H is for history

Last week, I heard an interesting historical presentation by John Montague of the Buffalo Maritime Center. So… you’re probably wondering what this has to do with finding beauty in likely or unlikely places. Well… this is a little more abstract, maybe. I would say that finding beauty in history may be finding beauty in an unlikely place. So many people dislike history. They describe it as boring and as just a recitation of dry facts and a string of dates.

from left, John Montague of the Buffalo Maritime Center, with Curt Nestark, president of the Grand Island Historical Society.

People often forget that, within the word “history,” is that magical word: “story.” If well told, story brings the past to life. It brings color and human beings and their imperfections to life. It gives voices to the past. It offers details about the lives of people who lived long ago, such as their favorite foods and music. When you take the dry facts out of history and you turn it into story, history has become a beautiful thing found in an unlikely place.

John Montague breathed life into the great boats of Buffalo’s past. He set the scene and he talked about the famous and infamous people who owned the boats. So… here we go… 

Buffalo harbor in its heyday

In 1817, the construction of the Erie Canal was begun. It was completed in 1825, and it turned Buffalo into a powerful economic center. By 1900, there were more millionaires per capita in Buffalo than in any other city in the United States. The Erie Canal, John said, was “very significant. It brought New England people and immigrants into the midwest.” It connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes. What would American history have looked like if there had been no Erie Canal? The Civil War might have ended differently. One of the reasons that Missouri did not secede from the Union was the large population of German immigrants in Saint Louis, who were loyal to the Union, would not have permitted that to happen. 

So, immigrants would have stayed in the east. The financial capital would not have been New York; it would have been New Orleans, on the Gulf of Mexico. The economic power of the United States would have been centered in the south. The existence of that one canal, called by skeptics “(DeWitt) Clinton’s ditch,” changed history. 

So… back to Buffalo and the boats and the characters.

I’ll mention two characters:

Spenser and Ruth Kellogg

There was Spenser Kellogg, who made his fortune by selling tongue oil. What is tongue oil used for? And how do you get oil from tongues? Could I fuel a car with the oil from my tongue? Wouldn’t it taste bad?

I’m not sure about this one. I’d better look up tongue oil. Aha! It’s not “tongue oil.” It’s tung oil. It’s a drying oil, used for wood. It’s made from the nuts of the tung tree. It hardens when it’s exposed to air, so it makes a fine finishing touch for wooden objects. The tung tree grows in southern China, Burma, and Vietnam.

Spenser Kellogg aboard the Elgrudor.
The boat’s name is a comination
of the names of the
Kelloggs’ four daughters:
Eleanor, Grace, Ruth, and

Well, knowing that, it’s not a surprise that Spenser Kellogg owned ocean going tankers.

Plans for the SS Ruth Kellogg

I had thought that one guy owning all of those tankers seemed to be a tad excessive. But… if he was busy transporting tung oil across the ocean in large quantities, I guess that he would want a fleet of very large ships.

Then there was William “Fingy” Conners. He was a character. A villainous sort of character. John Montague said, “He was basically a thug.” He was a rich thug. He got the nickname “Fingy” because he lost a thumb when he was a boy.

John Montague’s painting
of William “Fingy” Conners’
boat, the Mary Alice.

Apparently, it was the result of a bet. He was a dockworker who worked himself up the ranks by the old-fashioned method: brute force. He was described as being shaped like a fire hydrant. He was a mob boss, too. Busy man. 

Fingy Conners’ business.

He managed to control Great Lakes shipping, much of the U.S. and Canadian grain trade, and the Democratic Party, all at the same time. Apparently, he didn’t care about leisure time. He didn’t want the media to criticize him so he bought the Courier-Express. He owned a ship named the Mary Alice He was such an interesting character that he became the subject of a successful comic strip, “Bringing Up Father.” The artist, George McManus, drew the cartoon, in which the main character, Jiggs, bore a strong resemblance to Fingy Conners, after Fingy and his wife Mary refused to permit George to marry their daughter. 

“Fingy Conners operated like certain politicians do today,” John Montague said. Some things never change.

Now, I’ll mention one place.

Grand Island. With the invention of the steamboat, Grand Island became a destination for people who wanted to get away from Buffalo’s pollution.

Buffalo pollution

The smog was intense. In Grand Island’s gilded age, people in the “lower ranks of society” were able to enjoy some leisure time. They traveled via ferry to Grand Island, where they were able to enjoy picnics. 

the Falconwood Club

The wealthier people stayed at resorts, such as the Falconwood Club, and the less wealthy people went to such places as the Bedell House, where they could enjoy fresh air and a countryside setting. The wealthier people had their yachts.

the sailor craze

“From the 1850s to the 1890s, people were obsessed with all things nautical. They designed boats for different races. Everyone played a role. People liked to dress children like sailors.” They started racing the boats, which traveled the water at 25 miles per hour.

What happened to all of those boats? Many of them were given to the U.S. Navy during World War I.

the sad fate of the Mary Alice

One of those boats was Fingy Conners’ Mary Alice. It met a sad fate. During submarine trials, one of the submarines came up directly underneath the boat, causing it to break in two and sink with dignitaries aboard. The ship died, but no humans died.

7 thoughts on “H is for history”

  1. Wow, I love that picture of the Buffalo Harbor! And I don't think I knew that Grand Island was connected or adjacent to Buffalo. Or, did I?

  2. I think a big reason people don't like history is it brings to mind boring high school and college classes with dry, boring teachers/professors who only wanted to get through the material and didn't really care about making it interesting. That's been my experience anyway. Although, with my family history, I love hearing stories from the past, whether part of "official" history or just family history.

  3. I like when you say that there is a story in History and it should not be only dull drab facts. Interesting to know about Tongue Oil and Fingy. Thanks for sharing, Alice 🙂

  4. Cerebrations.biz

    Somehow this simply reminds me that Buffalo should stop reveling in its faded past and grab onto its potentially fantastic future.

  5. In a way, I agree with Cerebrations – they used to teach childen (like my son, when he was in school) countless lessons about our area's past, but very little encouraging them to stay and give our area a future. At the same time, I love history – and I agree it needs to be taught partially by true stories, and never by memorization of dry facts.

  6. Found you via Alana at Rambling with Am.

    And oh, gosh, I was all excited for a second thinking I have friends who are restoring one of those steamboats, but I was misrembering, the Columbia was in Detroit sailing to Bob-Lo Island. She's in Buffalo now, though, you might enjoy her history too. sscolumbia.org

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