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WNY'S DUBIOUS ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS

Talk about adding fuel to Buffalo's inferiority fires.

As if we really need reminders about dubious moments in Western New York history. Four Super Bowl losses. Ferocious blizzards. Even Buffalo's crowning moment as host of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 took a tragic turn with the assassination of a president.

But the true test of a region's mettle lies in its ability to cope with adversity, learn from its blunders and -- sometimes -- even laugh at them.

It's in this spirit that we bestow our Dubious Achievement Awards on Western New Yorkers who, over the past 150 years, have left indelible marks on the landscape. The envelope, please ...

Rebuilding From Ashes: The torching of Buffalo by British troops during the War of 1812 was undoubtedly one of the more dubious chapters in local history. When the flames finally died out, only the jail, the blacksmith's shop, a tiny cottage and an unfinished cabin were left standing.

The first structure to be rebuilt following the conflagration? Not a hospital or a house. Not even a church. Instead, crews worked feverishly at Main and Seneca streets to rebuild the Phoenix Tavern.

Dubious Start to the Pan-Am: What was planned as a jubilant welcome for a U.S. president took a jolting turn. As President William McKinley arrived for the Pan-American Exposition, he was honored with a 21-gun salute. But the artillery were too close to the president's train; observers noted that the gunfire nearly blew the locomotive off the tracks, shattering glass and causing luggage to sail through the compartments. Observers later reported that the president kept his cool, but Mrs. McKinley fainted during the ordeal.

The Pan-Am showcased many technological advances and offered an array of classy cultural exhibits. But at least one attraction raised some eyebrows. The Infant Incubator building boldly displayed 11 premature babies who were being reared using the latest medical techniques, prompting some historians to write that the infants were exhibited almost as though they were "sideshow freaks."

Meet Mr. Angelo: Not far from the Pan-Am site stands the statue of David in Delaware Park. Look closely and you'll find the artist's name engraved on the pedestal. But instead of reading "Michelangelo," it reads "Michael Angelo."

The non-traditional spelling apparently has some legitimacy. The copy of David was bought in France nearly a century ago, where the 16th century artist was known as Michel Ange. When it was brought to Buffalo, the French version was given a Victorian American spelling and became Michael Angelo.

Dancing Dog Bones: Billie Lawless is no Michelangelo, but his neon creation shared some of the same attributes of the David statue, at least in some people's eyes.

On Nov. 15, 1984, curious onlookers huddled at the Elm-Oak arterial, waiting for the moment when the switch would be flicked on a colorful creation that promised to shed light on the well-traveled gateway into Buffalo.

Lawless' $80,000 sculpture was financed by private contributors. But when "Green Lightning" was finally illuminated, many bystanders stood in stunned disbelief.

"To my shock, I did not observe a multicolor artwork, but four neon objects resembling male genitals," said Buffalo Police Lt. William Cornwall.

Mayor Jimmy Griffin branded the creation "cheap" and "obscene." He ordered city crews to tear down the structure, a move that prompted Lawless to climb to the top of "Green Lightning" to prevent its dismantling.

State Supreme Court Judge Vincent Doyle later sided with Lawless, criticizing the mayor for ordering the action without obtaining a court order. Griffin's response: "Vince Doyle should stay on the golf course. I think he's a better golfer than he is at making those kind of statements."

"Green Lightning" later found a home in Chicago, where it received glowing reviews.

Fort Makowski: One former mayor found himself in hot water not for his dismantling deeds, but for his building pursuits. When Stan Makowski decided to build a brick maze around Niagara Square in front of City Hall in 1976, critics were quick to call it "Fort Makowski." The idea was quickly shelved.

Western New York's Walden Pond: The eyes of the nation were on Kenmore in 1984. More specifically, eyes were focused on the front lawn of a home on Victoria Boulevard. In stark contrast to the well-manicured lawns found on many village streets, Stephen Kenney's front yard contained 41 species of wildflowers and other plants.

People from as far New Zealand followed the trial known as People vs. Stephen Kenney. Village officials took him to court where a judge ruled that he must mow his lawn.

After Kenney refused, a posse of neighbors armed with lawn equipment converged on the home, launching a midnight mowing mission. Not long afterward, Kenney and his wife moved to a quiet wooded community along a Vermont lake.

"It's paradise here," Kenney told The Buffalo News. "Sometimes we feel this is our reward for putting up with X, Y and Z in Kenmore."

Rambo-Gram Gone Awry: Buffalo police converged on the City Court building one afternoon in 1985 after receiving reports that a man dressed like Rambo had entered the courthouse with what looked like a Russian AK-47.

During the pandemonium, a police officer accidentally shot himself in the foot as he drew his gun and tripped on an escalator.

Rambo turned out to be Mark Stancampiano, who was dressed like the Hollywood hunk as part of his gig with a local message-delivery service. The rifle was a harmless prop. Disorderly conduct charges against Stancampiano were ultimately dismissed.

Tragedy by the falls: Not everyone who gathered at the brink of Niagara Falls in 1929 were there to soak up nature. Immediately following the stock market crash, 54 people plunged to their deaths.

No Just Desserts for Jell-O Inventor: LeRoy resident Pearl B. Wait may have been a culinary genius, but he won't go down in history as Western New York's sharpest businessman. In 1897, the carpenter invented what would eventually become the nation's best-selling prepared dessert. It was a simple recipe that blended fruit flavoring with granulated gelatin.

Recognizing that he lacked the skills to market his shimmering creation, he sold the recipe to Orator Woodward, owner of the Genesee Pure Food Co., for $450.

The new owner aggressively marketed the product as "Jell-O" and in 1925 sold out to the Postum Co. (which eventually became General Foods) for $60 million.

Buffalo's Henry Ford: When Linwood Avenue resident Henry R. Bird designed and built a self-propelled "horseless carriage" in 1896, experts in automotive history say his invention appeared more advanced than the contraptions that Henry Ford and Ransom E. Olds were working on at the same time. Some speculate that if he had made continued improvements and gone into production, it could have made Buffalo the automobile city that Detroit eventually became.

But it remains a mystery why this well-to-do inventor suddenly stopped development. All that remains of Bird's work are two photographs and some patent applications.

Here are some other dubious bits of hometown trivia:

-- The world's first electric chair was invented by Buffalo dentist Alfred Southwick. His device was put to use for the first time at Auburn Prison in 1890.

-- While Buffalo has earned recognition in recent years for modernizing its airport, it was among the last large cities in the United States to have an airport large enough to accommodate jets. Ironic, seeing as how Buffalo was the birthplace of the American jetliner. Bell Aircraft Corp. built the first jet in 1942.

-- A wooden biplane took part in Buffalo history -- or at least tried to -- back in 1930. To celebrate Main Street's new electric lights, city leaders staged a splashy celebration. Part of the revelry called for the plane to fly over the people-packed thoroughfare. But as it passed over the Rath Building, its engine failed. Unable to reach the airport, the pilot and a passenger escaped death by crash-landing on -- believe it or not -- Lindbergh Avenue.

-- A more contemporary crash occurred in 1986 when a huge barge rammed into a Peace Bridge abutment. Months later, "Bargemania" swept the region as thousands followed the two-week struggle to remove the stranded vessel. Joe and Jim Wargo, members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, even wrote these lyrics, to the tune of "Tomorrow":

The barge will come out, tomorrow

Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow,

Will be the day ...

Before the on-again, off-again mission was completed, some entrepreneurs even set up shop near the Niagara River and hawked "Barge Watcher" buttons and bumper stickers to onlookers.

-- A 1964 mail mix-up made headlines. As Buffalo Zoo crews pried open crates containing four recently purchased pink flamingos, they also made an unexpected discovery. To the embarrassment of the Postal Service, the animal handlers founded several pounds of airmail.

One reporter dutifully noted that a young flamingo and a mail pouch have some similarities. After all, each of the birds weighed about seven pounds, the same as the sack of letters.

But the birds were a blushing pink, while the bag was orange canvas.

"Well, a margin of error can be allowed for colorblindness," the reporter stated.

There are many other dubious moments in local history that should be included in our offbeat survey. The selling of the Buffalo Braves. Scott Norwood's missed field goal. Perhaps even a certain mayor's advice to snowbound Buffalo residents in 1985 ("Stay inside, grab a six-pack and watch a good football game"). But enough with the negative.

Finally, Buffalo has distinction of being home to perhaps the only U.S. president who ever fired off a handwritten letter complaining about a newspaper bill.

Grover Cleveland wrote the angry three-page letter on his Executive Mansion stationery, complaining to officials of the old Courier newspaper (before it merged with the Express) about a delinquency notice he received for a 4 1/2 -year-old subscription -- a subscription that he claimed he never knew he had.

Cleveland, a former Buffalo mayor and Erie County sheriff, grudgingly paid the bill and instructed circulation director James B. Shanley to discontinue his subscription.

Relatives of Shanley found Cleveland's letter in an old drawer 108 years after it was written.

"We got a kick out of it," Carol Shanley said. "Grandpa Stanley billed the president instead of writing off the debt."

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