The tumultous history of Buffalo’s Old First Ward

Note: Yesterday evening, author Timothy Bohen was the featured speaker at the monthly meeting of the Grand Island Historical Society. His presentation was about Buffalo’s Old First Ward. He told the story of this Buffalo neighborhood, beginning in the 1830s. Tim said that his desire to learn more about the history of his family motivated him to learn more about the old first ward.

“I originally planned on writing an 80-page booklet for family and friends, but the project grew. It became less about my family. It was an incredible story to tell.”

Tim spent a lot of time doing research: reading letters, memoirs, and family history. He then discovered a gem of a resource in Buffalo, called Waterfront Memories and More. It is run by three women, who have put a lot of effort into creating an archive and a museum of Buffalo history. The women are Bertha Guise-Hyde, Peggy May Szczgiel, and Joan Graham-Scahill. He was able to collect a lot of material for his book there.

“I wrote a couple of nights a week. IT became an obsession and the best experience of my life, other than marrying my wife,” Tim said.

Here are some interesting facts about Buffalo’s Old First Ward.
Above is Tim with his book, Against the Grain.

Buffalo in the nineteenth century was an industrial powerhouse. In the 1830s, the big industry was ship building, and the biggest company involved with shipbuilding was Bidwell and Banta. They built large, wooden side-wheeled steam boats. The ships were very luxurious. Tim said that there was a “really incredible industry” in the first ward related to the boats. Other things that were made in Buffalo included irons, propellers, engines, and boilers. 
By the 1840s, the emphasis had shifted to grain transshipments and grain mills. A man named Joseph Dart invented a conveyor system that pulled grain from ships and put the grain into a wooden grain elevator. Before that point, the workers had to carry all of the grain in baskets on their back, which was a very strenuous job.
The people who worked in the industries were mostly Irish immigrants. Tim described the community as “very insular” and as the “longest-enduring blue collar Irish community in North America.” 
The old first ward was a hard place to live. It was swampy and it was geographically isolated. Single men lived in boarding houses and families lived in “beachers,” which were typical cottage style houses of the time. “You had to be a hardy person to live there,” Tim said. Sometimes, disaster struck. In 1844, there was a tidal wave that inundated the area. The waves were fourteen feet high and 78 persons died in those waves. In addition to the waves, there were also cholera epidemics, which killed many people. Cholera is a disease that is caused by the consumption of contaminated food or beverage.

In the old first ward, life revolved around saloons, such as the Harbor Inn. Men spent a lot of time in the saloons (women were not permitted to enter saloons). Not only did the men drink whiskey in the saloons, they were able to find jobs. The saloon owners chose boarders and people who spent money in the saloon to work at jobs that became available on the docks. The system, as Tim described it, was very corrupt. The wages went to the saloon owner. He took money out that might be owed for board or for other expenditures in the saloon, and gave the employee the remaining money, which often wasn’t very much.

William J. “Fingy” Connors was a real-life American villain. He quit school at the age of 13 to work in the grain mills. He later was a saloon boss who negotiated the right with Great Lakes shippers to control their labor. He only hired men who spent copious amounts of money in his saloon, even though the men needed the money to support their families. He actually hired thugs to ensure that no employees would form labor unions. Fingy Connors’ schemes made him a wealthy man.

Eventually, he went overboard in his abuse of employees. When he cut wages in half, the workers went on strike.

The saloons were also places where politicians visited to campaign. One of them was Grover Cleveland, who campaigned in the saloons when he was a candidate for mayor of Buffalo. He later went on to become governor of New York and the only person to serve two nonconsecutive terms as president of the United States.

When people weren’t working, they were involved in sports, such as competitive rowing. In the early years of the twentieth century, William Aman was the world scull champion.

By 1900, Buffalo was a big, influential city. It was the eighth largest city in the United States and it was the sixth largest port in the world. At its height, Buffalo’s population was 500,000. After the Saint Lawrence Seaway was opened in 1959, however, goods traveled from the east coast to the interior of the United States and Canada, completely bypassing Buffalo. Buffalo’s population dropped, and the grain elevators decayed from lack of use. Today, there are just three working grain elevators, where there had formerly been many.

On the positive side, Canalside in Buffalo has been restored and is a destination for music and riverwalks and other activities. Competitive rowing has also been brought back to the Buffalo River. It had been heavily polluted and it continues to be cleaned.

After the presentation, I was able to buy a copy of Against the Grain from the author. If you’d like to purchase a copy, you can do so at “this website.”

1 thought on “The tumultous history of Buffalo’s Old First Ward”

  1. I am falling more and more in love with Western New York – there is so much history for me to learn. I do hope to get to Buffalo one day. Actually, I went through there, back in 1975 – on a bus, at night. But that doesn't count!

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