Benjamin Rathbun - Table of Contents

Benjamin Rathbun in Buffalo

An excerpt from
Richard C. Brown and Bob Watson, "Buffalo: Lake City in Niagara Land," USA: Windsor Publications, 1981

. . . the man who had the greatest physical impact on Buffalo in the 1830s was Benjamin Rathbun. Rathbun looked more like a clergyman than the master builder he was. Though he kept a low profile, never before or since has there been a builder in Buffalo who matched Rathbun's empirical accomplishments.

Most of Buffalo in the 1830s, in fact, could be said to have been Rathbun-built. In 1835 alone, he put up 99 buildings, 52 of them stores and 33 of them dwellings. He built the first American Hotel on the west side of Main Street below Court Street and in the same year put up the United States on the Terrace.

He built the jail. He built the four-story Webster Block that began around Main Street and Perry. He built the Darrow Block on Washington Street below Clinton. For Henry Sizer, he built a fine residence on the northwest corner of Niagara Square at Delaware Avenue that years later became the headquarters of Spencer Kellogg & Sons.

For the Unitarians, he built a church at Franklin Street and Eagle that still stands as the headquarters of the Abstract Title - the lone remaining monument to the otherwise long-gone Rathbun empire.

To support his seemingly endless building program, Rathbun operated stone quarries, brick plants, and machine shops. He had grocery stores and dry-goods establishments. He ran stagecoaches and horse-drawn omnibuses. He had his own private bank that issued bank notes over his signature.

But Rathbn, caught up in the speculative excess that were rampant in the growing city, had moved too far too fast. Not only did he borrow beyond his very substantial means, but he borrowed on notes to which were forged the names of the most affluent Buffalonians. When the smoke of the scandal had cleared and the extent of the skulduggery was sorted out, it was found that Rathbun had a total of $1.5 million in forged notes.

Rathbun had not done the forging himself, but he was aware of it. His brother Lyman masterminded the forging; his nephew, Lyman Rathbun Howlett, was the master forger. Buffalonians, never dreaming that young Howlett was up to no good, knew him as a cute little fellow of 14 or 15 who rode a pony about the streets. Actually, he was so clever that he could execute a forgery under the very eyes of the bankers, and he was riding his pony on what turned out to have been his errands of mischief.

Years later, when Buffalonians were eagerly awaiting everything Charles Dickens wrote and Oliver Twist finally reached them, they would recognize the Artful Dodger as a devious lad who already had passed their way in the person of Lyman Rathbun Howlett.

Rathbun's coaches were the first public transportation in Buffalo. Rathbun's stagecoaches also linked the Eagle, and Buffalo, with Albany, providing reliable transportation to the state capital.

By the time the Rathbun bubble burst, young Howlett and his Uncle Lyman were long gone. Benjamin Rathbun took the rap for all of them. While he was awaiting trial, he was incarcerated in the very jail he had built for Buffalo. Found guilty at a trial in Batavia, he was sent to Auburn Prison for five years. When he had served his time, Rathbun went into the hotel business in New York. Buffalonians still thought so highly of him that, to many of them, to stay at any hotel in New York other than Rathbun's was unthinkable.

Impact on Buffalo

Rathbun's downfall caused tremors in Buffalo's financial community. And it was devastating to the 2,500 or so employees whose families counted on Rathbun paychecks for the bread on their tables. His shattering collapse in 1836 ended those paychecks and gave Buffalo a head start on the financial panic that swept the country in 1837.


See also: Raymond Massey video on Rathbun (online march 2014)

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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