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Retired engineer solves mystery of waterfront ruins

It’s the least the state can do, given all that Henry Baxter has done.

Canalside is booming. The downtown waterfront’s history and public space have been preserved. Tens of thousands of people this summer reaped the rewards, soaking up sun on colorful Adirondack chairs, enjoying yoga classes or flocking to free concerts.

I doubt that any of them gave a silent thanks to a 91-year-old retired engineer with a bantamweight’s build who can climb three flights of stairs without huffing for breath.

Henry Baxter rates plenty of credit for the history that marks the center, and provides the theme, for Canalside. And now, largely because of the longtime canal buff, thousands of people will not just walk by the 19th-century ruins that enhance the site’s historic pull. They will finally learn the story behind the stones.

Imagine that.

“This is what I’ve been agitating for,” Baxter told me, in the attic office of his quaint Buffalo home. “People are curious about it. The state spent a lot of money to uncover the ruins – it makes sense to explain what they are.”

It’s tough to argue with that logic. Erie Canal Harbor officials, to their credit, won’t even try.

State officials did a nice job some 15 years ago – promoted by stone-cracking community pressure and a federal lawsuit – of uncovering and re-watering the historic Commercial Slip, Buffalo’s main page in America’s story. The Erie Canal’s western terminus is where DeWitt Clinton in 1825 launched the waterway that transformed America.

State officials a decade ago spent millions of dollars to unearth the Slip and adjacent building ruins, and replicate the brick-faced Coit McCutcheon building and bow-string bridge. But a prior band of state overseers dropped the barge pole on the site’s signage. It’s a confusing, unfocused scattershot that, astoundingly, minimizes the nationally-historic significance of the place it’s supposed to celebrate.

Among the missing pieces is the burning question raised by the ruins: What are they?

Baxter, with an assist from preservationist John Conlin, didn’t just unearth an 1860s city atlas that identified the buildings that stood there. His recent letter urging state officials to identify the ruins will prompt them to actually do it. The stone walls are remnants of the Lloyd Street Flour Mill and – fittingly, given the canal district’s boozing, brawling past – the Gillet Distillery.

“Now that we have accurate information on what the ruins represent, we absolutely need to tell that story – and we will,” said Sam Hoyt of the Erie Canal Harbor board.

Hoyt said he will meet with Baxter and Conlin, and hopes to find a photo of the buildings to include with the signage.

It’s hardly the first contribution of Baxter, a charter member of the state’s Canal Society.

State officials running the downtown waterfront project in the ’90s had little interest in the site’s history, much less any desire to unearth it. Baxter and others urged them to resurrect the Commercial Slip. State archeologists claimed – conveniently, it seemed – that they couldn’t find the long-buried walls. Baxter, who had 19th-century maps of the district, essentially told them where to dig.

“Henry knew exactly where it was,” recalled preservationist Conlin. State officials “kept saying there’s nothing there. Well, there was something there. Henry stuck with it like a hunting dog, with no other agenda than getting things right.”

The subsequent find of a Commercial Slip remnant aroused public interest – and paved the way for a Preservation Coalition lawsuit that led to the unearthing of the western terminus. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thank you, Henry.