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Trace a path through Buffalo’s history with newly restored maps on display

Buffalo had a much smaller footprint back in 1833.

North Street was the city’s most appropriately named thoroughfare, sitting at the northern edge of a city that had a population of about 10,000.

Where a Walgreens now stands, a private cemetery sat on the southwest corner of Delaware Avenue and North Street.

Jefferson “Street” was the city’s eastern boundary.

And the city’s southeastern line, near the current Hamburg Street in the city’s First Ward, was called “Ferry Street,” miles from the current Ferry Street.

Only the city’s West Side would be recognizable 182 years later, with Pennsylvania, Hudson, Maryland and Virginia streets.

This is all contained in one of several maps now on display in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library downtown. The 1833 map is pure history, showing many of the obvious changes over the last two centuries.

It is one of seven original – but newly restored and conserved – maps that can be seen in the Grosvenor Rare Book Display Room of the Central Library. The exhibit, “You Are Here: Buffalo on the Map,” includes more than 25 maps of the city, mostly from the 19th century.

“It’s almost like you get to walk backwards in time,” said Amy Pickard, the library’s rare book curator. “You can’t stand on the street in that particular time period, but this is the closest thing to that.”

The maps exhibit, which is expected to be on display through summer, spans virtually the entire 19th century, from 1805 to 1893.

Those were heady times for Buffalo, mirroring the city’s greatest growth, from just 2,400 residents in 1825 to about 350,000 at the dawn of the next century. That growth was sparked, in large part, by the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal, the advent of steam-powered grain elevators and the emergence of the Underground Railroad, which led blacks to safe houses on their way to Canada.

That century also saw the region survive the burning of almost every building in the two villages, Buffalo and Black Rock, in the last days of 1813, during the War of 1812.

The 1833 map, depicting a town that had incorporated as a city just one year earlier, gives little hint of what the city would become by the time the Pan-American Exposition rolled into town in 1901, well north of the city’s 1833 border.

“I think it seems like the natural progression of a growing city like Buffalo,” said Charles Alaimo, the new exhibit’s curator. “This is well before the Pan-American Exposition, so it’s working its way up to be an internationally famous city.”

Those who like their history a bit on the gritty side probably will get their biggest kick out of the 1893 “Map of the Retail Places of Business” in the district covered by the Christian Homestead Association.

We’re talking about houses of prostitution and gin mills, though the mapmaker avoided those terms.

The lower right side of that 1893 map tells the story, identifying 75 “houses of ill-fame,” 108 saloons and 76 secondhand clothing stores, barber shops and restaurants. The district – including names from long ago, like Boiler Street and the inappropriately named Maiden Lane – covered an area bounded roughly by Terrace Street to the north, Erie and Main streets on the west and east and Lake Erie on the south.

“It was an area of great commerce because of all the business on the lake, with all the sailors who added to the increase of prostitution in the area,” Alaimo said. “It was considered the infected district.”

The earliest depiction, though drawn in 1850, dates to 1805, combining handwritten text about the village of Buffalo with a map depicting the city’s original plan. That includes the survey of lots and sales by the Holland Land Company and its local agent, Joseph Ellicott, library officials pointed out.

“In 1850, they were concerned about their history,” Alaimo explained. “They put together a history of their past, dating back from 1850 to 1805, when it was just a pioneer settlement. There’s a lot of historical information about the early inhabitants, the early property owners, the religious congregations, the commerce on the lake, the early newspapers and the growth of the population.”

There also is a fascinating map from 1825, when the village of Buffalo’s northern border was Chippewa Street. That small village included several tongue-twisting ethnic names, including Vollenhoven, Stadnitski and Schimelpeninck avenues.

The new map collection on display proved to be a labor of love for library staff, with the help of the Niagara Art Conservation, which helped restore many of the maps.

“They were in very bad shape, due to handling and exposure over many, many years,” Pickard said. “They were not just soiled. The linen backgrounds were coming free from the backs of the maps, there was a lot of paper discoloration, mostly on the corners, and a couple of them were seriously water-stained.”

The collection also veers outside its 19th-century time frame with one more modern artifact, a “What Goes On Here” map completed in about 1942 by Hengerer’s department store to help new residents learn the area.

That map, complete with small cartoonlike drawings, shows several local landmarks, including homes, offices and historic sites made famous by celebrities such as Katharine Cornell, Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.

One caution listed on that map shows how lighthearted the whole venture was: “Any similarity as to likeness or location is quite coincidental.”

As Pickard noted, “That’s Twainian.”