Canalside, Buffalo

The second largest city in the State of New York is also home to the only New York football team that has its stadium within the state. Buffalo is referenced in art and literature as the western terminus of the Erie Canal that made New York an economic powerhouse in the 19th century. At the historic end of the canal is a reconstructed inlet of Buffalo Creek that serves as a commercial and entertainment district that celebrates the impact of the canal on the city.

Looking down at Canalside from the ramp of the Buffalo Skyway, we see a dry trench spanned by three replica bowstring bridges and a children’s museum at this T-shaped canal restoration. Behind the highway viaduct this canal flows into Buffalo River which enters Lake Erie. A mile to the north of this confluence, the lake funnels into Niagara River. In the second half of the last century, the decline of industry gave this area a neglected appearance akin to Gowanus in Brooklyn pre-gentrification. In the center of the declining cityscape was the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, a sports arena that was demolished in 2009 in favor this historical-theme district. With the removal of the arena, there is talk of removing the highway to give the area a more pedestrian-friendly look.

Where it Flows

On this undated nautical map of the city’s harbor, we see Buffalo River lined with train tracks and the Skyway near its mouth at Lake Erie. I circled Commercial Slip, a remnant of a larger network of canals that connected to the Erie Canal to the north of the city. Since 1825, the famous canal made it possible to take a boat from Buffalo to the Atlantic Ocean without leaving the state. Commercial Slip appears as an inlet on this map but like many canals it was carved out of a natural stream, Little Buffalo Creek where the history of this city began.

On this planning map from 1804, we see the city’s street grid that resembles Washington with its squares and diagonals. Both were laid out by urban planner Joseph Ellicott. Buffalo River appears as Big Buffalo Creek to distinguish it from its smaller tributary near the city center. Like NYC, this settlement also carried the name New Amsterdam on account of the Holland Land Company that purchased land in western New York.

On this 1880 illustration of Buffalo, I circled Commercial Slip. To its left is Erie Canal and to its right the dead-end Hamburg Canal. On Buffalo River, a spit of land contained grain silos. The urban portion of the Erie Canal became obsoleted in 1918, with the widening of the canal at its new Tonawanda terminal. The urban portion was then gradually filled, along with Hamburg Canal, which were both regarded as nuisances.

Traveling back a bit to 1872, we see a tight neighborhood at Commercial Slip, hemmed in by the slip, Erie Canal, Evans Canal, and Buffalo River. Like the downtown of Manhattan, it had a Maiden Lane, Water Street, Front Street, and Canal Street. For a couple of generations, it was settled by Italian immigrants, who had Canal Street renamed after Dante.

Historic Commercial Slip

The bowstring arch bridges across Commercial Slip resembled the Washington Avenue Bridge in Waterbury that I documented in 2018. At the time, all the big cities in the county’s “marine midland” as the Great Lakes were nicknamed, had networks of canals, docks, and harbors to process the goods. Each of them is worthy of a Hidden Waters chapter. So far, I’ve documented examples in Detroit, Erie, and Chicago.

Where it was possible, the Erie Canal flowed through natural streams to reduce on construction costs. The old children’s song that shouts “from Albany to Buffalo” isn’t entirely accurate as the ditch ended at Pendleton, where Tonawanda Creek carried the boats to Niagara River, and then Buffalo. To improve travel, the canal was extended along the bank of Niagara River and Lake Erie to its terminus at Commercial Slip. The separation of the canal’s water from the fast-flowing Niagara River is today’s Black Rock Canal and Bird Island Pier, a breakwater that extends for two miles between Unity Island and La Salle Park. In this postcard from 1907 we see the urban part of the canal that would later be covered by Interstate 190, train tracks, and buildings.

In this aerial shot from 1924, we see the interior canals empty as railroads took away their business. Buffalo River is on the right handling larger vessels docking at the grain silos. The long-disliked Hamburg Canal became a sewer and Commercial Slip was filled in 1926. Its retaining wall was uncovered in 1999 during a construction project. In the following year, the state decided to revive a portion of the canal with the original retaining wall intact.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, urban renewal plans filled in the canals and condemned the future neighborhood around Commercial Slip. The arena was followed by the highway and public housing, leaving no signs of the old canal terminus or creek where the city began. Between the fork in Buffalo River are a set of grain elevators that once stood on their own islands which were later fused to each other. In this 1945 planning photo, we see the route of the skyway imposed on it and the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium highlighted. To its left is the filled-in Commercial Slip. The auditorium was built in 1940 on the site of Canalside, where the city had its start. The arena hosted concerts, boxing matches, political rallies, hockey, and basketball. Its last game was played in 1996 and it was demolished in 2009. Next to it is the 19,000-seat KeyBank Center that serves as its successor in hosting public events.

In this 1950 aerial shot, the condemned streets are named, along with the canal that would be filled and later re-excavated. The census enumerator’s map from that year still shows the old streets, where I highlighted Commercial Slip that appears as a street.

Restoration of the Canal

The redevelopment plan for the site of the Auditorium envisioned a neighborhood of offices, entertainment, and retail that restored some of the streets that were erased in the 1930s; three historically-inspired pedestrian arch bridges, and a children’s museum. The exteriors of the buildings facing the restored canal also have a historic look. The T-shaped canal restoration is not navigable to the Buffalo River, it is more like a reflecting pool that can be used for rented paddleboats and frozen in winter for ice skating. On Main Street, the Erie Canal Harbor station on the Metro Rail provides a transit connection to the rest of the city.

Tidal Barrier

Underneath the Skyway overpass the restored canal has a barrier with its old name in bold green letters. Serving as a bridge for Marine Drive, it separates the shallow section that can be drained or frozen, from the tidal section that is on the same level as the Buffalo River. Next to the barrier are the preserved ruins of a distillery. The urban planning category for Canalside is that of a “festival marketplace,” where historic details are preserved in retails and office spaces. Other famous examples include South Street Seaport and Chelsea Market in NYC, Faneuil Hall in Boston, and Harborplace in Baltimore.

Beyond Canalside

Beyond Canalside is a peninsula that used to have multiple industries and is being transformed into parkland, starting in 2014 with the Buffalo Harbor State Park. In NYC, there’s a similar urban state park located on a formerly industrial waterfront and in Sydney, which I documented earlier. The presence of a history museum on a hidden waterway where a city was founded is similar to my earlier post on Little Saint Pierre River in Montreal.

As hidden urban waterways are concerned, Buffalo also has Scajaquada Creek whose name appears on a park, which partially flows underground, and is followed by a highway that shares its name. Buffalo River has its own set of tributaries within the city.

Nicknamed the Queen City, Buffalo offers many opportunities for parks and urban planners as it sheds its Rust Belt past in favor of new breweries, tourism, and the arts. When my father studied engineering in college, he read about plans for a subway in Buffalo. The term isn’t entirely accurate. Like Pittsburgh, the city’s transit system is a hybrid of on-street light rail and underground segments. I’m not a train blogger, so I’ll leave the story of Buffalo’s Metro Rail to others.

Learn more:

Concerning local history, if NYC’s best are Forgotten-NY and the Bowery Boys podcast, in Buffalo Steve Cichon’s Buffalo Stories is among my favorites.


3 thoughts on “Canalside, Buffalo

  1. Andrew Porter November 24, 2021 / 4:13 pm

    More fascinating history. The embedded links took me down other interesting pathways. People here in NYC forget that Brooklyn’s Atlantic Basin and the increasingly forgotten and/or demolished structures there are the terminus for the Erie Canal.


    • Sergey Kadinsky November 24, 2021 / 5:32 pm

      Buffalo also has an Erie Basin that was on the canal’s route.


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