The History of Buffalo, NY

Buffalo is, and always has been, a city at a crossroads. Established in 1804 at the juncture of several waterways, the city first emerged due to its a distinct geographical advantage. Once a forested settlement occupied by Native Americans and a few fur traders, the city was laid out by Joseph Ellicott in 1804 in conjunction with the Holland Land Company. The city’s proximity to Canada made it the site of several key battles during the War of 1812, one of which resulted in the burning of the city in 1813. This proximity also made the city an important point on the Underground Railroad, where citizens could hide fugitives and send them to freedom across the Niagara River to Canada. 

Settling an Industrial City, 1825-1896 

Buffalo’s location at the edge of the Great Lakes soon became essential to connecting the East Coast to the Midwest. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 enabled boats to carry shipments all the way from Chicago to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, all passing through Buffalo on the way. Buffalo’s position was vital to these shipping and transportation networks, and industries emerged to take advantage of the products that passed through the city. The grain industry became a key component to the city’s growth at this time, and Buffalo played an important role in the shipping networks that connected the breadbasket of the Midwest to the large cities of the East Coast.

Some histories of Buffalo begin with the grain elevators, and with good reason. The invention of the grain elevator in 1842 enabled new systems of shipping, storing and processing grain that soon enabled the city to provide enough grain to feed 300 million people a loaf of bread every single week of the year. For the next century, Buffalo was one of the foremost grain centers of not only the country, but also the world. Grain products were shipped and received along the city’s many waterways, which were soon connected to an extensive network of rail lines that ran throughout the city, region and to the nation beyond. These railroads, and later streetcar networks, were instrumental in serving not only Buffalo’s industries, but also in delineating a series of neighborhoods throughout the city. 

Thousands of people came to work in Buffalo’s booming industrial and commercial sectors during the nineteenth century. A substantial influx of immigrants from European nations brought many Irish, Germans, Polish and Italians to Buffalo for industrial work. Settling in ethnic enclaves throughout the east, south and west sides of the city, these immigrant neighborhoods brought a rich cultural heritage to the city’s increasingly diverse population. Other neighborhoods emerged along the northern corridor of downtown, where communities such as Allentown and the Elmwood Village attracted middle and upper-middle class streetcar commuters. Delaware Avenue became home to ‘Millionaire’s Row,’ where the city’s wealthiest citizens built their mansions. 

All of these areas of the city were connected by the city’s extensive park system, which was designed by renowned landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux from 1868-1896 to provide universal access to open space and fresh air to citizens of all races and classes. Featuring multiple parkways and parks for public use in many parts of the city, the park system was interlaced with Ellicott’s 1804 plan for the city in organizing the city’s neighborhoods and streets for generations to come. 


The City of Light, 1896-1945 

In the late nineteenth century, the Buffalo-Niagara region attracted worldwide interest when the first long distance transmission of electricity occurred in 1896. Hydroelectric power generated at Niagara Falls traveled over 20 miles to Buffalo on a momentous day in November, as Nikola Tesla’s insistence on alternating current triumphed over Thomas Edison’s direct current system. Used first to power streetcars, streetlights and factories, the transmission of electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo marked a pivotal moment in the history of the nation and the world. 

The Pan-American Exposition celebrated the city’s prowess as an industrial, commercial, and cultural center in 1901. Deeming Buffalo the ‘City of Light,’ the world’s fair attracted 8 million visitors to the 350-acre fairgrounds. Viewers would marvel each night as over 100,00 light bulbs were switched on while a live orchestra played, illuminating the fairgrounds buildings, canals, and fountains in an unprecedented spectacle. At a time when most American cities did not utilize hydroelectricity on such a large scale, this illumination heralded Buffalo as a gateway to the new, modern twentieth century to come. 

The exposition took a dark turn in September 1901, when the U.S. President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz on the fairgrounds. Dr. Roswell Park performed an emergency operation in the Temple of Music, but the surgery was later discovered to have been flawed due to the physician’s inability to see properly inside the building which, ironically, was not lit by electricity. Several days later, President McKinley died at the Delaware Avenue mansion of the fair’s President, John Milburn, from an infection of the wound. The inauguration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt occurred shortly thereafter in Buffalo on Delaware Avenue.

The city continued to thrive in the twentieth century, attracting a number of industries to the region. As new technology and transportation networks evolved, the steel industry and automobile industry eventually surpassed the grain industry in Buffalo. Large corporations such as the Bethlehem Steel Company, Pierce Arrow Company, Larkin Company, and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company made a significant impact on the city, providing thousands of jobs. This economic boom was accompanied by significant investments in the arts. The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Museum was opened in a converted building from the Pan-American Exposition shortly thereafter, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery opened in 1905. The Arts and Crafts Movement bloomed at the Roycroft Campus in East Aurora. Jazz musicians flocked to the city to play at the Colored Musician’s Club. Even during the Great Depression, the city managed to grow due to the presence of a diversity of industries, businesses and cultural institutions in the area. During World War II, many of Buffalo’s manufacturers utilized their production lines to aid the war effort.

Urban Renewal and Resilience, 1945-2017 

Buffalo experienced a population boom in the 1940s and 50s, with the census reporting its largest population to date at 580,132 in 1950. A significant portion of this growth consisted of African Americans who migrated to northern cities from the rural south. This movement brought new opportunities to this populace, enabling them to obtain jobs in northern cities and experience some degree of class mobility in ways they previously could not. However, these opportunities were limited by a substantial amount of racial, economic and political discrimination. This was a time of ‘white flight’ from the city, when those who could afford to commute to the suburbs lived in single-family homes, leaving the inner city to systematically disadvantaged populations such as African Americans and immigrants. Buffalo experienced these new settlement patterns alongside many other cities, which similarly destroyed the once dense urban fabric of downtowns in favor of suburban growth. During the 1950s and 1960s, the installment of the Scajaquada Expressway (NY 198), the destruction of historic buildings for parking lots downtown, and the systematic redlining of black neighborhoods served as urban manifestations of the social consciousness prevalent in many cities at this time. 

Many histories of the city tend to stop around the 1970s, hesitant to illuminate the struggling era of declining industries, unemployment, and economic downturn that occurred in the late twentieth century. The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1960 had long-term effects that worsened during market deregulation in the 1970s and 1980s, as Buffalo’s geographic position was no longer essential to the preferred path of shipments and transportation. As major factories downsized, closed or moved their production offshore at this time, Buffalo’s historic identity as a Rust Belt, industrial city became a burden instead of a blessing. While this was a time of struggle, it was also one of great resilience. Against all odds, Buffalonians cheered for losing sports teams, endured corrupt politicians and found warmth in the Blizzard of ’77. Those that remained in the area embodied a sense of pride and determination that continues to give the city its title as the ‘City of Good Neighbors.’ 

​Today, as in the past, Buffalo continues to adapt to new patterns. While the nation is now situated in a post-industrial economy, new types of medical and technological industries are locating in Buffalo in place of the steel, grain and automobile industry that once dominated the city. The tourist industry, too, has begun to harness the power of the past for a contemporary reinvention of what it means to do business in Buffalo. The adaptive reuse of historic spaces at Canalside, Larkinville, Babeville, Silo City and Hotel Henry has inspired a new image and new era for the city. More so than in previous decades, the city is utilizing this history to propel these places forwards rather than backwards, by incorporating the past into Buffalo’s contemporary Renaissance. 

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The Washburn Crosby elevator complex, now General Mills, in 1926.

In his seminal book on the subject, architectural historian Reyner Banham referred to this particular group of grain elevators as “the most internationally influential structures ever put up in North America, because of their effect on the architectural vocabulary of the generation of the founders of modern architecture.”

This particular image was published by Erich Mendelsohn, an important German architect, in his book Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten. Mendelsohn was not the first European architect to publish influential images of Buffalo’s grain elevators, but he was one of the only ones to visit them in person. During his time in Buffalo he became captivated by the grain elevators, stating: “I took photographs like mad. Everything else so far seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams , Everything else so merely a beginning.”

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The corner of Church Street and Pearl Street in downtown Buffalo, c. 1895. 

The Guaranty Building is under construction in the background, located adjacent to St. Paul’s Church. The church was designed by Richard Upjohn, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects, in 1851. The Guaranty Building, also known as the Prudential Building, was designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler in 1895-1896. The steel-frame of the building, which was one of the first steel framed skyscrapers in the world, is visible during the building’s construction in this image.