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PASSAGE TO 2000
A LOOK BACK AT THE CENTURY'S TOP 10 STORIES

Journalism is history, written as it happens.

At its finest, it is literature under pressure. At its very best, it unmasks truth.

Journalists are makers of mirrors. In the printed word, they craft images that reflect the communities they serve. They relay the opinions of the decision-makers and the decision-reviewing populace alike; they chronicle events, and seek to explain them.

In the pages of a newspaper, the community sees itself. And as the pages slowly yellow and the events fade to memories, the mirror becomes a scrapbook -- and reveals still more layers of meaning, seen through the lens of time.

That's worth remembering, as the turning of another calendar page offers a unique chance to look back on the 20th century. Although that period technically doesn't end for another year, there is some millennial magic in the change from 1999 to 2000. If it is not yet quite time to walk through the portal to another era, it is a good time to take a last long look in the hallway mirror.

Selecting the Top 10 stories of a century isn't an easy task.

It's not one that can be based on the size of a headline or the depth of an emotion; often, the biggest stories are those that develop slowly and measure out their impact on a community over time.

No events of this century had more of an impact on Western New York -- or on the nation and the world -- than the Great Depression and World War II. But each was made up of myriad smaller stories, individual sacrifices and tragedies that were, each of them, the worst or brightest moments of someone's century.

Even among single events, choices come hard. As bloody, dramatic and important as the Attica Uprising of the early 1970s was to prison reform debates, for example, it directly affected far fewer Western New Yorkers than the widespread Southern Tier flooding triggered by Hurricane Agnes at about the same time. And neither event, seen through a broader perspective of years, ends up on our list.

What does? Events that shaped the city -- the way we look, the way we feel, the way we face the 21st century. Some things that were good, some bad, some both or neither.

Here are 10 stories that helped make us what we are today:

1. World war on the home front

From the 1939 headline that screamed "NAZIS ATTACK POLAND" to 1945's bannered "Atomic Bomb Used on Japs," news of World War II was devoured by Western New York families. Fear rode on waves of type, for those who had loved ones in combat or who became civilian victims, many of whom died in the Holocaust.

The impacts of war on the home front went far beyond the casualty lists, though. Shortages, rationing, Liberty Bond drives and work in the war plants became part of everyday life.

With men donning uniforms, women entered the work force as never before; "Rosie the Riveter" had tens of thousands of counterparts here, as the cultural role of women changed in ways that would long outlast even a global war.

In addition to mobilizing and uniting the entire region in a unified cause, the war also marked a high point in Western New York industrial prosperity. That was especially true in the aviation industry, which had pioneered here in the World War I era and turned out tens of thousands of fighters for the second World War.

That industry suffered perhaps the greatest domestic tragedy of the war years, a warplane crash that killed 10 and injured 37 workers at the Curtiss plant in 1942; despite such major local innovations as the first commercial helicopters and the X-1 rocket plane that shattered the sound barrier, the post-war years would bring aviation's local decline. Bell Aircraft would also see a bloody and prolonged strike, in 1949.

2. The Great Depression

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 triggered very little immediate panic in Buffalo, but it wasn't long before the manufacturing economy here began to feel the pinch that would deepen into the Great Depression.

Soaring unemployment overwhelmed early attempts to meet the crisis with government-funded public works projects. By 1932, only 44 percent of the region's men held full-time jobs, and wages had dropped by nearly one-third.

As both the industrial depression and an agricultural recession worsened, families struggled. Local charities organized bread lines and soup kitchens, and both the city and county set up emergency relief centers. But bankruptcies, business closings and mortgage foreclosures became common.

Stories of despair eventually turned to stories of recovery, though. And the era left an imprint on Western New York, through an array of Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration projects including parks and public buildings.

3. Suburbanization

The postwar era saw the earlier trickle of city population toward surrounding townships turn into a full-scale flow. Fueled by the "baby boom" of the late 1940s and 1950s and by veterans benefits that encouraged house building, suburbanization changed the face of the Buffalo metro area.

Buffalo had more than half a million residents in the 1940s and 1950s, peaking at 618,000 in 1960. By century's end, the city population was about 320,000. Businesses followed population. What started as a welcome easing of urban population density had become "suburban flight," often along racial lines. The metro area expanded into the 'burbs, but left vacancies and rot at the city core.

The automobile and better roadways played a part in the exodus, and governments in both the city and the suburbs spent much of their energy in the second half of the century just coping with problems of either growth or decline. By the end of that period, "sprawl" had also become an environmental problem and efforts had begun to redevelop abandoned parts of the city while once-prosperous parts of the suburbs started to experience some of the vacancy problems they once had caused.

4. Electricity

The first successful long-distance transmission of electricity in 1896 gave way, in the 20th century, to wholesale exploitation of the hydropower provided by Niagara Falls.

The impact of electrical power on this region was far-reaching and enormous. Cheap power and the water that created it lured energy-intensive chemical and abrasives industries to the City of Niagara Falls, creating sprawling plants that brought the prosperity of employment and the shadow of future environmental ills. Manufacturing throughout this region benefited from Niagara's abundant electricity.

Hydropower here was reinvented in the 1950s, after the collapse of the Schoellkopf Power Plant into the Niagara Gorge hastened the need for expansion. The massive Niagara Power Project transformed a part of the gorge wall, increased power outputs and made Niagara a key component of an increasingly widespread power grid.

5. Seaways and highways

The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway on July 4, 1958, started the decline of the once-bustling port that had built the city. For the first time since the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo was no longer on the main maritime route between the heartlands and the seacoasts.

The steel and flour mills of Buffalo still drew shiploads of ore and grain, but the city's role as a transshipment port -- a place where cargoes shifted from ships to canal boats or the rail cars that replaced them -- began to slip. Buffalo interests had waged a losing battle against seaway construction since the 1930s. When they inevitably lost, Buffalo's harbor began serving this region instead of serving the world.

The same era saw another shift in the transportation web that eroded the city's role as a geographic hub and stopping point, at the same time it provided other benefits. In 1950, New York approved the $89 million construction of the Thruway; traffic through and around Buffalo sped up again with the opening of the Skyway in 1955 and the Niagara Thruway in 1959.

6. Civil rights

The 18th century brought slaves to America and the 19th witnessed the bloody Civil War that, at least on paper, set them free. The 20th century was a story of struggle for equality that paralleled, but surpassed in both visibility and violence, the quest for equal opportunity for women.

In 1905 W.E.B. DuBois called an elite group of African-Americans to Buffalo for a meeting that led to a Declaration of Principles and the founding of the Niagara Movement.

Either because of racism or because a huge Elks convention had already filled hotel rooms on this side of the border, the group -- a precursor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- had to meet in Fort Erie, the destination of so many Underground Railroad sojourners generations earlier. Prominent among them was Buffalo resident Mary Talbert, holder of a University of Buffalo doctorate and a vigorous national crusader against lynchings.

Racial divisions here grew worse during labor disputes in 1916, and -- joined to fear of Catholic immigration -- grew into a local revival of the Ku Klux Klan from 1922 through 1925. The long trail of discrimination exploded into race riots in the 1960s; more recently, court-ordered racial desegregation changed the shape of Buffalo's school system.

7. Love Canal

A local story with a far-reaching national impact, the toxic waste disaster at Love Canal became a milestone in the national environmental movement. The story of Love Canal peaked in the late 1970s, as a grassroots movement led by neighborhood residents -- foremost among them housewife Lois Gibbs -- demanded government evacuation and remediation.

The furor over the chemical industry wastes buried beneath a school and seeping into adjoining neighborhoods would trigger action to set up special federal and state Superfunds for environmental remediation projects. Love Canal came to symbolize nationally the need to protect public health today by cleaning up the environmental mistakes of the past.

Litigation over the toxic dump would remain a continuing story for decades. December 1999 saw yet another milestone for the project -- the disbanding of the Love Canal Revitalization Agency, formed to return as much as possible of the site to use.

8. The Pan-Am and the president

Buffalo's fortunes were riding high at the start of 1901. The city was the eighth-largest in the United States, and the first to be lighted by electricity. Commerce and industry were booming, grain from the interior plains and ore from the newly opened Mesabi Range were streaming to the bustling lake port and railhead here, and new steel mills were planned for the lake shore.

Showcasing it all was the Pan-American Exposition, actually a world's fair with an emphasis on New World culture and commerce. After years of planning, it opened that year on grounds in the north of Buffalo. It was a huge success, highlighting Buffalo's boom-town prosperity while dazzling the world with its electric illumination.

The glitter was darkened, though, by a national tragedy. On Sept. 6, assassin Leon Czolgosz fired two bullets into President William McKinley as the president greeted visitors in the Temple of Music. McKinley died eight days later, just before the arrival of Vice President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt took the oath of office as president in the Wilcox Mansion here; by the end of the following month Czolgosz, too, was dead, executed in the electric chair -- a Buffalo invention.

9. The steel mills

The steel mills that came to Buffalo in 1901 brought prosperity, population and pride. In the last two decades of the century, they brought economic decline and came to symbolize the regional loss of heavy industry and its high-paying jobs.

At its height the Bethlehem Steel plant, which opened as Lackawanna Steel in 1901, employed 18,600 workers and made 7.4 million tons of steel products a year. Republic Steel, which opened as the Union plant in 1906, had 2,500 workers during those same years in the 1960s. As late as 1978, Republic launched a $50 million modernization; in 1983, Bethlehem still had 5,400 employees.

By 1983, both plants were gone. So were the jobs. So were the boom times.

Bethlehem's closing in 1983 and Republic's mothballing in 1982 reflected changes in an industry now investing in mini-mills, but the closings are widely viewed as the low point in Buffalo's recent economic history. The years since then have seen a slow and painful climb, but the loss of the high-paying jobs contributed to the region's population drain and its sense of potential.

10. The Blizzard of '77

Buffalo's storm of the century paralyzed this region on Jan. 28, 1977, with a severity that prompted the first federal declaration of a snow disaster. Seven persons died in the wintry onslaught, as winds gusted up to 69 mph and wind-chill temperatures dropped to the equivalent of 50 degrees below zero.

Federal troops would help the region dig out, after days of on-again, off-again emergency driving bans. Stories of "The Blizzard" would linger for a generation, and the storm cemented Buffalo's national reputation for winter weather.

There have been other paralyzing storms -- the St. Patrick's Day Storm of 1936, the Great Lakes "Black Friday" hurricane-force storm of 1913, the widespread Southern Tier flooding triggered by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and several crippling ice storms. But nothing has had a greater impact on Buffalo's image or left Buffalonians with a greater sense of winter trauma than the Blizzard of '77.

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