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His knowledge of North Tonawanda could pack an office

Daniel Bille is still trying to find out who's buried in historic Sweeney Cemetery.

He's also researching the "urban legend" that Oliver Street once had more taverns than any other street in America.

And what about the secret rooms in many of the old houses here. Some people think they were used to hide travelers on the Underground Railroad. Bille has a different take on it.

Buffalo-born Bille has lived in North Tonawanda for nearly 60 of his 65 years, and he is fascinated by this hard-bitten city that once rivaled Chicago as the lumber capital of the world.

A retired engineer, electronics teacher and technical writer, he took on the nonpaying job of city historian in 2000, working out of his home on Christiana Street and trying not to get in the way of his wife, the former Gail Parske, an artist who freelances architectural drawings and landscapes.

These days, Bille has the luxury of a small office on the second floor of City Hall, which is where Niagara Weekend pinned him down for some pertinent peccadillos from NT's picaresque past.

What's the story behind those secret rooms?

People come in and tell me about finding narrow passageways to hidden rooms in their old houses. They speculate they were used as hiding places for African-Americans who came up here from the South. There's one problem. The houses aren't old enough to have been built during the Underground Railroad era. But they were here during Prohibition. The secret rooms were used to store bottles of booze that had been bootlegged from Canada during Prohibition.

North Tonawanda pulled a fast one on Elliot Ness and his Untouchables?

Elliot Ness had his hands full in Chicago. No one was watching North Tonawanda. It was so simple. Locals would would row across the Upper Niagara River off Grand Island into Canada and return under cover of night with a boatload of whiskey.

Speaking of Chicago, you say North Tonawanda came a close second as world lumber capital?

In the mid- and late-1800s, timber logged in Michigan would be shipped across Lake Erie to hook up with the Niagara River and Tonawanda Creek. When the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, barges would take the lumber all the way to New York City, where it was shipped overseas.

And in North Tonawanda, immigrants did all the heavy lifting, I understand.

This was a hard-working lumber town full of ethnic diversity. Celts, Germans, Poles, you name it -- and they all drank beer.

Which leads us right to Oliver Street. More taverns than any other street in America? Come on.

In the 1960s, North Tonawanda was in the Guinness Book of Records as having more taverns on the two-mile stretch of Oliver Street than anywhere else. It's become an urban legend, but I don't have any official record of this. I have my researcher, June Pendergast, working on it. She's using city directories from as far back as 1900 to make a list of all the taverns in North Tonawanda. Prohibition caused a gap in the record-keeping, so we have to account for that.

How so?

Before Prohibition, we had saloons, saloons and more saloons. During Prohibition, we had restaurants, restaurants and more restaurants. They had the same owners and the same addresses, but they were called restaurants. When Prohibition ended, we went back to saloons and taverns. We have to maintain the link.

When you took on this job five years ago, we called you the cemetery sleuth, trying to identify unmarked graves in Sweeney Cemetery. How's that going?

As of now, there are 1,258 people buried there that we know of, but there are still more we don't know about. The cemetery dates back to 1820, when it was the Sweeney family cemetery. Many people were buried two deep with wooden markers that have long disappeared.

Do you know how many historic war veterans are buried there?

That's what we're still piecing together. We know Col. John Sweeney for sure. He founded the city with his brother, James, and was wounded in the Battle of Queenston during the War of 1812. We have others from the War of 1812 and some from the Civil War. We have a scrawled entry in an old burial book that strongly suggests we have at least one from the Revolutionary War. We have to do a lot more investigation.

You had a problem with vandals at one time, didn't you?

Most of the vandalism occurred during the 1950s. Headstones were removed or damaged to the point where we could no longer read the inscriptions. The cemetery is so visible and was vulnerable. We recently replaced a rickety old chain-link fence with a $50,000 aluminum fence around the whole cemetery. People love that fence.

What else have you been doing lately?

I just finished writing a 15-page history of North Tonawanda from 1805 to the present for an upcoming book on Niagara County's bicentennial to be celebrated next year. My son, Jonathan, who is studying English at the University at Buffalo, helped me greatly with the editing.

How difficult was it to cram 200 years of history into 15 pages?

That was easy compared to an assignment I had two years ago to write a brief history of the city for the Encyclopedia of New York State, which was published by Syracuse University. There I am on Page 1122, and the history runs about 600 words. Now, writing 200 years of history in 600 words was extremely difficult. It took me two weeks.

What has been the biggest change in North Tonawanda over the years?

We've suffered the same fate as many industrialized cities in the Northeast -- the decline of industry during the Rust Belt era. North Tonawanda was an industrial powerhouse in the first half of the last century. We were the first city to get electricity when the old Niagara Falls Power Co. began transmission in the early 1900s. We got it before Buffalo did because we were on the route to Buffalo. The power went through here first, and as it passed by, industry took as much as it could. A lot of companies benefited from that. It used to be said of North Tonawanda that you could quit one job in the morning and have a new one by afternoon.

And your job now is to record that history and preserve it for future generations.

North Tonawanda history has always been my hobby. I can come and go in this office as I please, but I usually end up staying all day. I have some ladies waiting outside now who are here to help me catalog the city attorney's letters and private papers from 1918. That was a fascinating year.

Aren't they all?

Yes, indeed and I'm making the most of them.


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