, running from Erie to Water, while tiny Joy Street led from Water to the North Pier. Lock Street provided a short link from Erie to the Terrace a block north of the canal. The last few hundred feet of Pearl and West Seneca Streets barely pierced the District.
It was a warren, a wooden jungle of buildings slapped together to serve a bewildering array of needs that arose more quickly than Buffalonians could have imagined when the first soil was turned for the Grand Canal. The boom faltered after the national financial Panic of 1836 and the discovery that Benjamin Rathbun, a major Buffalo developer, held $1,000,000 in forged notes. But it regained steam in the mid-1840's. Spaulding's Exchange, a four story hive of shops, banks, law and business offices, was built in 1845 on "Daly's Corner" during this second wave of prosperity, by one of early Buffalo's most prominent leaders -- Elbridge G. Spaulding, whose family had come over on a boat before the Mayflower and had contributed seven militiamen to the fight at Bunker Hill.
The canal opened the Lakes to the Atlantic seaboard. It made New York City, until then overshadowed in prominence by Boston and Philadelphia, into a giant among cities. Supplies and immigrants flowed westward into the vast reaches of America's heartland, and the fruits of that heartland soon were flowing back eastward in a profitable trade with the coast and the world.
Fortunes were made in Buffalo, where the lake met the canal, and the city boomed. Population went from 6,321 in 1830 to 15,573 just five years later, and that was the start of a climb that made Buffalo one of America's major cities in the 19th century.
In a tiny wedge of land on Buffalo's Flats, where the canal was physically linked to the lakes by a handful of slips and smaller canals, the impact was extreme. What had been an undesirable, marshy land quickly became prime commercial property. And, while the fortunes went uptown, the District became the inevitable center for the legitimate and illegitimate businesses that served the rough "canawlers" and sailors who did the bull work of commerce.
Waterfront industries mingled with beer halls and brothels, as the District began to meet the mixed demands of its geographic role. Stables were built to shelter the horses and mules that pulled the canal boats; chandlers and provisioners supplied the boats and their crews. Boat yards, grain elevators and wharves ringed the District, as new streets -- redolent with the aromas of slops and horse droppings -- soon were lined with shops and tenements for the workers.
The homes were one thing, but the houses were quite another. Caught between the end of the line for the canawlers and a destination port for the lakers, the District soon boasted the inevitable houses of ill repute. The brothels and saloons both designed to part the sailor from his money, and as the commerce escalated so did the vice. For the most part, the women worked in rooms above or behind the street-level barrooms and dance halls; the "concert halls" offered some rough and ready forms of entertainment, in addition to a chance to consume rot gut alcohol.
To make matters even worse, when the canawlers and lakers weren't looking for whiskey or women they were out looking for each other. There was a fierce rivalry between the groups, settled often with fists and the slim, concealed knives known as Spanish shivs. On the whole, life in the District was cheap. But in the beginning, Buffalo still was very much a frontier town, in a country that had just emerged from its second was of independence, the War of 1812. In the emerging sense of national identity, the swaggering image of an independent frontiersman was paramount. Andrew Jackson was in the White House from 1829 to 1837, and Jacksonian democracy reinforced the idea of personal independence.
In short, Buffalo tended to look the other way. Polite society, above the Terrace, tended to simply ignore the District as much as possible, until conditions got bad enough to intrude into better neighborhoods. The newspapers, too, cast only an occasional eye on the dark side of the waterfront boom that was fueling an almost runaway economy. It started innocently enough.
The whole lakefront curve of the Flats, in the 1820's, was underdeveloped from Wilkeson's North Pier as far as Sandy Town, on the way to Black Rock. "On and off this pier and along the sand beach to the north of it, where is the Erie Basin, was the great bathing and swimming place for men and boys," recalled Samuel M. Welch, a prominent Buffalonian whose boyhood spanned the 1820's and 1830's. "On a Sunday morning from May until October this place was alive with hundreds of nude humanity, where you could see others as they saw you."
Considering the center of vice the District was to become, this nude swimming seems benign enough. Still, there were complaints, even in frontier America. With few tall structures, yet, the neighborhoods atop the Terrace and the long slope back toward the ridge at what is now High Street, commanded a view of the lake, the waterfront -- and the bathers. After the opening of the Erie Canal in the middle of the 1820's, the Flats were increasingly busy with the immigrant trade. Buildings there were proliferating, and the pastoral quality of the scene of nude bathing was increasingly only a memory.
A total of 61,485 passengers passed through Buffalo Harbor in 1833, almost all of them (42,956) boarded lake vessels heading west from this port. Most of the immigrants, though, came by way of the new Erie Canal, with all their worldly possessions in smaller trunks and crates. Many went directly from the canal boats to the steamboats, encouraged by "runners" who dropped from bridges or paced the docks ready to extol the virtues of a vessel, captain or line for the next leg of the journey.
With 3,000 canal boats in service by the mid 1830's and almost hourly departures from Albany, though, others were forced to stay a night or two in Buffalo to await the departure of a steamboat with space aboard for their families. A number of hotels soon were ready to oblige. "There are a great number of hotels and taverns in this city, which the great influx of travelers render necessary," crowed the Buffalo City Directory of 1835. "The most of the houses are kept and furnished in a style equal to any other kind in the known world."
The hotels also employed runners to snag customers, and the steamship lines employed agents at all the major hotels. Miles Jones' Steam-Boat Hotel offered beds to "15 or 20" boarders at Lloyd and Prince (later Prime) Streets, near the boat docks, with promises that all would be "politely received, and reasonably charged"; the City Hotel was on Commercial Street, and the "Farmer's Home," with its motto of "Live and Let Live," was at 10 Commercial.
Into the maelstrom of canal boats, steamships, sailing vessels, dock workers, sailors and immigrants speaking a Babel of languages lumbered the city's first railroad, adding to the bustle in what was, at first, a tiny way. It was a "strap" railroad, powered not by locomotives but by horses, and it followed the old road up toward Black Rock. In years to come it would be followed by engines belching enough steam to rival the steamboats, by multiple lines and switching yards, and by coal trestles that would loom over the District.
(For more on Buffalo's first railroad system and the history of Buffalo's railroad industry, please visit the
Spaulding's Exchange, located at the corner of Main
and Commercial Street, in 1845.
Spaulding was an associate of Millard Fillmore, a Buffalonian who became president, but his own career was hardly less illustrious. While Spaulding's banking and business interests in the District and elsewhere were the foundation for his fortune, his public service included stints as mayor of Buffalo and several terms in Congress. As a congressman during the Civil War, he helped secure financing for the Union effort and introduced paper currency notes, earning him the lasting title of "Father of the Greenback." His Exchange Building in the District was rebuilt in 1852 and stood for 94 years as a local landmark, before the city decided to build Memorial Auditorium on the site.
Nearby on the Terrace were two venerable water pumps, for community well water, and next to the Exchange stood the city "Liberty Pole" where Fourth of July and other patriotic festivities were held.
Spaulding's Exchange in 1853 showing the "Liberty Pole" in the
center of the photograph.
The development continued at a furious pace until about 1850, when the railroads began to erode the canal and lake passenger trade. For all the proper prosperity, though, there was a dark side to the river of humanity that poured through Buffalo; land sharks awaited, to prey on the unwary. And it was not only the immigrant from Scandinavia, Germany or Switzerland who suffered. "During this era of flush steam-boating there was a world of emigration to the West -- to Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois, mostly from the farming communities of the Eastern States and the State of New York," one early historian noted.
"The wharves at Buffalo, from the opening to the close of navigation, were crowded with these people, packing their household goods, farm implements, farm animals and themselves on board steamboats, bound for new homes in the productive West. Such congregations of people caused Buffalo to be the Mecca for hordes of snide operators, fakirs, nostrum vendors, the pestiferous watch-stuffer, and other birds of prey, who flocked there to impose on the simplicity of the credulous emigrants. Notwithstanding that steamboat officers and others were diligent in warning unsuspecting strangers to beware of these inhuman sharks, they found victims in abundance."
Behind the frantic building of commercial empires on Buffalo's waterfront, there was an undercurrent of violence and human misery. Like the filth slopped daily into the streets and canals of the District, crime provided a counterpoint to the commercial boom along Buffalo's early waterfront. For every fortune in the making, there were scores of violent, poverty-ridden lives in the neighborhoods behind the docks. The short walk from the "Grand Canal" to the crowded riverine harbor was a walk through tragedy and crime, as the spaces between maritime businesses were filled rapidly with buildings housing the dregs of frontier society.
If the merchants and the shippers could make money off the lake and canal trade, then the captains and ship owners could make money off them. If the captains had money, then so did the sailors and canawlers who worked the vessels; and if the sailors and canawlers had money when they reached port, well.....
Saloons and Concert Halls were prevalent in the
The Canal District, from the very start, was equal to the trade. Barrooms and bordellos filled the new buildings, aging them rapidly as the illicit commerce of a waterfront district crammed every nook and cranny with vice. From its inception as "The Triangle," the District grew nicknames, too. To some, it remained simply the Flats; to others, it was The Hooks or Five Points, or the Canal Street Badlands, the Canal District or just plain Canal Street.
But the name most frequently used in Buffalo, to describe this open sore on a frontier city trying to preserve an image of morality, was simply "The Infected District." It was infected, as the charitable American Bethel Society reported in the 1830's, with "dens of pollution which have been aptly described as the very 'nostrils of hell.'"
The contents of this page were reprinted from the book "America's Crossroads" by Mike Vogel, Edward Patton and Paul Redding and is done with the permission of the Western New York Heritage Institute. At this time, the book is currently out of print.Top of the Page.