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Buffalo in the '50s: Skyway was city's 'brightest jewel'

The opening of the Skyway in 1955 was a cause for excitement and celebration in Buffalo and looked upon as a harbinger of good things to come for the city. There was the feeling that we were finally getting one right after years of talking about it.

Traffic flowing across the Skyway – which was named by a contest in The Buffalo Evening News – “heralded a new era” for Buffalo.

It was a “$12,000,000 ribbon of steel and concrete soaring far above downtown highway congestion,” reported The News. “Banished forever were the temper-wrecking, time-consuming traffic jams that leaped into existence every time railroads switched across Michigan Ave. or raised lift bridges dead-ended traffic there and on Ohio St.— jams that sometimes stalled cars all the way along South Park to the foot of Main St. Instead, there beckons a 1.1-mile-long, four-lane divided highway, with a 40-mile-an-hour speed limit and no traffic lights, sweeping in four great curves from its downtown entrances to Fuhrmann Blvd.”

WBEN Radio recorded the 11 a.m. opening ceremony and played it back at 7 p.m., so the downtown commuters who’d be the most regular users of the bridge would have the opportunity to listen once they got home from work.

Mayor Steven Pankow cut the ribbon on the bridge that had taken five years to build, but a few decades to imagine.

The first discussion of a high-level bridge to take traffic over the Buffalo’s harbor and railroad exchanges came in a 1922 planning report. That’s 33 years from conception to ribbon-cutting. Many thought it would never happen.

Mayor Pankow cuts the ribbon on the Skyway.

Part of the 2019 criticism of the Skyway is that it looms as a physical and psychological barrier to linking various waterfront development elements.

In 1955, the futuristic highway was being lauded as the solution to bring together two parts of the region that were separated by industrial infrastructure.

"For many years we of Buffalo have dreamed, pondered and discussed the problem of constructing a suitable passage over the water courses at the Buffalo Harbor and the devious routes in this section of the city," said State Superintendent of Public Works John Johnson at the ribbon-cutting.

"The restricting necessity of having this traffic artery running from the heart of the business district to the center of a large industrial section seems to have cut our city in two. It has also stifled the entire section from further growth and development, because of traffic congestion.

"Rescue of this area from virtual decay was paramount in our planning. It is a proud and happy day for all of us to witness the completion and now the utilization of this mighty structure. This piece of work will relieve the whole area from traffic delays, will enhance development, promote prosperity and open a new vista of beauty so magnificent as to be unforgettable."

The opening of the Skyway, said Mayor Pankow, "marks the beginning of a traffic relief development in Buffalo second to none in the state."

While the merits of the Skyway continue to be debated, the era of highway building it helped usher in is universally accepted as a dark time in Buffalo’s urban development. As cars first drove on the big elevated bridge along the water, another $33 million in highway construction was already in the works, including the Kensington and Scajaquada expressways.

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