Tales from the Very Nostrils of Hell

On Thursday, May 5th, the gardens at River Lea, the old farmhouse that is maintained as the headquarters for the Grand Island Historical Society, were bright with yellow and white daffodils. Beaver Island State Park, where River Lea is located, was full of deer and geese and other critters, looking for something good to eat. For that reason, there are no tulips planted at River Lea because tulips are a delicacy for deer and rabbits.

Our guest speaker for the evening’s program was Mike Vogel, who worked as a reporter and as an editorial page editor for The Buffalo News for 43 years before retiring. Since retiring, he has written a book about Buffalo’s Canalside, titled, America’s Crossroads: Buffalo’s Canal Street/Dante Place; the Making of a City.

Mike told us about the history of Buffalo’s Canalside district. After the Erie Canal opened in the 1820s, Buffalo grew dramatically, along with the port cities along the canal. The port cities all have names ending with the word “port.” They have such names as Lockport, Gasport, Middleport, and Brockport. Gasport got its name because there had been a supply of natural gas in that eastern Niagara County hamlet, located in the Town of Royalton.

Packet boats traversed the Erie Canal. They traveled at a speed of four miles an hour, which is the pace of a brisk walk. “They were more comfortable than a stagecoach,” Mike said. He mentioned something about kegs of whiskey placed every 100 yards along the canal. I am sure that they are no longer there.

Buffalo was the end of the Erie Canal, which began in Albany. In the Canalside district, there was a “red light district,” that Mike tried to document. “How do you document a red light district?” Mike asked. He went through all of the newspapers from that era, trying to find stories about the infamous red light district. In Buffalo, there had been several “red light districts,” including Chippewa Street and Genesee Street. Mike did find several “color stories,” which were written so that people could get an idea  of what life was like for people who lived in the Canal Street area.

Life was not pretty for them. In the 1830s, Harriet Martineau, who was considered to be Great Britain’s first woman sociologist, visited the United States. One of the places that she visited was Buffalo. To say that she was unimpressed would be an understatement. She called the city “the very nostrils of hell.” Or maybe she called the Canal district the very nostrils of hell. Another name for the district was “the infected district.” Immigrants from Sicily lived in “steamboat hotels,” which were “crowded hellholes.” An average of ten to fifteen persons crammed each room. The result was terrible epidemics of cholera and influenza. In one horrible week, 100 persons died of disease.

Here are some interesting facts about the Very Nostrils of Hell:

  • There was a saloon on the towpath that was run by William Douglas, who was a former slave. The place was very squalid. It was “cleaned” during floods. 
  • Mary Gleason, who worked in the district in one of the houses of prostitution, was beaten by her man. She couldn’t pay her rent. The landlord took everything from her room, including the heater. Mary froze to death.
  • The area was dangerous. There were murders and other assorted crimes. The victims were thrown in the water (either the canal or the lake). Three days after the victim’s untimely demise, the body (called a floater) came to the surface.
  • A woman, who was drunk and disorderly, was arrested one day and was thrown in the back of a wagon on top of a stack of corpses, probably after she passed out. When all were unloaded  at the morgue, she stood up and let loose with a long string of swear words, which caused the morgue attendant to faint.
  • Mary Remington of the social services movement in Chicago established Remington House, which taught trades to boys. Many of them became barbers.
  • Mariah Love of Trinity Episcopal Church was a wealthy woman who gave milk to mothers of small babies. It was observed that women lost teeth when they were nursing their babies, due to calcium loss.

On January 1st, 1936, there was an explosion in a big building. That was the beginning of the end for the district. The structures in the area were knocked down and were replaced by the Marine Drive Apartments.

“There is now nothing left of the canal district,” Mike said.

Mike said that his fascination with Canalside came from his work for The Buffalo News. During the boom of the 1970s and 1980s, he visited many waterfronts.

He said that, although the rough and tumble canal district is long gone, the stories still need to be told. He said that History is the story of us. There are still reminders of the canal district, in American Express and Wells Fargo, two companies that got their start in the Canal district. The canal, however, also is long gone. The very end of the Erie Canal, which meets Lake Erie, has been filled in. Its days as a canal are long gone.

The canal district, however, is thriving with tourists, the arts, and food trucks. It has a new life

4 thoughts on “Tales from the Very Nostrils of Hell”

  1. Loved your title. I have been reading a little about a neighborhood in New York City called Five Points that was one of the worst neighborhoods in the City of the 1800's, yet, today, its existence is barely known about except by historians. I worked near that neighborhood for a summer in the 1970's and knew nothing of the history of the ground I walked on five days a week. Can we even begin to imagine the conditions there in NYC and in Buffalo.

  2. What's with the tea cup and the corset?

    Wonderful, sad, funny stories! Has anyone collected the cream of the newspaper articles? The ladies of the DAR have put out numerous such books for the Corydon area.

  3. Cerebrations.biz

    I think there are still stories about the Canal (but not hte red light life) in some of the older textbooks that taught about New York State. Sicne the canal system was vital for much of New York State commerce.

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