Imagine, just for a moment, Buffalo’s Outer Harbor teeming with activity – houses lining the shores of Lake Erie and excited beachgoers playing in its waters.
It’s a scenario that’s been described again and again by many of the city’s civic leaders, seemingly for decades, as they bemoan the death of industry along the waterfront, leaving nothing but reminders of the city’s glorious past. Fortunately, new life has sprung up along the Outer Harbor in recent years, and people have flocked to its shores to enjoy bicycling, hiking, birdwatching and picnicking.
But what if you were told there was a time when houses did, indeed, line the shores of Lake Erie and beachgoers played in its waters? It seems nearly impossible, right? No, not if you were to visit the site of today’s Times Beach Nature Preserve in the first half of the 20th century.
In the early 1890s, more than 1,000 people – mostly Irish immigrants employed at the nearby grain elevators and their families – called Times Beach Nature Preserve home. At the time it was known as Seawall Beach because of the large stone breakwall stretching along its shores. The Irish immigrants who lived there were called squatters because they did not rent, own or otherwise have legal permission to live there.
Lawlessness was rampant – much like it was at Buffalo’s Central Wharf at the time – and the crime-ridden shantytown along the shores of Lake Erie was eventually torn down to make way for a railroad.
During the 1930s, at the behest of the local Buffalo Times newspaper, the area was transformed into a public beach. It was short-lived, however, as it became polluted from nearby industrial waste and sewage. Times Beach was soon acquired by the federal government, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used it to dispose of dredging from both the Buffalo River and Buffalo Harbor. The site was quickly abandoned in the 1970s due to heavy contamination.
It found new life, surprisingly, as a refuge for migratory birds as nature overtook this once-industrial wasteland. It was officially designated a nature preserve in 2004.
Today, Times Beach Nature Preserve offers visitors the opportunity to view wildlife from its trails, boardwalks, and viewing platforms across its 50 wooded acres, unaware of the houses that once lined its shores and the beachgoers who once enjoyed its waters. Today, it appears as if man’s hands have barely ever touched this land – perhaps just as nature had intended.