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From Centennial to LaSalle: How Buffalo's waterfront park has evolved

In 1932, Buffalo was celebrating its centennial amid the Great Depression. The new art deco City Hall opened as a shining example of a modern Buffalo and the E.B. Green-designed Walter Mahoney Office Building was completed, rounding out Niagara Square.

A few miles down Niagara Street, preparations were being made to build a new park out of a former industrial site – what we know today as LaSalle Park. The land in between the Erie Canal and the Niagara River was a canalside dumping ground. The Col. Francis G. Ward Pumping Station sat on the northern end of the property, as it still does today.

The city purchased the land in 1912 for $1 million. The Buffalo Evening News wrote in Aug. 21, 1931, that the lands "are now feeling the long-awaited touch of spade and rake as city workers level and grade the land in preparation for landscaping this fall." Workers began filling and grading the land, providing much-needed work for men during the Great Depression.

The land was officially named Centennial Park in 1932 to celebrate Buffalo's 100 years. The park was envisioned as Buffalo's premier waterfront recreational space. A quarter-mile track, bleachers, a baseball and softball diamond and a football field were installed.

[Related: A Look Back at LaSalle Park, formerly Centennial Park]

Work continued in the park over the next several years. In 1935 and 1936, the Great Depression ended and the Works Progress Administration stepped in to lead the Clearwater Reservoir project in the park. Thousands of local WPA workers dug the reservoir under Centennial Park, which had a capacity of 12 million gallons of water. When the reservoir was completed in December 1936 and handed over to the city, Mayor George Zimmermann said in The Buffalo Evening News, "With completion of this reservoir, Buffalo's water system will be equaled by no other city."

The park was renamed LaSalle Park in 1940 after Rene-Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle, famous for being the first European explorer to land in Buffalo and for escorting Father Louis Hennepin on an expedition to Niagara Falls. Hennepin was the first person to draw a picture of the Falls.

Ralph Wilson's biggest gift yet: $100M to transform LaSalle Park, trails

By the 1950s, questions arose about conditions in LaSalle Park. An article in The Buffalo Evening News in 1953 wondered whether the city's investment in the park was enough, saying it "resembles nothing more than an oversized, vacant lot" and that "Buffalo's investment in LaSalle Park has brought forth little but grass and weeds." Since the park had opened, roads had been paved and a few new baseball diamonds added, but citizens were asking for amenities such as benches, water fountains and a playground. The city planned to spend up to $750,000 on park improvements.

 

In 1954, the expansion of the Niagara Thruway meant more acreage was added to LaSalle Park, as New York Central Railroad tracks that previously ran through the park were moved to accommodate the thruway expansion.

The park's famous band shell was added in 1984, and concerts have been performed there since.

Today, LaSalle Park is still Buffalo's largest waterfront park. There are fields for baseball, softball, football and soccer, a playground, the band shell and shelters for rental. There is also a dog park, a skate park and Centennial Pool.

What it looked like Wednesday: LaSalle Park and the Erie Canal, 1932

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