Gill Creek, Niagara Falls, NY

The public works portfolio of Robert Moses is associated mostly with New York City and its suburbs. But on the map there are a couple of places on the state’s map where his name appears: a State Park in the Thousand Islands, and until 2019, a parkway along the Niagara River. His name was removed because the present generation no longer regards his heavy-handed tactics as positive. In the Niagara region, Moses designed a hydroelectric plant and reservoir that took land away from the Native Tuscarora Nation. The project resulted in the loss of land and the rerouting of two creeks within the reservation: Fish Creek and Gill Creek.

The Native people lost 550 acres to the reservoir, which does not have a name on most maps. Moses proposed it as the Tuscarora Reservoir in his plans, but the Natives likely were offended to have the land taken, flooded, and then named after them. Gill Creek was reduced to a ditch that flows around the perimeter of the reservoir on its way to the Niagara River. Naming the reservoir after Robert Moses also would have caused offense to the Natives. Some maps call it the Lewiston Reservoir after the town in which it is located.

History of the Creek

The oldest map of Gill Creek places it in context of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane during the War of 1812, when the Niagara River was a front line between the British forces in Canada and the Americans. Eight years earlier, the Tuscarora people acquired land at the source of Gill Creek for a reservation with perpetual rights to it. Fish Creek appears on this map as “Fishing Place.” Unlike previous wars where many local Native nations sided with the British, the Tuscarora defended upstate New York from a British invasion. In the coming century, the Niagara Falls became a popular tourist attraction that brought railroads and urbanization to this region, but the reservation remained untouched until Robert Moses arrived with his hydroelectric proposal.

On this 1890 map of the reservation, Gill Creek is seen on the southwest corner of the land. The cliff on its north side is the Niagara Escarpment, a ridge that runs between Wisconsin and Rochester. The reservation was composed of farms and common areas.

Moses Takes the Land

In his public documents, Moses argued that any land taken for a public project, Native or white, is compensated as prescribed by the Constitution, with court approval. The loss of land was an appropriation, not confiscation. But then this same report noted that there aren’t so many Tuscaroras living on the reservation and only four families were still engaged in farming. “While the Indians do not need so much land as they once did, the 1,383 acres appropriated from them are absolutely essential to the Niagara project.”

After faulting the Tuscarora for abandoning farming in favor of factory and commercial jobs outside the reservation, Moses then notes that their reservation is not covered by any treaty because this land wasn’t historically Tuscarora. Although they are an Iroquoian people, related to the Five Nations of upstate New York, the Tuscarora homeland was historically in North Carolina. Following their defeat in the Tuscarora War of 1711-15, they migrated to Pennsylvania and New York, joining their ethnolinguistic relatives. In 1804, they bought land for their reservation from a local real estate developer.

Moses also wrote a harshly-worded letter to the Tuscarora promising compensation and a community center on the remainder of their land. The letter argued that their land was “uncultivated and unused,” as if this justifies having it appropriated for the reservoir. The Natives countered that it wasn’t anyone’s business whether the reservation is used for farming, or left to nature.

In this AP photo from 1958, we see three Tuscarora men installing a sign barring engineers, surveyors, and contractors from their land. The dispute was resolved in the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Moses, with a single dissenting judge favoring the Natives. To them, the loss in court was the latest example of a treaty violated by the government.

Moses’ proposed map envisioned a 1380-acre reservoir that would have taken nearly half of the reservation away. In the end, 550 acres were lost, preserving most of the reservation, but also compromising the courses of Gill Creek and Fish Creek.

Present Conditions

The border between the reservation and the reservoir appears on Garlow Road, where Gill Creek appears as a ditch between the road and the reservoir embankment. At the time of its completion in 1961, the Niagara Power Plant was the world’s largest hydroelectric facility. The reservoir dam built on the side of Niagara Gorge at Lewiston rivals the height of Niagara Falls, an example of Moses’ oversized public works. On the Canadian side of the gorge is a nearly identical dam and reservoir.

As this reservoir is not used for drinking water, it does not need a strict amount of security, and its perimeter can be developed as a trail for bikes and pedestrians. This overlook is at the end of Old Military Road, which dead-ends at the reservoir. This spot also offers views of Reservoir State Park. Whenever Robert Moses built highways, he used extra spaces on their edges for parkland, and that’s how this park was developed in tandem with the reservoir.

The park is designed for active sports: basketball, tennis, baseball, cricket, soccer, and ice hockey. Gill Creek flows beneath the park’s southeast corner, where there is room to have it daylighted. Most of New York’s state parks have streams running through them and it seems unusual that at this one, the stream is hidden beneath the surface.

The creek reemerges on the south side of the state park at Witmer Road. From there, it flows south in a thickly wooded ravine that is interrupted by Interstate 190 and the Niagara Falls rail yard. It then widens and meanders as a water feature at the Hyde Park golf course.

On the south side of Hyde Park, the stream flows under Pine Avenue and then parallels Hyde Park Boulevard for nearly a mile.

The Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper organization produced a map of Gill Creek downstream from Hyde Park showing its riparian restoration and tree planting sites. The project seeks to protect water quality, create a wildlife corridor, reduce erosion, capture nutrients and pollutants, and support plant and animal diversity.

At Buffalo Avenue the creek enters the property of Olin Chlor Alkali, a chemical manufacturer. This factory has been standing next to Gill Creek for more than a century

At Gill Creek’s confluence with the Niagara River is the Niagara Scenic Parkway, which opened in 1964. Constructed by Robert Moses, it resembles his parkways in New York City and Long Island with wide green shoulders and medians. It is paralleled by a bikeway for most of its route. Like his urban highways, this parkway separated neighborhoods from the waterfront, prioritizing cars over pedestrians and bikes.

Between 2013 and 2020, sections of the parkway near Niagara Falls were downgraded to streets, transformed into a one-way route, or removed entirely. Also, in 2016 the Robert Moses State Parkway was renamed as the Niagara Scenic Parkway. Its destination is a famous river that connects two of the Great Lakes with an international pair of waterfalls. But its tributaries are not as well-known. That’s why Gill Creek merits an essay here.

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4 thoughts on “Gill Creek, Niagara Falls, NY

  1. CS Hunters October 6, 2022 / 1:14 pm

    Nice article. I’m not going to quibble with some of it, as a whole it’s well done. Maps prior to 1800 have the creek drawn on them but not named. There was/is a creek that was covered that ran into Gill Creek just north of Buffalo Ave. that was covered. Together they flooded the shoreline area around its mouth – with help from the Niagara River.

    Finding the origin of the name would be helpful. It served as a boundary for John Stedman’s claim to the ownership of the land due to it being “given” to him by surviving the Devil’s Hole Massacre. Only one of two people who did and over 80 perished. Stedman and his brother Philip (Sr.) were portage masters contracted by the British to run a livery service from the Lower to Upper Portage Landing to get around Niagara Falls.

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  2. Neal Klettke October 8, 2022 / 12:08 am

    The pronunciation of the creek’s name is usually misconstrued as the breathing apparatus of a fish. Old timers in the area (like me) will use the soft G version were taught: “jill” Creek.

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    • Managing Editor October 15, 2022 / 3:04 pm

      I often heard “Gill” for this creek as referring to a unit of liquid measure. From: The Oxford English Dictionary defines a gill as “a measure of liquids containing one fourth of a standard pint.” Thus, at one-fourth of a pint, a gill equates to four ounces.

      It could reference allotments of ale/brandy or the like by the British military to soldiers.

      It could be used in that context in its flow compared to the Niagara River.

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  3. William T Lewis October 13, 2022 / 4:30 am

    I grew up in the Town of Niagara and use to play in Gill Creek as it was down the road from our house that was a long the 190 and a short distance from the park in the article. Infact my parents are lade rest at the bottom of the reservoir in the bug cemetery there next to the snow sledding hill. Growing up there and going to Niagara Wheatfield school I had no idea about any of this. Great article about something that I know very well and have fished in sailed makeshift rafts down. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. My entire family still lives in that area and will send this off to them.

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