Thursday, October 12, 2023

Buffalo Canals

Blog 48

This historic map of the Buffalo harbour shows where the Erie Canal once flowed.

For several years, teams of UB archaeologists from the Buffalo Archaeological Survey have conducted digs in downtown Buffalo along what was the Erie Canal. The artifacts they’ve found, when considered together, help describe how Buffalonians lived and worked from the early 1800s onward.

They’re conducting a “public outreach dig” under the Skyway and invite you to come down on Aug. 18 and 22, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., to visit the dig site, observe its operation and speak with the archaeologists and historians working there.

The site is bounded by Main Street and Hanover Street, east of the Skyway Pier. Hanover Street runs between Marine Drive and Prime Street.

The project manager, historian Nathan Montague, is a research support technician in the UB Department of Anthropology, which houses the survey. He is directing the dig as part of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s Canalside Visitor Experience program.

Its mission is not only to excavate the area, but to educate the public about the canal and canal life, generate interest in the canal excavation and restoration work, and help people understand the work of archaeologists in general.

“We’re in the early stages of excavating this dig site,” he says, “ but previous digs we’ve conducted nearby have uncovered pipe stems and other personal items, dinner plates, commercial objects, a lot of brick and mortar, coal dust and ash, and something that could be a cannonball or part of a ship’s ballast. We will probably find similar items and even may find a few surprises.”

During much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Buffalo was a major international industrial and grain transport city, largely because of its waterfront and the Erie Canal, which cut a swath through what are now downtown streets.

“The canal was right downtown, so there was a great deal of commercial activity along this stretch of the waterfront for the better part of two centuries,” Montague says.

The canal’s main body, plus its many slips and adjuncts, covered a lot of territory. It ran southwest parallel to the harbor and ended at the Commercial (Street) Slip, where it met Lake Erie and the Buffalo River. Most of the harbor section of the canal was filled in by the 1920s, which is why we don’t “remember” where it was.

“So this spot now looks like an abandoned field,” Montague says, “but four- and five-story brick buildings once covered the entire block of land on which we are digging.

“The lower floors of those buildings typically housed businesses like warehouses, wholesale groceries, taverns, insurance companies and hardware stores, while upper floors were used for lodging or storage. Most of the buildings likely were erected in the 1830s and the last ones weren’t torn down until the early 1970s,” he explains.

“Artifacts from the site will tell us the stories of the people who lived and worked here when the Canalside neighborhood was the center of Buffalo’s—and the nation’s—economy,” he says.

He says the dig offers the public has a unique opportunity to get a sense of the layout of this area and how it has changed dramatically over the past century, and to see how urban archaeology is conducted and what it has to teach us.

The Archaeological Survey is a not-for-profit research, contracting and applied archaeology institution within the UB Department of Anthropology. It has been engaged in cultural resource management projects for more than 30 years. The institution manages artifact collections and information about historic and prehistoric archaeological sites and buildings in Western New York.

The 1920's were a static period for the inner harbor, in between two periods of change. By this time, the "old" Erie Canal  was no longer in use, having been supplanted in 1918 by the Barge Canal. The waterfront was nearly completely built up by the D. L. & W Railroad, which replaced the old mercantile Central and Long Wharf areas. The D. L. & W. had opened its new passenger terminal.

Coming in the 1930's was the construction of the Memorial Auditorium. The old Erie Canal bed and Commercial Slip would be filled in. And the "canal district," the impoverished immigrant neighbourhood by the harbour with so much colourful history will begin to be demolished completely.

In 1959, the Buffalo plant of General Mills used all the wheat grown on 1.25 million acres of land, or 90,000 bushels per day. In 1961, a new mill was constructed, not for expansion, but to create efficiencies. The new milling method reduced the number of workers required for operation. In addition to its standard flour and cereal products, the Buffalo plant began to produce Wondra, a new flour. But the company had diversified and was deep in debt, so in 1964, significant cuts were made to the Buffalo operations. A milling unit was shut, reducing the capacity by 62%. Three hundred of 1,300 employees lost their jobs. Also in 1964, the iconic Dakota elevator was closed, reducing the company's storage capacity by one million bushels, negatively affecting flour milling. Despite this, Buffalo's plant was General Mill's largest.  

This is an ink, wash and charcoal map of a section of the Erie Canal in Buffalo. It shows part of Lake Erie, Buffalo Harbor, Ship Canal, a canal basin, Thompson’s Cut, a guard lock and seven bridges. The red lines indicate courses and distances. The blue lines indicate canal right-of-way. The map also shows seventeen streets in the city of Buffalo.

Date Original

So in 1830 they started building the canals ans in 1834 there were ready?  


  • How many canals have been built lately with our advanced technology that people can use?
  • What other events happen in those years? 
  • How many people were at that time employed in building these canals?




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