World Facts Index > United States > Buffalo

From the renaissance thinking of the waterfront to downtown's phoenix rising, from the major airport expansion to a revived arts and cultural scene, New York's second-largest city is booming again.

Just like in the glory days, when Buffalo was Queen City of The Lakes and Gateway to the Midwest, supplying steel, cars, meat, grain and textiles to the rest of the nation and the world.

Just like in the days when the port bustled and the railroads hummed and the manufacturing plants, using cheap Niagara Falls electricity, produced chemicals and refined oil for a hungry industrial engine.

Just like in the days at the turn of the last century when the city was on top of the world, boasting the known universe's largest grain and livestock markets, and when it was the logical choice for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, one of whose buildings still stands, housing the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

An exciting, bustling place, in other words, that can name two presidents as native sons (Millard Fillmore in 1850 and Grover Cleveland in 1884 and again in 1892), that flaunts six structures built by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a park system created by one of the designers of Manhattan's Central Park.

Dark Clouds Dispelled

Oh, Buffalo saw some dark times in the three decades between 1960 and 1990, climaxed by the 1982 closing of most of its steel mills and the death of the Courier-Express morning paper, where Mark Twain had served as editor a century before.

But through it all, this city of just over 300,000 (with 1.2 million in the surrounding 'burbs) has always maintained its class and dignity. And, above all, its friendliness. It's not called The City of Good Neighbors and The Biggest Small Town in America for nothing.

Buffalo's ethnic diversity—Greek, Irish, Italian, African American, Polish, Scottish, Hispanic and German, to name a few—overlays a basic blue collar mentality. There's a solid underpinning on which to build and re-build.

And re-build the city has, pumping millions into its downtown showpiece Theater District, expansion of the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, waterfront housing, and a Metro Rail line from HSBC Arena to the South Campus of the State University at Buffalo. It has diversified its economy, moving from strictly "rust belt" industries to services and tourism, to high tech and fiber optics. It has put up hotels, banks, office buildings and a state-of-the-art convention center.

At the same time, the city has been mindful of the distinctive neighborhoods that make up Buffalo, a compact area of a mere 42 square miles. Allentown, Bailey-Lovejoy, Black Rock, the Delaware District, the Elmwood Strip, Kensington, North Buffalo, Polonia, South Buffalo, West Side: each has its unique story to tell and will defend its heritage with the ferociousness of a mother protecting her child.

National Historic District

There's Allentown National Historic District, home to both The Wilcox Mansion (where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated) and The Allentown Art Festival; the Bailey-Lovejoy area's commitment to preserving its railroad past through the Iron Island Museum and annual neighborhood festival; the Delaware District with Delaware Park, the jewel of the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park system, Forest Lawn Cemetery, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and Cofeld Judaic Museum of Temple Beth Zion; and Polonia, featuring the traditional Broadway Market food vendors and the New York Central Terminal.

With Lake Erie and Canada to the west, Buffalo is bordered on its other three sides by suburban areas also rich in history and heritage. To the north and northeast lie Tonawanda and Amherst, the first combining a strong industrial base with beautiful parks and natural scenery, the latter home to the huge University at Buffalo North Campus.

To the east can be found Cheektowaga (Land of the Crabapple) with the Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Walden Galleria Mall, largest mall in Western NY. To the south and southeast lie the aptly named Southtowns: Lackawanna, Hamburg, West Seneca, Orchard Park and East Aurora, combining heavy industry and farms, shopping malls and village boutiques, modern condos and 19th century architectural gems.

Hamburg is home to the Erie County Fairgrounds, site of the Buffalo Raceway and the Erie County Fair. Orchard Park hosts the 75,000-seat Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the NFL Buffalo Bills. East Aurora houses the Roycroft Campus, Elbert Hubbard's famous early-20th-century arts and crafts colony, as well as the Toy Town Museum, sponsored by Fisher-Price Toys.

Economic and Cultural Hub

Perhaps inspired by the circular road system laid out by Joseph Ellicott after the settlement was burned during the War of 1812, Buffalo serves as the hub for the region, sending out its economic and cultural spokes in every direction.

It is within its compact downtown that you'll find the hive of performing arts activity known as the Theater District. And the Chippewa Club Zone. And Buffalo Place, with its pedestrian mall and reputation as festival central. And the HSBC Arena (formerly Marine-Midland), where the NHL Buffalo Sabres skate.

It is here that Buffalo City Hall, a 1929 Art Deco masterpiece, rises like a gaudily-bedecked matron, and the French Renaissance-style Ellicott Square Building still stands, finished in 1896 and at the time the largest office building in the world. It is here that the Baroque interior of Shea's Performing Arts Center serves as an anchor for the 20-block Theater District.

And it's true: Buffalo chicken wings actually were created here, thanks to a stray shipment of wings that made its way to the Anchor Bar in the mid-1960s. Buffalo is also home to the Beef on Weck sandwich and is the Friday fish fry capital of the world. And all you kazoo players out there should know that this all-American instrument first saw the light of day at the Original American Kazoo Company in Eden, south of Buffalo.

Oh yes. Lest we forget. Buffalo is a mere 25 miles from what has been called one of the seven natural wonders of the world. For 11 million visitors a year, The Falls alone are attraction enough.

Now comes a mystery: How did Buffalo get its name? Woolly bison have never been part of the landscape (except inside the Buffalo Zoo). One theory has the first settlers, seeing Indians in the area, giving the name Buffaloe's Creek to what is now the Buffalo River. Another stems from the French influence in the area. A French missionary-explorer, dazzled by the beauty of the Niagara River, called it beau fleuve or beautiful river--and this eventually came to be mispronounced "Buffalo" by the locals.

Whatever the story behind the name of the city (which was originally called New Amsterdam), one thing is no mystery: This City of Good Neighbors offers all its visitors small-town hospitality in a big-city environment. So, feel free to look around and explore--be it ethnically-diverse cuisine, high-caliber theater, Elmwood Avenue's Victorian mansions, or the Chippewa Club Zone's sizzling nightlife. You're sure to find something to your liking.

History of Buffalo

Compared to other cities in the original 13 colonies, Buffalo is relatively young. While French explorer Robert LaSalle is credited as the first white man to view the area around 1628, it would be another 130 years before the first permanent French settlement was established.

Control of the area changed hands several times before the turn of the 19th century, with the British and the Dutch each having a turn. Finally, the land was sold for development to a group called the Holland Land Company, which was led by Joseph Ellicott, known as the founder of Buffalo.

To remove the final obstacle to development of the area, the Holland Land Company began negotiating with the local native tribe for the purchase of lands north of the Buffalo River. The tribe agreed to sell 1.3 million acres of western New York for $100,000, although it took a $600 gift and annual payments of $100 to native leader Red Jacket to clinch the deal.

Ellicott named the settlement New Amsterdam to please his Dutch superiors, and began to plan the new village. The system of major arteries radiating from the central hub--what is now Niagara Square--was copied from the design of Washington, D.C.

Five Lawyers and No Church

In 1810, New Amsterdam had fewer than 500 residents, a newspaper, a few stores and, according to the diary of De Witt Clinton, who was finalizing the route for what would become the Erie Canal, "five lawyers and no church."

When the residents decided to rename the town Buffalo, Joseph Ellicott was insulted. He left to make his residence in Batavia, 30 miles east, and vowed never to return. No grudge was held by the residents, though: Oneida Street, parallel to and two blocks east of Main, was renamed Ellicott Street, the name it bears today.

The derivation of "Buffalo" has never been fully explained. One thing's for sure: no buffalo, or North American bison, has ever been sighted in the area--unless, of course, you're talking about the Buffalo Zoo. One theory is that the first settlers, upon sighting Indians in the area, gave the name Buffaloe's Creek to what is now the Buffalo River. Another is that the French called the Niagara River beau fleuve or beautiful river, and this came to be mispronounced "Buffalo."

By 1812, the United States was at war with Great Britain, and Buffalo's border location would bring the war home. The British burned the city in December 1813, reprising their 1759 attack on the then-new French settlement. Buffalo, with financial help from Albany, New York City, and New York State, began rebuilding, and, within 20 years, it had become a major city.

He Built the City

By 1820, events started to fall into place for Buffalo. Construction of a harbor began, led by Samuel Wilkeson and financed by a $12,000 loan from New York State. The epitaph on Wilkeson's Forest Lawn Cemetery grave reads Urban Condidit,, Latin for "He built the city."

The value of the harbor was not lost on New York State officials, who decided in 1822 that Buffalo, not rival town Black Rock, should be the western terminus of the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. This decision sealed Black Rock's fate: it was absorbed by Buffalo about 30 years later.

The opening of the Erie Canal in October 1826 was probably the single most important event in the growth of Buffalo. Nearly all of the 2,400 residents turned out to see the first vessel enter the canal, and the dumping of a bottle of Hudson River water into Lake Erie.

Buffalo, which would be incorporated as a city in 1832, was now set to become one of the country's most important transportation hubs. By the mid-1830s, grain pouring in from the Midwest was processed in Buffalo then shipped via the canal to points east. Grain elevators, invented in Buffalo, sprang up everywhere. By World War II, Buffalo would be processing 300 million pounds of grain annually.

Buffalo's growth continued through the 19th century. The arrival of the railroads spawned the development of heavy industries such as steel and auto manufacturing. A unique inner- and outer-loop system allowed for efficient rail transport of raw materials and finished goods. At the railroads' peak, just after World War II, this city of 43 square miles had within its borders some 700 miles of track.

Presidential Native Sons

Two of Buffalo's native sons served as U.S. presidents in the 19th century. Millard Fillmore took office in 1850 upon the death of Zachary Taylor, and would subsequently be elected to his own term. Grover Cleveland, a Buffalo mayor, then New York governor, was elected to office in 1884. After losing a bid for re-election in 1888, Cleveland became the only president to serve non-consecutive terms with his victory in 1892.

The flow of electricity from Niagara Falls, 20 miles to the north, beginning in November 1896, continued Buffalo's spectacular economic growth. This plentiful supply of energy helped Buffalo land the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, fending off bids from larger cities like Detroit.

The Exposition grounds covered an area between Elmwood Avenue and Delaware Avenue, north of Delaware Park, the city's biggest green space and designed in the 1870s by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed park systems in Chicago, Montreal and New York City. The last remaining building from the Exposition now houses the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

On September 6, 1901, tragedy struck at the Exposition. President William McKinley, in attendance for President's Day, was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz as he shook hands in the crowd. McKinley succumbed to his wounds early in the morning of September 14, and that afternoon Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as his successor. Roosevelt, a frequent visitor to Buffalo at the time, was sworn in at the Wilcox Mansion, the home of a personal friend.

Of Growth and Prosperity

Although the Exposition lost money, it put Buffalo squarely on the map as one of the most important business centers in the United States. This position continued through the first half of the 20th century, as Buffalo grew and prospered on its way to becoming the country's 15th largest city in 1950.

However, Buffalo was not immune to the regional trend of plant closings and relocations. Beginning in the mid-1950s, many businesses shut their doors or headed to the south and west, and the city's population declined by more than 150,000 before stabilizing by the mid-1970s.

More recently, beginning in the early 1980s, the city has undergone a renaissance as old, "smoke stack" industries have been replaced with financial and high technology firms. As well, the waterfront has been developed more wisely, with housing, businesses, restaurants and recreation replacing the steel mills and factories.

The Weather

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 30 31 41 54 66 75 80 77 70 58 47 35
Avg. Low 17 17 25 36 47 56 61 60 54 42 34 22
Mean 24 25 34 45 57 66 71 68 62 51 41 28
Avg. Precip. 2.7 in 2.3 in 2.7 in 2.9 in 3.1 in 3.6 in 3.1 in 4.2 in 3.5 in 3.1 in 3.8 in 3.7 in


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