Red Jacket. Pug Nose Cora. William “Fingy” Conners. Salvatore Rizzo.
They’re among the historical characters being brought to life this summer through Erie Canal-era theater, music and a speaker series by “the Ruins” at Canalside.
The events are in a large tent and presented by the Friends of the Buffalo Story, a not-for-profit organization. There also are audio tours offered on the group’s website – www.friendsofthebuffalostory.org – and through smartphones, featuring actors portraying figures of the era at once-bustling canal-era locations.
“The Ruins, located at the Commercial Slip, are essential to understanding the evolution and development of Buffalo as a city. It was here, where the Great Lakes met the Erie Canal, that was the anvil for Buffalo’s great development that followed,” said Mark Goldman, an author, historian and entrepreneur, and one of the group’s members.
“By re-creating a set of stories that occurred on and around the Commercial Slip, we are connecting events to specific places, and in the process strengthening the mystical bond that can and should exist between our citizens and their city.”
Peter Dow, a local historian, said the use of the website and QR codes for smartphones to re-create personal stories was important in understanding the canal’s central importance to Western New York, the state and the nation.
“We need to understand the enormous significance of our location at the western terminus of the Erie Canal, our connection to the Great Lakes and even our proximity to Niagara Falls. What happened here is the key to understanding who we are.”
Henry Baxter, an engineer, amateur historian and charter member of the Canal Society of New York State, said he is glad to see a spotlight on Erie Canal’s early days.
Baxter, 91, remembers how different the waterfront was in the 1930s, when he was a child.
“There were little tugboats running around and making smoke, and all kinds of commercial barges. They carried almost everything, from steel scrap to finished products, but grain was always a big thing down there,” Baxter said.
“There was a lot of building going on. General Mills was always building things, the original ADM mill up the river, GLF. ... You could say it was a beehive of activity,” he said.
He also remembers the rougher environment on land.
“There were remnants of red light districts and all that sort of thing. There were more saloons, which at my age I couldn’t participate in,” Baxter said.
Baxter and his family, which included A.E. Baxter, his grandfather, and Alan H. Baxter, his father, as well as a brother, designed four grain elevators and other industrial buildings on or near the Buffalo River in the 19th and 20th centuries. Among them were the Standard, GLF, Cargill Superior and Eastern States elevators, the ADM Flour Mill and the GLF pellet plant.
Baxter was a draftsman on the GLF Elevator A, which his father designed for the A.E. Baxter Co. The Ruins are the excavated walls that remain of the Henry T. Gillet & Sons distillery, which operated on Lloyd Street between 1849 and 1880.
Baxter said there is also a small part from the foundation of the Lloyd Street Steam Flour Mill that existed between 1880 and 1889.
“I think their main importance is that they are the only objects on that site that are actually remnants of something that was there in the 1800s, when the Commercial Slip was really in use, and are in their original position,” Baxter said.
He would like to see the ruins – and its historical importance – made known to the many visitors to Canalside.
“I hope we can get a little signage about those ruins,” Baxter said.
Upcoming Friends of the Buffalo Story events:
• “It Happened Here: The Commercial Slip and the Buffalo Story,” created by Goldman and written by the performers and directors. The collaborative dance and theater piece, featuring professional and amateur performers, will be at 7 p.m. today, Aug. 4 and Aug. 11.
• Docent-led tours are held at noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 5:30 to 8 p.m. Monday and Wednesday.
• “Music of the Erie Canal,” by Dave Ruch & Guests, 7 p.m. Aug. 5 and 6 p.m. Aug. 11.
• “Burning Spirits,” a world premiere by Margaret Kaiser and the New York State Dance Force, 7 p.m. Aug. 17-18 and Aug. 24-25.
• Upcoming 7 p.m. Wednesday lectures: This week, “Why the History of the Italian-American community at ‘The Hooks’ matters,” presented by Ange Coniglio and Joe Giambra; Aug. 6 – “The Battle to Save the Commercial Slip,” by Tim Tielman; Aug. 13 – “The Buffalo Story is the Story of the Erie Canal,” by Tim Grasso; Aug. 20 – “A Picture Tells 1,000 Words: What Images, Still and Moving, Reveal about the History of Buffalo’s Waterfront,” by Mark Goldman and Peter Dow; Aug. 27 – “Myth, Memory and Mystery: A Magical Tour of the History of the Waterfront,” by Franklin LaVoie.
Funding for Friends of the Buffalo Story came from Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.; the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Baird Foundation, M&T Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.