Place  /  Dispatch

Buffalo’s Vanished Maritime Past

The city was once a bustling and infamous Great Lakes port. How should it be remembered?

On August 18, 1852, some one hundred and thirty immigrant farmers from Norway lay sleeping among their baggage on the bustling wharf in Buffalo, waiting for the ship that would take them to new farmlands in Wisconsin. Two months earlier, two hundred Norwegians had crossed the ocean from Oslo to Quebec City. There, they had boarded vessels first for Montreal, then Toronto and Queenston, Ontario, just below Niagara Falls, sleeping on wharves, as they awaited the arrival of their connecting boats. Seventy ran out of money and could go no further. The rest of them waited for their ship through the night on the dock in Buffalo, the last city in the East.

Once a teeming Great Lakes port famed for its ships and reviled for its dockside brothels and bars, Buffalo was the brawling crossroads of nineteenth-century America, a maritime city where the Erie Canal ended and the open water began, with a rich legacy of gales, songs, yarns, shipwrecks, and lives saved and lost on the lakes’ treacherous, storm-tossed waters. One of the easternmost points on a vast inland sea, it was a harbor town so big and infamous that it became a byword for the raucous nautical life of its itinerant sailors; Steelkilt, Melville’s swashbuckling mutineer in Moby-Dick, was a Buffalonian, and even the famous sea chantey “Blow Ye Winds,” which begins … 

Tis advertised in Boston, New York and Buffalo
Five hundred brave Americans, a-whaling for to go   

… illustrates just how highly the Buffalo of the mid-1800s ranked in the roll call of American port cities.

And yet, while the region’s maritime history is observed and celebrated in Cleveland, across Michigan and elsewhere on the Lakes, markers of that heritage are largely absent in Buffalo. The city’s harborfront park today features three oceangoing World War II-era Navy ships and a sprawling series of monuments to American soldiers who fought in overseas wars—and not a single word to honor the tens of thousands of immigrants and settlers who boarded ships Buffalo and settled the Upper Midwest, or the hundreds of souls lost when those ships went down in Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior.

“I think it’s really unfortunate we’ve lost touch with that history,” said David Gerber, a professor emeritus at SUNY Buffalo who also played a key role in saving the canal terminus from developers. “It’s like any part of history that’s lost to our imaginations and to our knowledge. We’ve lost sight of any context or conditions or situations that formed us.”