Buffalo in Erie County, New York — The American Northeast (Mid-Atlantic)
Tow Path Park
Tow Path Park
The “Black Rock”
The black rock that gave the area its name was situated in the Niagara River just north of where the Peace Bridge is now, near the foot of present-day School Street. It was 200 feet wide, rose about five feet above the water, and functioned as a natural breakwater in the harbor. In the early 1820s the rock was blasted away with dynamite during the construction of the Erie Canal. A small remnant of the rock is visible on the right shoulder of I-190 North just beyond the Peace Bridge.
The village of Black Rock was first settled around the year 1800 near the present-day intersection of Niagara and Ferry Streets. Upper Black Rock was to the south and Lower Black Rock was to the north – extending from present-day School Street to what is now Hertel Avenue. The Niagara River, Scajaquada Creek, and the activities of famous residents of the area defined the boundaries and character of the early community, though present-day boundaries are harder to determine.
The area began to prosper following completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, and by the 1830s had
[2nd panel] History of the Hertel Area
Black Rock Harbor
The “black rock” jutting into the Niagara River formed a natural harbor, and could accommodate boats mare easily than Buffalo’s harbor. The early settlers knew that the area would be a good base for boats to dock, as well as a meeting place, center for commerce and trading, and resting place for traders. Over time, the rock became the hub of area activity, and a small settlement grew. The settlement was named Black Rock after the harbor and the rock. By 1811 there was significant trade, sometimes surpassing that of the nearby settlement of Buffalo.
War of 1812
During the War of 1812, lands along both sides of the Niagara River became an important area for base camps, and served as a transportation hub. Several encounters between American and British troops took place near this park. Fighting and troop movements occurred throughout the Black Rock and Riverside area, and these became known as settlements that the American troops could use to regroup.
In the summer of 1813 soldiers under Peter Porter’s command held back an attack by the British army around West Ferry Street. The British invaded to avenge the burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) in Ontario, Canada. The advancing British could not be restrained at a further battle near the Scajaquada Bridge, and proceded to burn Buffalo around New Year’s Day, 1813-1814.
Black Rock recovered more quickly from the War of 1812 than did Buffalo. The Black Rock and Riverside area’s growing role in trade and commerce, combined with the excellent harbor, led to discussions to locate the western terminus of the Erie Canal in the Village of Black Rock instead of neighboring Buffalo.
Being the western terminus of the Erie Canal would bring more people, commerce and industry to whichever community won the bid. Each presented its advantages to the Canal Commissioners as they decided upon the location. Black Rock had a better harbor, while Buffalo had calmer waters.
Black Rock’s disadvantage was that it was easily accessible from Canada (British troops had invaded during the War of 1812) and was within cannon range if there were ever another attack. The disadvantage of Buffalo was that until the Buffalo Creek was dredged and the sand bar removed, there was an inadequate harbor. The Canal Commissioners took four years to decide. In the end,
Black Rock was annexed into Buffalo in the mid-1850s. Thereafter, Black Rock became a neighborhood within the City of Buffalo, still having a unique identity, but no longer existing as a separate governmental unit. However, the rivalry with Buffalo over the Erie Canal terminus has remained in the neighborhood’s consciousness. A strong sense of community pride is still evident in the area of Black Rock north of the Scajaquada Expressway.
The Underground Railroad
The Niagara Frontier was a crucial gateway for “freedom seekers,” or escaped slaves, and an important stop on the Underground Railroad, because it was remote, yet close to Canada and major water routes. As a progressive community, many residents were willing to shelter slaves.
The peak period for helping slaves reach freedom was 1850 through 1865, just before the Civil War. The Niagara River bank at Broderick Park on West Ferry Street was an important terminal for freedom seekers. It allowed African Americans brought secretly to the area to cross the narrowest part of the Niagara River to Canada.
The Underground Railroad effort was successful
Background image: “Harbor South from Cullen Friedstadt Co.” Looking south towards downtown Buffalo, Squaw Island area. Courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.
Bird’s eye view of the harbor, between Austin Street and Hertel Avenue. The River, and beyond it Canada, are in the background. In the foreground is where the Thruway is located today. Image courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.
Hertel Avenue, c. 1918. Image courtesy of GABA/Ed Weidemann.
Tow path and canal, C. 1910-1920. Black Rock canal in foreground, Niagara River in background. Image courtesy of GABA/Ed Wiedemann.
A view of the tow path and nearby Strawberry Island. Image courtesy of GABA/Ed Wiedemann.
[3rd panel] People
Peter Porter, a lawyer, businessman and statesman, was an important figure in the history of this area. He led a movement to try to locate the western terminus of the Erie Canal in the Village of Black Rock, rather than Buffalo. Porter also campaigned to build the first steamboat to
Porter was a hero of the War of 1812, having directed the American troops in various battles. During his illustrious career he was offered command of the entire United States Army, (which he turned down), was elected to Congress twice, and held the posts of Secretary of War and Secretary of State. Porter was also a partner in Porter and Barton, a Black Rock supply business.
Porter built a mansion on Niagara Street between Breckenridge and West Ferry Streets – now the site of Rich Products. Across the street was the Union Meeting House, a church built on land donated by Porter. The church structure, built in 1827, still survives as the oldest church building in Buffalo. From his home, Porter was able to oversee the many buildings being constructed in Black Rock under his influence. Porter’s home became the social, business and political center of the community. There, he entertained presidents and other distinguished visitors who came to the region.
People of Black Rock
By the middle of the 19th century, Germans made up almost one half of the residents of Black Rock. Native Americans were a quarter of the population and Irish immigrants also had a presence in the community. Immigration was an important contributor to the Village’s growth, and the majority of people living in the area at that time were recent arrivals.
Background image: Policeman in front of Station 11[?]. Image courtesy of GABA/Riverside Review.
Portrait of Peter Porter. Courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.
Image of policeman in front of station 13. Image courtesy of GABA/Riverside Review.
Boys sitting on Farmer Street. Courtesy of GABA/Ed Wiedemann.
Car c.1915. Family of Ed Weidemann. Courtesy of GABA/Ed Weidemann.
[4th panel] Industry
The shoreline adjacent to Scajaquada Creek was a place where shipbuilders built and repaired their vessels. Commodore Perry established a naval yard in May of 1813 along the Creek between Niagara and Grant Streets. There, five ships were fitted out for the Battle of Lake Erie.
Pictured here is a typical canal boat (with upper and lower decks) from around the turn of the century.
In order to build the Black Rock lock, a coffer dam – the largest of its type ever built at that time – was constructed. A coffer dam is used to create a dry work environment, and is dismantled after the project is completed. Pumps controlled water seeping into the construction area. The steel sheet pilings which formed part of the coffer dam became part of the lock itself. Construction began on the lock
The difference in the water levels of the Erie Canal and Black Rock Harbor created power that the mills, cooperages and other industries were able to utilize to operate machinery. Many grain handling operations were located along the Erie Canal in Black Rock, processing the steady supply of grain coming through the area. The various mills along the waterfront combined unloading, storage, and processing of grain with transport of the product to markets all over the eastern United States.
Various industries were located at the site of the present Tow Path Park, including flour and saw mills, as well as a forge. Nearby retail establishments such as grocery stores, saloon, and stables served everyday needs.
Black Rock was also an innovative community. For example, it had a public water system before Buffalo. The Jubilee Water Works Company began operating in 1826, one and a half miles from Black Rock. Water was transferred to the village along wooden water pipes from the Jubilee Springs (located in what is now Forest Lawn Cemetery) using only gravity. No engine or machinery of any kind was used. In 1827, Jubilee Water Works was incorporated, and by 1832 there were nearly sixteen miles of pipes in the system. The water system was made more extensive in the 1850s, and pipes were laid below the Black Rock Harbor and Erie Canal.
[music] Black Rock Pork
1. I shipped aboard of a lumber boat, her name was Charles O’Rourke. And the very first thing that they rolled aboard was a barrel of Black Rock Pork. 2. They fried a chunk for breakfast, and a chunk for luncheon too. It didn’t taste so goody-good, and it was hard to chew. 3. From Buffalo to old New York, they fed it to dear old me. They boiled the barrel and the rest of the pork, and we had it all for tea. From the book “Canal Water and Whiskey” by Marvin A. Rapp.
Tow Path Park site with Hertel Avenue at right. Image courtesy of GABA/Harvey Holzworth.
Industry in the Black Rock area. Image courtesy of GABA/Harvey Holzworth.
Construction of the cofferdam. Image courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.
This image shows the Erie Canal (bigger branch to the left) and the Black Rock Canal (smaller branch to the right) which would later become the Thruway. Image courtesy of Caleb Basiliko.
[5th panel] Transportation
Erie Canal and the Towpath
The Erie Canal and shipping were vital to the growth of this area, helping business, commerce and transportation. In fact, at one point the Erie Canal made the Black Rock and Riverside area of Western New York more important than Buffalo.
A tow path, located almost at the point where you are now standing, was a small trail next to a canal that was used for barge movement before steam engines powered boats. Mules or other surefooted animals worked in teams to haul the heavy boats down the Canal while walking along the path. The animals changed places every six or seven hours. When not working, the animals were kept in the bowstable at the front of the boat, or at a stable in Buffalo during a layover.
After boats became steam-powered, the tow path was used for recreation and as a community gathering spot. People would catch fish, sled or ice skate in the winter, congregate in boathouses and generally enjoy the water. Casual markets sprang up at the “foot” of streets, like Hertel Avenue, where fish and other goods were sold.
Part of the Erie Canal and its tow path was filled in during construction of the Niagara Section of the New York State Thruway in 1959-1960.
The International Bridge, just south of Tow Path Park has always been an important rail connection with Canada. During days when trains were a major mode of long-distance transportation, streetcars carried people across the bridge to Fort Erie. Though it is no longer used for passenger traffic, the bridge remains an important link to Canada for freight shipment.
The images on this panel show various old style vehicles from the period 1910-1920. You can also see how the Black Rock Station at the International Bridge looked when it was used for passenger traffic. The station housed customs personnel and a ticket office.
New York State Thruway
In 1940 the Niagara Frontier Planning Board proposed what they termed a “high speed boulevard” to be named Erie and Niagara Boulevard along the waterfront. The goal was to connect Hamburg with Niagara Falls. This “superdrive” would allow traffic to move through Buffalo, which would connect industries, and connect Buffalo with the Tonawandas.
The Niagara Section of the New York State Thruway was completed in 1960. Unfortunately, demolition of the Towpath community to complete the highway affected the vitality of adjacent neighborhoods. The final filling in of the Erie Canal completely changed the character of this area, as people could no longer access the Niagara River for recreational activities.
International Station located at Niagara and Parish. Image courtesy of GABA/Harvey Holzworth.
International Bridge and old Black Rock area. Photo courtesy of GABA/Harvey Holzworth.
A street car at Niagara and Farmer, 1920s. Image courtesy of GABA/Harvey Holzworth.
An image of the ceremony in which the towpath became the thruway. Image courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
Background image is near the mouth of the Scajaquada Creek, courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie Historical Society. The waterway in the foreground of this image is what became the Thruway.
[6th panel] Then & Now
Black Rock Identity
Today the Black Rock neighborhood has an identity rooted in the early struggle with Buffalo over the Erie Canal, as well as the industry that was located along the Niagara River. The present-day borders are less defined that they were during the area’s early history, but the neighborhood around Tow Path Park remains closely tied to the history of this proud community.
Images on This Panel
The background image shows the path with a view North. The boats had square bows so more of them could fit along the path, however this made it difficult to navigate, so eventually the bows were changed back to points.
The taxi stand shown in the photos on the top left and bottom right still exists at the corner of Hertel Avenue and East Street, though the roof has been changed. The automobiles shown are from around 1915.
An old taxi cab company. This building still exists at Hertel & East (roof has changed). Image courtesy of GABA/Ed Wiedemann.
A house along the canal. Image courtesy of GABA/Ed Wiedemann.
An old store in the Black Rock area. Image courtesy of GABA/Riverside Review.
Cars c. 1915 in front of the taxi cab company pictured on the left of this panel. Image courtesy of GABA/Ed Wiedemann.
Late 18th Century – First (non-Indian) Settlers
1802 – First Survey of the Land Around Buffalo by Ellicott, Given Permission by Holland Land Company to Lay Out a Town
1812-1814 War, Buffalo Burned During Winter 1813-1814
1816 – Buffalo Incorporated as a Village
1818-1822 – Canal Terminus Discussions
1821 – Black Rock Incorporated as Village – Erie County Created (Buffalo was County Seat)
1823 – Final Section of the Canal Begun at Black Rock
1825 - Canal Construction Complete
1832 – Buffalo Incorporated as city
c. 1854 – Merger of Buffalo and Black Rock
Marker series. This marker is included in the Erie Canal marker series.
Location. 42° 56.406′ N, 78° 54.447′ W. Marker is in Buffalo, New York, in Erie County. Marker is on Hertel Avenue 0.2 miles west of Niagara Street (New York State Route 266), on the left when traveling east. Marker panels are on the back side of a low and long cement wall embossed with the park name as an entrance sign. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Buffalo NY 14207, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. The Fenian Invasion of 1866 (about 400 feet away, measured in a direct line); Jubilee Springs (approx. 0.3 miles away); Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad (approx. 0.4 miles away); The Niagara River (approx. 0.4 miles away); Black Rock Lock (approx. 0.4 miles away); Burning of Blackrock and Buffalo (approx. half a mile away); Black Rock (approx. half a mile away); Black Rock Harbor (approx. half a mile away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Buffalo.
Categories. • Industry & Commerce • Settlements & Settlers • War of 1812 • Waterways & Vessels •
More. Search the internet for Tow Path Park.
Credits. This page was last revised on October 8, 2019. This page originally submitted on October 7, 2019, by Anton Schwarzmueller of Wilson, New York. This page has been viewed 60 times since then and 5 times this year. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. submitted on October 7, 2019, by Anton Schwarzmueller of Wilson, New York.