Often when people think of traveling to the Empire State, New York City comes to mind. But as multifaceted as it is, it’s not the only fascinating city in the state.
The story of Buffalo, located in the far west region of New York along the shores of Lake Erie near the mouth of the Niagara River, plays an integral role across nearly all spectrums of the history of this country.
Buffalo’s roots date back the early 1800s with the founding of the village of Buffalo, as surveyed by Joseph Ellicott for the Holland Land Company. Heavy military occupation by the British followed during the War of 1812, and it later became the government seat of Erie (formerly Niagara) County in 1821.
Lack of good accessibility to the city at that time thwarted a great deal of early progress, until 1819 when the Erie Canal—then known as “The Grand Canal”—opened, coupled with efforts to enhance nearby Buffalo Creek with a channel and better working harbor along Lake Erie. This dramatically changed the face of the now established city of Buffalo, with new grain handling capabilities, a vibrant steel industry, water works projects and more, slowly but surely transforming the city into the “Gateway to the West.”
Large banking and manufacturing industries soon followed, plus a large influx of European immigrants who came for work but stayed to build communities and start new family lives.
To get a good grasp of the history here, start at the Buffalo History Museum, featuring a collection of more than 100,000 artifacts, 200,000 photographs and 20,000 books about the history and people of the Niagara Frontier. Other historical sites and attractions in town include the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village and Museum, detailing 19th century life here; the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, where Roosevelt took the oath of office as the 26th president after President William McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition here in 1901; Old Fort Niagara, which controlled access to the Great Lakes and the westward route to the Heartland during the North American colonial wars; and the Genesee Country Village and Museum, the largest collection of historic buildings in the eastern United States.
Today, approximately 200,000 people call Buffalo home (some 1.2 million throughout Erie County), making it the second largest city in New York. The ethnic diversity here is about 50 percent white, 35 percent Black and the rest a global mix of immigrant populations, the latter adding their native languages, cuisines, textiles, music, businesses and the like, which together gives Buffalo a bit of an international flavor and flair. And because it is so close to Canada, it is a very bi-national city.
Despite the misperception of Buffalo as a perpetually snowed under city, the climate here is actually continental in nature, with what has been described as “a definite ‘maritime’ flavor due to strong modification from the Great Lakes.” In fact, during the summer months, the Lake Erie water temperature hovers around 75 degrees, making it a popular spot for boating, fishing, kayaking, canoeing and other water sports.
The rest of the year, the metro area experiences moderate spring times, pleasant albeit often humid summers with an average of only three, 90-plus degree days, brief and sometimes cloudy autumns with late sporadic snow, and yes, frigid temps in winter. However, most of the snowstorms reported in the media generally hit one hour south in the ski country.
One of the first things you notice about Buffalo is that it possesses a small town feel with big city sensibilities. The people here are genuinely friendly, and it is one of the few places where most everyone you encounter was born and bred here. It was not until recently that you’d find people not from Buffalo. You’ll find Buffalonians to be hardworking and fiercely loyal to preserving, promoting and celebrating Buffalo’s unique aspects, all while trying to redefine its identity after the long-ago decline of the steel industry and departure from a purely blue-collar town.
Central industries today include financial services, biomedical and biotech, solar energy and cultural tourism, which has, since about 2000, enticed a lot of people to move back, as well as draw new folks from around the world.
Famous Buffalonians include singer Rick James, Presidents Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, political commentator Tim Russert, actress Christine Baranski, music group the Goo Goo Dolls, ex-pro football player Ron Jaworski, founder of Wells Fargo Express and former Mayor William Fargo and actor William Fichtner, among others.
Waterfront development, residential real estate reinvestment, world-class cultural entities, unique adaptive reuse projects, a low cost of living and good quality of life, a very gay friendly environment and a wealth of outdoor attractions and open green spaces are among the lifestyle amenities enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
REDEFINED AND REFINED BUFFALO
Cultural attractions and artistic endeavors that speak to the city’s more refined side are abundant throughout the area. The city is the proud home to 22 professional theater companies, with entities such as the Kavinoky Theatre, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Shea’s Performing Arts Center, an opulent 1920s movie palace, national historic site and Buffalo’s home for touring Broadway.
You can gain a real sense of the city’s early roots and what made Buffalo one of the biggest and richest cities in the world by embarking upon a 90-minute narrated “Buffalo River History Tour,” during which you’ll learn about the city’s “Guilded” economy, docks and grain mills, Erie Canal history and more.
A big draw for residents and tourists is to the Canalside District, Buffalo’s $295 million waterfront redevelopment that pays homage to its heritage and position as the western terminus of the Erie Canal in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and host of some 750 annual events.
Next door you’ll find the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. As America’s largest inland naval park, it is the home of the USS Little Rock, the first ship to bear the name of Little Rock, Ark., and the only guided missile cruiser on display in the U.S.; the USS Croaker submarine, sent to the Pacific against Japan’s merchant marine and Navy during WWII; and the USS The Sullivans, one of the largest and most important class of WWII U.S. destroyers, in addition to other waterway-themed attractions.
We’ve only scratched the surface of Buffalo and have a great deal more coming up in our next adventure!
Lysa Allman Baldwin is a freelance writer and the publisher and editor of “Amazing Escapades,” focusing on “adventures for the mind, bod and belly” (www.amazingescapades.com).
Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park
Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau
Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village and Museum
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
Buffalo River History Tours
Genesee Country Village and Museum
Shea’s Performing Arts Center
Old Fort Niagara
The Buffalo History Museum
Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site