Larkin Company - Table of Contents
Early History of Buffalo (ca. 1790s – 1853)
Excerpted from the
Elmwood Historic District (West)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination, Section 8, pp. 4-8
By Jennifer Walkowski
|The era of widespread land sales and the process of land subdivision in the Buffalo area began in July of 1797, when surveyor Joseph Ellicott was contracted by Theophilus Cazenove, agent for the Holland Land Company, to serve as chief surveyor of the Holland Purchase. Ellicott had previously assisted his brother Andrew in surveying and platting the city of Washington, D.C. in 1791–92.
During this time, the Mile Strip Reservation along the Niagara River was also surveyed by Ellicott at the expense of the Holland Land Company and its boundaries established and clarified.4 Along with the assistance of brother Benjamin, Joseph Ellicott completed the survey of the Holland Purchase by 1800.5 Ellicott secured the ideal site for the new settlement on the Buffalo Creek and took the first steps toward creating the civil vision and commercial wealth that would lead to the Elmwood Historic District less than a century later. 6
Envisioning a community he called "New Amsterdam,” Ellicott laid out what would be the future city of Buffalo and was eager to begin establishing the settlement. Ellicott was also aware of the advantages of the lands held by New York State in the Mile Strip Reservation along the Niagara River, seeing the establishment of a village at Black Rock as “equally or more advantageous for a town than Buffalo.”7 Fortunately for Ellicott, the state did not survey the Mile Strip until 1803-04, first offering lands for sale in the Village of Black Rock (Upper Black Rock) only in February 1805. Finally the Holland Land Company authorized Ellicott to commence his survey for “New Amsterdam,” which he completed by Ellicott in 1804.8
With the grand Baroque-influenced street plan he had helped create for Washington D.C. still fresh in his mind, Joseph Ellicott laid out “New Amsterdam” with a radial street plan overlaid onto a grid pattern, a design that set the stage for the later development of the city and the Elmwood Historic District. This radial plan was unusual among other early city plans in America created by land companies and developers of this era, as it was easier and cheaper to lay out a simple grid of streets with regular sized lots than it was to plat the angles and curves of Ellicott’s grand design.
The state-created Village of Black Rock (Upper Black Rock) reflects this phenomenon, with its regular grid of rectangular lots laid out regardless of the topography or other natural features. Ellicott’s plan for what Buffalo, reflecting its kinship to the ambitious and aspirational plan of the new nation’s capital, is progressive and forward-looking, aiming beyond just the early pioneer era to a future city of substance. Its design is intended to stand out as a beautiful, sophisticated community that would attract land sales and encourage settlement, especially in contrast to the mundane grid of Black Rock.
The center of Ellicott’s plan was Niagara Square, an open, traditional village square intended to serve as a market place and for public gatherings in the tradition of early American village squares. Ellicott located the center of his plan in close proximity to the mouth of the Buffalo River, seeing it as the key to the commercial development of the new village. Niagara Square was also sited due to the topography of the landscape, located just north of the Terrace, a drop-off separating a generally flat plain from the lower, swampy areas near the river.
From Niagara Square, roads radiated into the countryside. Ellicott gave the roads in the new settlement names in honor of the Dutch investors and patrons, such as Schimelpeninck Avenue (now Niagara Street), Vollenhoven Avenue, and Vanstaphorst Avenue (now Main Street in the city). Other streets were named in honor of Native American tribes, including Chippewa Street (the village’s northern border at the time), Huron Street and Mohawk Street. Delaware Street, running northward from Niagara Square, was named by Ellicott for one of the Native American groups said to frequent the portage road around Niagara Falls.9
Main Street, then called Vanstaphorst Avenue, ran north-south through Ellicott’s plan for Buffalo, just to the east of Niagara Square, and terminated at the Buffalo Creek. As the oldest and primary thoroughfare to and from the new settlement, it is surprising that Ellicott did not chose to have Main Street run directly through Niagara Square, the center of his plan. As the primary road between the water routes in Buffalo and Batavia, then the base of the Holland Land Company’s operations, and Albany to the distant east, the well-traveled Main Street would naturally evolve into a primary commercial section in the young village.10
Delaware Street, running north-south through Niagara Square, ran only between Chippewa Street to the north and terminated, not at the Buffalo Creek, but at the Terrace. Cut off from the water and not serving as a major commercial artery, this truncated route encouraged the early growth of a residential sector on Delaware Street and around Niagara Square.11 It would appear based on Ellicott’s plan, that rather then make commercial activity the central focus of his new city, he intentionally encouraged the growth of a fine residential sector in the village of Buffalo in the most elegantly designed portion of his plan. Thus, right from the beginning, Ellicott prioritized the sophisticated character of the new city.
With the announcement in 1819 that the state planned to construct a “Grand Canal” from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, further attention was brought to Buffalo and Western New York. It was after this second “birth” of Buffalo, following the devastation of the War of 1812 and the events of 1813 that the settlement began to flourish. As the western terminus of the canal was resolved in 1823 in Buffalo’s favor, a census taken in January of 1824 found 2,412 residents in the entire township of Buffalo and 1,039 in neighboring Black Rock. The community featured a large number of people who were employed in the building trades, including 51 carpenters and joiners, 19 masons and stone cutters, and 7 blacksmiths, indicating that construction was thriving in Buffalo during the 1820s.12
With the opening of the Erie Canal in October 1825, Buffalo began to establish itself as an industrial and commercial center on the Great Lakes. The Village of Buffalo was initially incorporated in April 2, 1813, then reorganized in 1815 and again in 1822, establishing the first official government for the community.13 The 1830 federal census recorded a population of over 8,600 residents in Buffalo, marking a dramatic, nearly fourfold increase in only a few short years. Maturing beyond the hardscrabble, pioneer settlement that had characterized Buffalo through the first few decades of its existence, the City of Buffalo was officially incorporated on April 20, 1832. At this time, the city marked its northern boundary as North Street, with the majority of settlement and commercial activity still centered on Niagara Square.14 Smaller pockets of settlement continued to be present at Cold Spring, to the city’s northeast, and in Black Rock, to the northwest.
Buffalo saw tremendous growth and development of its rail system in the 1840s. During this time, the Erie Canal was reaching the maximum capacity and pinnacle of its growth and use as a transportation and freight system, and the region’s rail network developed as a complement to the canal system. Perhaps the most important rail line established in this era was the Buffalo and Albany connection, which was completed in early 1843. Coupled with the growth of Midwestern cities such as Detroit and Chicago in the 1840s and the development of Joseph Dart’s grain elevator in 1842, Buffalo’s national roles as a grain port and transportation hub were just beginning to reach their strides in the 1840s. Joseph Ellicott’s small walkable settlement of 1804 grew through the period of canal boats in the 1820s and 1830s to become a continental center of high-speed mechanized transportation systems in service to and from its manufacturing and commodity transfer sites.
The success of the Erie Canal and Buffalo’s growing role as a commercial and industrial center linking the east coast with the inland cities in the developing United States attracted a dramatic increase in population for the city. The state census conducted in 1845 tallied 29,773 residents in the city of Buffalo, while only five years later, the federal census recorded the Buffalo population at 42,261 - an increase of about 42 percent in just five years.15
The cityscape was rapidly developing due to this tremendous population explosion, and the decision was soon made to expand the city boundaries. In April 1853, the city charter was revised and the boundaries of Buffalo were expanded to include a vast swath of new territory. Little opposition was raised by the diminished Village of Black Rock when the new boundaries completely absorbed the former rival into the growing city.16 The new boundaries also encompassed the surrounding forested and farmland areas, noted as the Holland Land Company Farm Lots in previous maps. The city had grown from approximately four and one-half square miles in 1832, when it was originally incorporated, to roughly forty-two square miles in 1853. The city also created 13 wards, increased from the original 5 wards.17
The most lasting physical legacy from this early era of Buffalo’s history is the visionary radial and orthogonal street grid laid out by Joseph Ellicott in 1804. In the 1860s and ‘70s, Frederick Law Olmsted grafted his impressive network of parks and parkways to Ellicott’s original civic vision, gracefully accommodating the greatly growing city of Buffalo and creating the tableau for what became the Elmwood District.
4 In the fall of 1798, Seth Pease surveyed and established the line of the State reservation along the Niagara River, one mile away from the shoreline. Some difficulty was experienced in determining the boundaries of the southern end, due to the shape and angle of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. After a great deal of negotiations between the Holland Land Company and New York State, it was determjwined that the point of origin for the south end of the Mile Strip would commence at the point where the water of the Niagara River was a mile wide at the mouth of Lake Erie, creating a large circle at the terminus with a mile-wide radius. In 1802, New York State moved to extinguish the Native Americans’ title to the land in the Mile Strip Reservation, and quickly began to open it up for settlement. This area would become known as Black Rock. H. Perry Smith, History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County with Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers... (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason, 1884), 78.
5 Municipality of Buffalo, New York a History, 1720-1923, 81.
6 H. Perry Smith, 79.
7 Municipality of Buffalo, New York a History, 1720-1923, 92.
8 Municipality of Buffalo, New York a History, 1720-1923, 92-101.
9 Francis R. Kowsky, "Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, New York," in The Grand American Avenue: 1850 - 1920, ed. Jan Cigliano (San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994), 36.
10 "Our Chief Thoroughfare," Grosvenor Library Bulletin 4, no. 1 (September 1921): 18.
11 Kowsky, "Delaware Avenue, Buffalo, New York,” 36.
12 Larned, 35-36.
13 John Homer French, "Buffalo City," in Gazetteer of the State of New York: Embracing a Comprehensive View of the Geography, Geology, and General History of the State, and a Complete History and Description of Every County, City, Town, Village and Locality: With Full Table of Statistics (Syracuse, NY: R. Pearsall Smith, 1860), 284.
14 Larned, 41-43.
15 Larned, 61.
16 White, Vol 1, page 383-384.
17 Chuck LaChiusa, "The History of Buffalo: A Chronology: Buffalo 1841-1865," Buffalo as an Architectural Museum, accessed August 07, 2012, https://buffaloah.com/h/1865.html.