You can't discuss Buffalo, NY history without first understanding the name of the city itself! So, what exactly is with the name of the good city of Buffalo? Discovering an irrefutable explanation might be good enough to net a Ph.D. in history, because the debate over the name has been on for decades. Top in the running are the theories that a) the name is an anglicized version of the French beau fleuve (beautiful river) and b) a gent from the Seneca tribe, named Buffalo (perhaps because he was shaped rather like one) fished in the creek that came to be known as Buffalo Creek.
The “War of 1812” is a misnomer as far as Buffalo is concerned, because the town didn’t get its black eye until the end of 1813. Things got really hot on Dec. 31, when 400 irregular U.S. troops tried to keep a British force at least four times its size from advancing from Canada. In “a sharp, unequal fight,” the British chased the Americans out of Black Rock and then burned Buffalo. On New Year’s Day, 1814, only three buildings were left standing; one was the jail.
Millard Fillmore often is a little fish in the big pond in national discourse. Fillmore himself declined an honorary degree from Oxford because he imagined that the students there would ask, “Who’s Fillmore? What’s he done?” But the 13th president (you knew that, didn’t you?) was a big fish in early Buffalo, first making a name and fortune as a lawyer and later offering his time, prestige, influence and advice to many civil institutions. Maybe his picture isn’t on a fiver, but he was born in a log cabin, too.
Shaking hands can be hazardous to your health. But President William McKinley didn’t think so, and in the end he shook one hand too many. In Buffalo to lend his enthusiasm to the 1901 World Exposition, McKinley greeted well-wishers at the Temple of Music against his handlers’ advice and was shot by Leon Czolgosz. The Temple itself did not become a shrine to a fallen leader; like most Exposition buildings, it was later demolished.
Before there was Evel Knievel or rogue wave surfers, there was...a 63-year-old school teacher. Yes, in 1901, Anna Edson Taylor climbed into a specially designed barrel and, with thousands gawking at her, plunged over the falls of Niagara. And lived. She was the first to attempt the stunt and had drummed up publicity for it (with the help of a promoter) shamelessly. As an attempt to cash in, it was a bust, but the fame lives on. In 2011 a new musical, “Queen of the Mist,” focused on Foster’s curious grab for glory.
The Bisons have been a minor league baseball presence since 1979, but 100 years before that Buffalo went all the way to The Show. In 1879, the Buffalo Bisons joined the fledgling National League for the circuit’s fourth season and pulled out a respectable third-place finish. By 1885, the team was in bankruptcy, and the players were sold to other teams. So perhaps the Bills have gained more glory on the gridiron, but take heart, baseball fans: Three of the early Bisons are now enshrined at Cooperstown.
Denizens of Dart Street, feel the honor: The man whom your street is named for did as much as anyone to help Buffalo rise to its early prominence. Merchant Joseph Dart made two key observations: An astounding amount of grain was being transferred through Buffalo, and physical labor couldn’t keep up efficiently. By 1842, Dart had applied newfangled steam power to an elevator and, voila, production sped up radically. “Predictions of failure were somewhat freely expressed,” Dart wrote later, but his was the last laugh.
A symposium could be held to debate the worst storm Buffalo has experienced in 200 years, but for many the blizzard of 1977 took the cake. Gales blew more than three feet of snow off of Lake Erie, creating drifts high enough to bury cars and even houses. With the fire hydrants nowhere to be seen, there were reports of dogs relieving themselves against TV antennae. But there’s a bright side to every climate: Since records have been kept, no summer day in Buffalo has hit triple digit temperatures.
Many Buffalo men went off to fight for the north in the Civil War, but there were local holdouts. The hamlet of Town Line, fifteen miles east of downtown Buffalo, actually voted to secede from the Union. Unbelievably, Town Line did not officially rejoin the USA until 1946. “Georgians Advise Town Line To Give U.S. Another Try,” The Buffalo News drily reported in 1945. Even President Harry S. Truman sent a letter exhorting the citizens of Town Line to throw a barbeque where the “dissidents” might be won over. Ultimately, Town Line voted itself back into the country, but there were still 23 unreconstructed rebels who cast “nay” votes.
Before being elected to the nation’s highest office in 1884, Grover Cleveland made a name as a reformist mayor of Buffalo. Hardworking and squeaky clean, he nevertheless found time to enjoy himself in the city’s many drinking establishments. When he and a local political friend decided that four beers a night wouldn’t do, they simply redefined what “a beer” was by lugging their own super-sized glassware with them to their favorite saloons.
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