A Short History of Buffalo

Excerpts from
"A New Look at an Old Neigborhood:
Historic Homes of Bufalo's Linwood Avenue Preservation District 1820-1982.
" Published by the Linwood-Oxford Association, Buffalo, New York, in 1992
Editor, Susan M. Pollack

In 1664, King Charles II gave the territory, which included Buffalo, to James, Duke of York. At the time, the entire Western New York region was inhabited by thousands of American Indians of the Neuter, Erie, and Seneca nations. Baron La Honton marked the Buffalo site on his 1687 exploration map as "Fort Suppose."

The British gained control of the territory after the French and Indian War of 1763. Thirty years later, a group of Dutch investors known as the Holland Land Company purchased from them three large tracts of land. Today this land is Buffalo and its surrounding suburbs.

New Amsterdam

Two Pennsylvania boys, Joseph and Benjamin Ellicott, were hired to survey and develop the area. Between 1801 and 1804, the Ellicott’s plotted the Village using a grid system of streets modeled after Washington, D.C. In reference to the Dutch Company, the early village was briefly known as "New Amsterdam." But early residents did not approve of the name. They intended to call their new home Buffalo. Although no one seems to know exactly where the name came from, it stuck.

The name may have been adopted from a local Indian word, "Buffaloe." Or perhaps it came from "beau fleuve," French for beautiful river. These are only two of the many popular legends.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, Buffalo was beginning to look like a real village. When Erastus Granger arrived from New England in 1804, the village had several homes, a store and a tavern. Granger settled in a log house on North Main Street and set out to complete the special mission with which he had been charged by President Thomas Jefferson — to establish Buffalo's first Post Office.

In 1806, he settled permanently and built a house on Flint Hill, today a part of Forest Lawn Cemetery. Granger used this house as a business office when portions of Buffalo, including the new Post Office, were destroyed by fire, in 1813. Erastus Granger was more than just Buffalo's first Postmaster. He also served as Indian Agent for six Nations. Later he was appointed a Judge in Genesee County, which stretched from the Genesee River to Lake Erie.

In 1808, the Village of New Amsterdam was officially named Buffalo. During this era there were twenty states in the Union of the United States, and New York state had a population of 589,051. Approximately 25 of these residents lived in the Village of Buffalo, which had sixteen residential buildings and two commercial establishments. By 1810, several additional buildings sprung up in what had become the Town of Buffalo, population 1,508.

Cold Spring District

Many of these buildings, including the first brick structure — the home of William Hodge — at 1358 Main Street, were built in what became known as the Cold Spring District. The name originated from the sparkling natural spring which furnished pure water for inhabitants from miles around the vicinity. Early settler William Hodge (1800-1887) left behind this description of the Cold Springs at the time: It was then as large as a basin, surrounded by bluff banks excepting on the north-east side, where the pure, cool stream flowed forth . . . Originally the banks were somewhat sloping and steps were cut into the steepest part . . . by which to go down to a plank which extended several feet over the bubbling and boiling water. Lying stretched out on [this] plank, face downward, many a one has slaked his thirst in days gone by, and from that plank, many a pail and jug has been filled with the pure, cool beverage.

In 1811, public buildings in the town included an old stone jailhouse on Washington Street, now the City's downtown. A schoolhouse built in 1807 was also downtown, and served as the Towne Hall and the Church for all denominations. There were three taverns, one of which was located in the Cold Spring district. In 1812, this was known as the Cold Spring Tavern. It was kept by Major Frederick Miller who had previously managed the Tavern and ferry at Black Rock.

American Vernacular Homes

Although Ferry Street was then little more than a path through the woods, log and frame houses were constructed on this and nearby thoroughfares. Early settlers had no architects. In the wilderness the first log houses were built with an axe and common sense. As the land was cleared of trees, logs of all sizes were freely accessible. But once sawed timber became available, apparently in 1811, more weather-tight, frame houses were constructed.

These plain, almost style-less houses were called Vernacular. Their mode of construction was centuries old and, of course, European in origin. European vernacular houses were distinct in character and style according to the kind of stone, wood or thatch common to the area.

American vernacular design was due more to purely functional and structural needs, rather than to stylistic aims. The form and shape of a plain vernacular house was determined by the spanning capacity of the beams, and the need to keep out the cold. Narrow clapboards were overlapped snugly to keep out the elements. Window panes were very small, twelve in each sash, with the simplest functional framing. The pitch of the roof was calculated to shed snow.

Interior plans were probably as plain and simple as the exteriors. Rooms, where there were more than one, were small, and were boxed in by heavy framing timbers. Due to the common practice of improving houses by adding onto or remodeling them in later styles, it is not easy to pick out vernacular structures standing today. As existing buildings were acquired by new, and often more prosperous owners, architectural details were added and styles were modernized according to "the times."

. . .

Cold Spring Area

Historian Hill was also an author. He wrote "The Municipality of Buffalo, New York, 1720-1923". In it he attributes many of Buffalo's early structures to a Mr. Benjamin Rathbun. In 1835, Rathbun built 99 buildings at a cost of $500,000. The work meant employment for a large number of men, and some executives "to whom could be entrusted the carrying out of much of the details."But Rathhun apparently entrusted the wrong men -- including his brother and a nephew -- who became involved in a forgery scheme on his behalf. The ensuing scandal landed Rathbun a five year prison sentence.

Many stone barns were also built on the southeast side the Main and Ferry Street spring. So was Buffalo's first brewery. It used pure spring water "as clear as crystal and as cold as ice." Butchers and cattle dealers paid the proprietor, Mr. Rudolph Baer, a certain sum for the purpose of fattening their hogs and cattle on the slops left over from the brewery.

Following the incorporation of the Village, the Cold Spring area grew and a small frame schoolhouse was constructed on Main Street near West Utica, in 1811. Today, this is the site of Buffalo's Police Precinct Number Six. Millard Fillmore, thirteenth President of the United States, began his public career as a teacher at the Cold Spring school. He also was a student with the law firm of Rice & Clary, and the Deputy Postmaster at the time.

An occasional visitor to the school was Red Jacket, famous Chief of the Seneca Indian tribe. He would stop in to chat with students on his way to the Cold Spring Tavern or the nearby hotel and dance hall. Here, young and old would come from miles around to dance old fashioned jigs, quadrilles and polkas. Indians, going to and from the Buffalo Reservation to the Tonawanda Reservation, would first stop here and at the Cold Springs for refreshment.

In the early 1800's, schooling was inexpensive. Parents contributed fuel for heating fires, which the pupils had to keep burning. They also had to sweep and scrub the schoolroom in exchange for lessons. The first Schoolmaster, Professor Sturgeon, was an old Scotsman who believed in the adage that "to spare the rod was to spoil the child." He also believed in not teaching children too much, and offered only one subject—reading. A committee of parents and pupils waited for the professor one morning to suggest that he broaden his curriculum to include spelling. After considerable discussion he agreed but not without remarking that he hoped that the accomplishments of the children in the new subject would not cause them to become ashamed of their parents! In 1821, the old schoolhouse was destroyed by fire and replaced by a plank house. A new school was later built by the city, on Delaware Avenue near Bryant Street.

War of 1812

The growth of the Village ended abruptly with the War of 1812. On December 13, 1813, the British burned Buffalo, forcing most of the villagers to flee to neighboring towns. A relief agency was set up in Canandaigua, New York. But Buffalonians wasted no time in rebuilding a new town based on a street plan by Joseph Ellicott. By 1815, there were more than 100 buildings. Six years later, the State legislature created Erie County, naming Buffalo as the County seat.

Erie Canal

Formal ceremonies marking the opening of the Erie Canal were held on October 25, 1825. The Canal's opening marked the beginning of an important period of industrial expansion. "The swell in transportation and commerce that followed brought numerous travelers to Buffalo, increasing the Village population from 2,000 in 1825, to 10,000 in 1831. A committee of residents, including Attorney Millard Fillmore, drafted a charter recommending that the State incorporate the Village of Buffalo as a city. The charter was approved in 1832, and today, in 1982, Buffalo is celebrating its Sesquicentennial birthday.

One of the first problems facing newly appointed Mayor Ebenezer Johnson was a cholera epidemic that hit the City in 1832. "Despite the epidemic, Buffalo was a 'healthy' young city in the 1830's having a growing population and economy." This growing population demanded additional housing. Rural farmland in the Cold Spring area jumped in value because it was close to the heart of the city, yet far enough away to be seen as a desirable residential neighborhood.

. . .

Poinsett Military Barracks

In the 1830's, the Poinsett Military Barracks sat on the southeast corner of Delaware and North Streets. This was a part of Holland Land Company grants conveyed to Ebenezer Walden in 1809. During the War of 1812, Walden's land was leased and the barracks were erected. A row of Officer-quarters facing the Parade ground was a prominent part of the post. The front portion of the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural site, commonly known as the Wilcox Mansion, was built as a part of this row. It housed the commanding officer and the post surgeon.

When the Poinsett Barracks were abandoned in the late 1840's, the house passed into the hands of Judge Joseph P. Masten. It was remodeled by architect Thomas Tilden. Tilden added the portico to the facade, and built a two story addition across the back of the house. This was a significant piece of rennovation since the profession of architect—a man who was paid to work out the needs of a specific project, provide plans and elevations, and supervise the construction — was not really established in America until later in the nineteenth century.

The first architectural firm (Town & Davis) was established in 1829. Until the later nineteenth century, when schools were established and the field became more professional, training was done by working in the office of an established architect. The latest styles and trends were popularized in books and more specialized manuals, similar to the trade journals of today.

But it is not due to its architects or its status as a part of the Poinsett Barracks alone, that the Mansion was listed as an historic site on the National Register. In 1883, it became the home of Ansley Wilcox. On September 6 1901, President William McKinley was critically wounded while in Buffalo attending the Pan American Exposition. Upon McKinley's death, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States, by Ansley Wilcox, in the library of the Wilcox Mansion.

In the mid 1890's, a Gothic morning room was added to the Wilcox home by architect George Cary. Remodeling transformed this house into a stately mansion, flavored with both the Adamesque and Greek Revival styles.


Jubilee Water Works

The Jubilee Water Works was the first Company to successfully supply water to the Village and later, the City. In 1827, it was incorporated with a capital of $20,000. Peter J. Porter was the President of the Company, and Absalom Bull, its Secretary and Treasurer. The original cost of its spring lot was $200. And the total value of the Company's real estate holdings, about seventeen acres, was placed at $350. It is hard to imagine land on Delaware Avenue near Gates Circle today, at $20 an acre!

Pump logs were laid from the spring to Black Rock, and later, along Main Street to the Canal basin. Each log was about nine feet long, and was hauled from nearby farms by teams of oxen. Farmers were paid two cents for every foot of timber delivered. Laborers, who placed the logs below the surface, were paid one dollar for a twelve hour work day.

Water was supplied to the families of Black Rock at the rate of seven dollars annually. Stores and offices were charged five dollars. Some of the prominent early Buffalonians who were supplied by the Jubilee Water Works company included Samuel Wilkeson, builder of the Buffalo's harbor—and Bela Coe, owner of the Buffalo and Albany Stage Coach Lines; Sheldon Thompson, first elected Mayor of the City; Reverend Glezen Fillmore, the first Methodist Preacher, and Rathbun, "whose lively career in Buffalo is a well-known story."

Another water supply supplemented the Cold Springs and the Jubilee Logs in the 1840's and 1850's. It was furnished by Water John Kutcherson. "John's familiar one-horse shay carried a hogshead, and his source of supply was the same from which Buffalo today, gets its millions of gallons per diem, Lake Erie.''

Sentiment did not deter city officials from covering the springs when road paving was planned. The Cold Springs were thought destroyed in 1890, during construction of the Bird Avenue sewer. But recent excavations for the rapid transit system have revealed that a large quantity of cool, clear water is still running beneath the surface of Main and Ferry Streets. And the mouth of the Jubilee Springs is still visible in Forest Lawn Cemetery, marked with a plaque near the Main Street entrance.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Buffalonians were still drinking water from a branch of the original Jubilee Springs, which emptied into Jubilee Lake in Forest Lawn Cemetery. An electric pump with a capacity of 1,000 gallons per hour was located in Charles Gohn's basement, at the southeast corner of Delaware and West Delavan Avenues. An early owner of the property had packed the pump, which was outside on the corner until 1922, with wheat-straw each winter. The nickname stuck, and Gohn's Corner was known by early pioneers as "Old Straw Pump.''

The City Directory for 1932 also showed that a Cold Spring Water Company operated from 1510 Michigan Avenue, just east of Main and midway between Woodlawn and East Ferry Streets. Addison H. and Sherman T. Pilkey, listed as the Company owners, resided at the Michigan Avenue address, until 1968.

. . .

1850s and the 1860s

The 1850s and the 1860s marked a flourishing period in Buffalo's development as a city. The city limits were expanded from four and one-half square miles in 1832, to forty-two square miles in 1854. Many new streets were created and named, in custom, for prominent residents of the area. In 1854, Laurel Street was surveyed and renamed Barker Street, for Judge Zenas Barker. Barker had come to Buffalo in 1807, and was one of five members of the first Buffalo Village Board of Trustees.

Nearby Bryant Street was also opened, in 1854. It was named for Abuer Bryant, one of the City's original nursery men. Bryant's home and nursery were located on Main near Bryant Street, in the 1830's. He along with friend and neighbor William Hodge, are credited for planting most of the Elm trees which stood along Delaware and most other residential streets in the area.

The only public transit in the 1850's was an omnibus line. This ran the length of Main Street from the Central Wharf to the Cold Spring District. Streetcars drawn by horses were first used, and passengers notified of their approach by a blowing horn—similar to the custom of today.

. . .


In 1828, Jacob Miller also created the city's first livery, pre-dating public transportation which arrived in Buffalo in 1834. "A horse-drawn car that seated twenty passengers traveled the route from Pearl Street and the Terrace out Niagara Street to Ferry, and made connections with a horse ferry that took passengers across the Niagara River to the Canadian shore."

In 1863, there were "eleven miles of double-track street railways, with sixty elegant horse-drawn cars serving Buffalo and the suburbs."

By the 1880's, horse-drawn cars were being replaced first by cars powered with storage batteries, and later, by using overhead trolley wires.

Upon the death of Jacob Miller, the line was managed by his son Charles. Charles Miller added a profitable sideline in 1872: a Coach and baggage express between railway depots and hotels. Linwood Avenue, named when it was surveyed and opened in the 1850's, had been known originally as Miller Street, for this early family of transportation.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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