For two centuries, the settlement at the mouth of Buffalo Creek has been changing. From a cluster of cabins, it has grown into a major city.
For almost all of that time, there has been a fixed vantage point from which to view Buffalo's changing skyline. Lighthouses look out upon the waters, but the keepers of the Buffalo Light could also glance landward and watch the history of a community unfold.
Nothing survives of the logbooks from the light station founded in 1818 or the historic second lighthouse built in 1833, still standing and pictured on the official city seal. The names of the keepers are known, though, and the thoughts they might have filed during each of the city's decades might well have been illuminating ...
Summer 1820 -- The energy these villagers have! Last year, this lighthouse stood along the beach, and this season it stands on a bend in the creek. In just 221 days -- including one memorable rainy night when all the village turned out by torchlight and waded in to save the storm-damaged work -- Judge Wilkeson and his crews built a dam to turn the spring floods and scour out a new channel.
After the British finished torching Buffalo just seven years ago, there were only four buildings standing. Now we have a new harbor, growing villages both here and at Black Rock, and the dusky smoke from that newfangled steamship amid the dirty white sails out on the horizon ...
James Skaats, keeper
Autumn 1833 -- Have just polished the reflectors once more, a joy in this new and most satisfactory lighthouse. The improvement was much needed, since the opening of the new Erie Canal eight years back has crowded this harbor with commerce. The long walk along the new permanent pier is worth the effort.
The village officially became a city last year, but the joy of prosperity was tempered by that awful cholera epidemic. God spare us from another like that, and the contagion in the air. Black Rock prospers from "Clinton's Ditch" as well, but not as much as we do with this harbor and its bustling canal docks; Buffalo is the victor, in this old and often bitter rivalry ...
Alexander Ramsdell, keeper
Summer 1848 -- Don't know which is worse, the soot from the oil lamps or the soot from all these wood-burning hulks that haul immigrants, grain and timber through this place. How's a body supposed to keep the lantern-room glass clean?
The city fathers voted last year to enlarge the harbor and build yet another ship canal. It's about time, because you can just about walk across the river from the deck of one moored ship to another. Joseph Dart's new steam-powered elevator is proving faster than the traditional way of unloading ships on the backs of Irishmen, but the channels are still choked.
This waterfront's becoming a real rat's nest of waterways, the lakes sailors brawl with the canawlers at the drop of a hat, and the stench near the horse barns is enough to drop a weak man at 20 paces and a strong one at 10. Add in the flies, and you can see the manure piles shimmer in the heat of a summer's day!
When they're not fighting, the sailors are still talking about the burning of the Erie or the Great Storm and seiche -- sort of a tidal wave -- of 1844. The surge breached this lighthouse pier and drove two schooners right through the gap; the whole lower city flooded, and they had to use the uptown halls as temporary morgues ...
Alexander Ramsdell, keeper
Spring 1855 -- Ten years ago the Famine, and today this son of Ireland is making 400 American dollars a year! Saints be praised, for my new appointment to this station!
Of course, there is sorrow here in America, too. Two more cholera epidemics in recent years, the great fires that have swept through the lower city, and the slavery that is sending so many black fugitives across these waters to haven in that British-linked land, Canada.
Yet prosperity dominates. The fire-swept districts are being rebuilt in brick, the university is almost 10 years old, the city is growing like Topsy with new buildings and markets, and one of the city's fancy lawyers, Millard Fillmore, even served a term as president!
Not all of the railroads are "underground," either. John Roebling's pioneering railroad suspension bridge opens this spring at the Niagara Gorge, replacing the river's first pedestrian bridge of 1848. Here we still use ferries to cross the river, but there's talk that the rail lines are taking trade from the canal ...
James Anderson, keeper
Spring 1869 -- Another season opening on the lakes, and another river of grain to be disgorged on this waterfront! Thanks to Buffalo's industrial contributions to the recent Civil War, there's now a new breakwater being built to create an Outer Harbor and ease the congestion in the "Inner Harbor" of the Buffalo River.
Looking at that breakwater today brought to mind that tragic war, and the springtime day four years ago when I joined the 80,000 to 100,000 who tramped through St. James Hall, silent save for our footsteps, to view Mr. Lincoln's body. That the end of such a bloody war should be followed so soon by so deep a sorrow still troubles the heart.
But this city grows too quickly to dwell on such mysteries. The streets are noisy with the clip-clop of horse-drawn drays and the chuffing of steam locomotives, and buildings are sprawling outward onto the high plain beyond Main Street's long climb away from the waterfront. The new editor over at the Express, Sam Clemens, puts a peculiar twist on all this progress, but I think it's good. Why, a committee has hired some firm called Olmsted & Vaux to design an entire city park system!
Edward S. Lee, keeper
Summer 1877 -- Looking from this tower toward the eastern parts of the city, I can still see smoke from the railroad cars set afire by the mobs. While the Railroad Strike clashes here aren't as bad as Chicago, the pealing of the fire bells still caused great excitement in the city. The bell towers soon signaled the fires were out, and the patrolling by federal troops continues.
It all comes at a bad time. One of every 10 Buffalonians already is out of work thanks to the national depression, and waves of immigrants still arrive. There is still only talk of any organized government relief efforts for the unemployed, and you can see the effects of the depression on the lakes -- the great passenger "palace steamers" are being laid up, and commerce also suffers.
Across from this tower, in the dangerous warren of streets and dives of the canal-side "infected district," crime is at an all-time high and the policemen patrol in teams ...
George Schroter, keeper
Summer 1884 -- Libraries, music halls and theaters may please many in this great city, but the keeper of the breakwater light station and I spent our rare day off taking in a professional baseball game, in the sixth season of the Bisons.
The harbor still bustles, but it's no longer the be-all and end-all of the city. The railroads have seen to that. All the grain elevators now pass the grain from ships to rail cars as well as canal boats, and trains haul all but the bulk cargoes around the lakes.
Buffalo prospers either way. They've even started paving some of the cobble streets with asphalt, though I wonder what the horses think! Grover Cleveland, more familiarly known here as "Big Steve," may run for president. And after the navigation season closes, I hope to visit the first "state park" in the nation, downriver at Niagara Falls ...
John M. Reed, keeper
Autumn 1896 -- After all these years of tending oil lamps, I'm now looking at a city that may soon have electric lights. Mr. Tesla has beat out Mr. Edison in figuring a way to send electricity over wires, from Niagara Falls to Buffalo, and the curious light that burns on a pole in the Niagara park may soon spawn dozens more right here.
With the big lake boats poised to haul ore from the newly opened Mesabi Range deposits near Lake Superior, can we be poised to combine power and raw material into a new center of heavy industry? Buffalo already is one of the country's largest cities, and seems destined for ever better days.
Life is improving as well. A Grade Crossing Commission has won agreement from the railroads to separate tracks from roadways and eliminate grade-level crossings -- no longer will huge locomotives chug and hiss their way down or across streets where children are playing and drivers of carriages struggle to control frightened horses.
All this after the railroads brought some good and some bad national attention our way -- good with Charlie Hogan's 112 1/2 mph land speed record with Engine No. 999 on the run into Buffalo three years back, and bad just this year with the "Angola Horror" train derailment and fire that killed 43 passengers ...
George Safe, keeper
Summer 1905 -- Let Chautauqua keep its Institution and East Aurora its Roycrofters, Buffalo now has a new art gallery as shining as any Greek temple.
I saw the results of Mr. Albright's generosity on a morning ride today, on a visit to the site of the recent Pan-American Exposition and the place where poor President McKinley was shot by the dastardly assassin. Buffalo welcomed the world, and then stunned it with a tragedy.
Still, it must be admitted that the fair was a great success. One stone building remains, the old New York pavilion, for use as a history museum. On the way back, we passed along the other side of the park to view the curious home Frank Lloyd Wright has designed for Mr. Darwin D. Martin of the Larkin soap company. Much too low, for a lighthouse!
To the south, smoke billows from the new mills of the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Co. We've put new lights at the south harbor entrance near the mills.
Laborers here at the lighthouse depot tell me there's a new "Niagara Movement" afoot to gain civil rights for those of African descent. I hear the group was founded here but the national leaders will meet in Fort Erie, having been denied accommodations in Buffalo ...
George Safe, keeper
Autumn 1917 -- The old tower has been dark three years now, and the harbor light burns satisfactorily from the breakwater light station. The great storm that drove ships ashore 10 years ago shows the light is still sorely needed.
The talk at the lighthouse service depot, of late, has been all about the Great War. Its conclusion leaves Buffalo a kind of transportation legacy far different from the lakes trade. The war brought Curtiss Aeroplane here, adding an aviation industry to a mix that already includes motorcars -- as evidenced by the local Thomas Flyer that won the Round-the-World Race back in '08.
Buffalo bids fair to become the new cradle of aviation ...
Summer 1929 -- I have found new uses for the old light tower, which I still climb on occasion for a look at the lake and the city. Sentries have been posted there to look out for illegal Chinese immigration and for the Prohibition rumrunners based in Fort Erie.
I was right about the aviation. Glenn Curtiss and the Wright brothers came to Buffalo to argue their patent differences in court, and this year the Curtiss-Wright Corp. formed to combine aviation efforts. Buffalo also has a new airport, opened three years ago.
It has been a tough few years for the harbor, though. First the 1921 storm that drove large freighters up on the beach, and then last year's oil refinery explosion that sank the fireboat. Still, the harbor steel mills are seeing even more cargoes under new Bethlehem Steel management, and the growing city of Lackawanna has a beautiful new basilica completed by Father Baker. British royalty and top U.S. and Canadian leaders opened the new Peace Bridge two years back, and Buffalo is building a new Central Terminal for trains.
Can anything halt the growth and prosperity?
Autumn 1939 -- I was wrong about the prosperity. The stock market crash triggered a depression with dreadful effects for Buffalo and the rest of the nation, and tight budgets for the Lighthouse Service. Now we're being merged into the Coast Guard.
There is talk of building a new auditorium with public works assistance, now that the Canal District's tenements have been razed. I can see the site from the old lighthouse tower. And a new music hall, named for the Kleinhans family, may be in the works.
But Hitler has invaded Poland, and the talk now is not of recovery but of war in Europe. We've had our own share of disasters, anyway, including the St. Patrick's Day snowstorm and the collapse of the Honeymoon Bridge under the pressure of Niagara Gorge ice three years ago ...
Autumn 1949 -- The last navigation season of an eventful decade draws to a close.
With its port, industries and hydropower, Buffalo and the Niagara Frontier were ranked third on the list of likely strategic targets during the war, behind only Detroit and San Francisco. With tens of thousands of our young men gone to war, it was well that the only needed defense was vigilance.
The aviation industries in particular contributed, turning out tens of thoughts of fighter and transport planes. Two years after the war, a Buffalo-built X-1 rocket plane piloted by Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. But this year, the Bell plants here have been rocked by a violent labor strike.
Buffalo now also has something called suburbs, where returning GIs are building lots of houses ...
U.S. Coast Guard
Spring 1958 -- The old lighthouse is no longer used or attended, and this year plans were announced to demolish it as part of a plan to widen the harbor entrance. There are rumors of a preservation effort, but Buffalo has never been good at that.
It stands now in a different world. From its top you can see evidence, in the still-new Skyway and Thruway or, toward the west, in the ships that turn toward the Welland Canal and the St. Lawrence Seaway instead of entering this harbor to unload cargoes for the rail lines.
From the tower you might also have had a frighteningly close view of the explosion and fire that rocked the harbor when a freighter collided with a gasoline barge at the river entrance in 1951. That fire was televised live from one of the downtown skyscrapers -- using technology and buildings that could never have been imagined, back when the first lighthouse keeper climbed the tower to light a lamp of whale oil, in the days when the city was still a village.
U.S. Coast Guard