Geography was kind to Buffalo, even though the early 19th century residents didn't realize this at first. In fact, Buffalo's ability to recover from its destruction seemed rather discouraging.
Dr. David Gerber, professor of history at the University of Buffalo and the author of "The Making of an American Pluralism: Buffalo, New York, 1828-1860" explains the difficulty Buffalo had in rebuilding its community. "Prior to the building of the Erie Canal, Buffalo was a very isolated place. The frontier was actually 200 miles to the east in the Utica area. Settlers had just started to come to Western New York and increase the area's population, but Buffalo still remained underdeveloped economically. The area suffered from the fact that it lacked the basis for industry as it was understood at that time"
"In particular, Buffalo was on a flat lake plain and it didn't have any immediate water power around it that could have been used to turn wheels and create motive power for the kinds of mills that existed in places like New England. There were plenty of reserves of lumber around for fire and creating steam, but after the area began to be settled, the line of settlement extended further into the forests. This in turn caused the forests to come down very quickly and the wood supply declined."
"Buffalo had very limited potential for industry up to that point and no one regarded the village as having the prospects for any industries similar to those cities much further to the east."
Buffalo is located along the two great lakes of Erie and Ontario. This, coupled with the fact that it is also located at the mouths of the Buffalo and Niagara rivers, one could see how advantageous it was for the future city to be situated at the eastern end of the lakes and the western boundary of the state. It wasn't long before Buffalo found itself in the middle of a huge transportation chain. It became common practice for goods shipped by water to be unloaded and transferred in Buffalo for land conveyance. Suddenly, the success of Buffalo's future seemed almost guaranteed. Transportation seemed to be the light at the end of the dark tunnel because by the end of the 19th century, over half of the United States' population, and two-thirds of Canada's, would be within a nights ride of Buffalo.
The fuse that would ultimately ignite Buffalo's boom was the great ditch being dug from Albany that would eventually use Buffalo as its western terminus -- the Erie Canal.
Rev. Edward Dunn, professor of history at Canisius College explains the importance of water born commerce to Buffalo. "Buffalo Harbor was the lower region of the Buffalo River and this made the harbor the nucleus of Buffalo. When the canal came in, this would be where the canal terminated. When the canal was completed in 1825, it really and truly made Buffalo the "Queen City of the Lakes". The point was that this was where they would bring cargo to. In medieval times, and slightly beyond, cities grew up where goods were transported from and the key men in those cities were not the industrialists because there wasn't any industry in those days. The key men were the merchants who agreed to buy, sell, and forward cargo. "
"At Buffalo, the harbor was the heart of the operation. This was where the grain elevators would be built. This was also where you're going to see the railroads crop up when they in turn start to come through."
Dr. David Gerber continues, "The Erie Canal transformed Buffalo very dramatically. It hooked Buffalo into the economies of the areas further to the east, but it also opened up the areas much further to the west. The canal put Buffalo in the center of the trade between the emerging agricultural areas of Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan, but it also introduced Buffalo to the highly populated areas of the country; eastern New York State, downstate New York, and New England."
Construction of the Erie Canal began in July of 1817. Instrumental to this tremendous task was Dewitt Clinton, who was governor of New York State from 1817 to 1822. Clinton's lobbying to the state legislature was so successful that during construction, the canal was fondly referred to as "Clinton's Ditch". This ditch, when completed, would be 363 miles long, four feet wide, and forty feet deep. A total of 83 locks were constructed along its route to lift canal boats 600 feet as they journeyed from Albany to Buffalo
In his book "The Story of Buffalo", author Jack Foran says that "the Erie Canal made Buffalo one of the busiest ports in the world. In those days, shipping by water was not only the most practical way to move freight, but it was the easiest and cheapest mode of passenger travel as well."
The Erie Canal was truly an incredible achievement in bolstering the earliest growth of industry in Buffalo. Additionally, it helped accomplish Buffalo's cultural diversity. As the canal was being dug, scores of men migrated from the east looking for work on the construction crews. While many of these men were farmers who gave up the plow hoping to make a more steady income, the majority of the work force were Irish immigrants who came west looking for a better and more prosperous way of life.
As the canal neared completion, many of these Irishmen settled in Buffalo with their families. But the opportunities that the canal offered meant much more to other ethnic groups arriving from the east. Buffalo became a beacon, calling to the millions of immigrants who desired to make their fortunes in America - notably Germans, British, Poles, and Italians. For the first five to ten years of the canal's operation, both it and the lake trade found themselves not only in the business of moving goods, but moving a multitude of people west.
These are the people who would become the first occupants of villages in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. These same people would make their livelihood farming the vast expanse of the west then in turn use the canal once again to ship the fruits of their labor back east to sell. Once the west had been developed, and goods began to arrive in Buffalo with more regularity, the city's population would expand because of the need to develop and cater to all the goods and services pertaining to the lake and canal trade.
However, not every person arriving in Buffalo via the canal migrated west. Thousands settled right in the heart of the city. The population did expand. The society was changing. Very soon, Buffalo's success attracted the attention of another form of mass transportation that desired the city as its western terminus. The Erie Canal's monopoly was soon challenged.