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The Buffalo of Yesteryear: When Black Rock was a village, not a neighborhood

Buffalo’s Black Rock neighborhood has a distinctive identity. It almost feels like its own, separate place.

That’s because once upon a time, it was.

Buffalo and Black Rock were onetime competitors. Black Rock – now on the city’s northwest side along the Niagara River and south of Riverside – was, like Buffalo, founded right after the dawn of the 19th century. Early maps show it was greater in extent than the neighborhood is now, spanning most of what today would be called the West Side and even extending into parts of where downtown Buffalo currently stands.

The “Historical and Statistical Gazetteer of New York State,” a meticulous volume by J.H. French published in 1860, described Black Rock as an incorporated village that was annexed by Buffalo in 1853. (Parts of Black Rock had been added to Buffalo before that.) At the time of the book’s publication, Black Rock was home to one of the city’s five post offices; the others were Buffalo, North Buffalo, Buffalo Plains and Red Jacket.

“Buffalo had from the first a formidable rival in Black Rock,” the 1860 book reads. “While the mouth of Buffalo Creek was obstructed by a bar, Black Rock possessed an excellent harbor and monopolized the infant commerce of the lake. The ‘Walk-in-the-Water,’ the first steamboat on Lake Erie, was built at Black Rock in 1818.”

Remnants of early Black Rock are also apparent in the hodgepodge of what seem like randomly numbered streets on Buffalo’s West Side, as Angela Keppel points out on her Buffalo Streets blog. Streets like Fourth Street, Seventh Street, 10th Street and 14th Street exist, but the numbers in between don’t.

A map published in 1855 covering "the upper and lower villages of Black Rock, Cold Springs" and more. (From The New York Public Library)

Another early map of Buffalo at Yale University’s online library solves the mystery. The streets known today as Lakeview Avenue, Busti Avenue, Columbus Street and Prospect Avenue were originally part of Black Rock and respectively called Fifth Street, Sixth Street, Seventh Street and Ninth Street. (Niagara Street, between Columbus and Prospect, was apparently always called Niagara Street and ran where Eighth Street would have been.)

The numbers went all the way down to First Street, and up to 13th – the present-day West Avenue was 11th Street, Plymouth Avenue was 12th Street and Normal Avenue was 13th Street, according to Keppel’s blog. Converting all the streets to their original names puts the streets still named after numbers in their proper context.

Black Rock and Buffalo competed for the honor of being chosen as the western terminus of the Erie Canal, and when Buffalo won that distinction, the former gradually lost ground to the latter in the turf war and was eventually annexed to Buffalo.

Torn-Down Tuesday: The mills of the Black Rock Canal, 1899

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