The City of Buffalo - 1832 to 1840

by J. Henry Priebe Jr.

Buffalo became a full-fledged city in 1832. Along with the title came all of the legislative trimmings, which the authors of the new city charter fully exercised. Prohibited were houses of ill repute, billiard tables, bowling and card playing. While we look upon bowling, playing pool and playing cards as accepted pastimes, in the 1830's they were primarily practiced by the riff-raff of society as a form of gambling and were looked upon as encouraging immoral behavior. While the city charter prohibited these activities, enforcement was another matter. Buffalo of 1830's was a boomtown on the Erie Canal.

In 1832 Buffalo was a city of over 10,000 inhabitants. By 1835 Buffalo would eclipse 15,000 citizens and in 1840 housed over 18,000 people.

The new charter allowed the city to tax the citizens $8,000 per year. This revenue was to be used for municipal improvements and maintenance. These included the salaries of the city officials, paying the local constabulary, street lighting, maintenance and bridgework and other sundry expenses.

The new Common Council appointed the city's richest citizen, Dr. Ebenezer Johnson, as the City of Buffalo's first mayor. While Mayor Johnson no longer practiced medicine and had not for some time, it was still quite ironic that immediately after he was appointed Mayor the city was struck by an epidemic of cholera. The practice of medicine was far from advanced in these frontier times and the Good Mayor could do little but appoint a board of health to build a simple hospital in which the stricken could shuffle off this mortal coil.

The colder weather saw the epidemic run its course and in the city's first winter the citizens got back down to the business of business.

Buffalo's crown jewel, the water borne trade, was showing no signs of slowing down. Both canal traffic and lake traffic continued to increase greatly despite the national economic Panic of 1837.

In 1833 Buffalo had 11 steamboats to and from Chicago. They carried almost 43,000 passengers westward and approximately 18,500 east to Buffalo. The trip took 17 to 20 days. That year a new lighthouse was opened. From 1832 to 1834 the Evans Ship Canal was excavated. Buffalo Harbor continued to flourish. In 1836 a new dry dock and marine railway appeared. That same year work on the Main and Hamburg canal, to extend the Erie Canal southward, was started. Another dry dock opened in 1838. A huge storm in November of 1837 had killed many people, turned many wharves into ruins and deposited several ships onto the city's streets. In 1838 the city, with federal aid, began construction of a sea wall. In 1839 a new north pier was approved. Throughout the decade the facilities of a first class port were continually added to and improved.

Text - Copyright 1997 J. Henry Priebe Jr.

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During the 1830's Buffalo gained many enterprises. The Commercial Bank opened in 1834. That same year the city's first railroad, the Buffalo & Black Rock, was chartered. By 1836 this line was known as the Buffalo & Niagara Falls and before the end of the year trains ran to regularly to the Falls. The Commercial Advertiser became Buffalo's first daily newspaper, New Year's Day, 1835. Another bank, the City Bank, opened in 1836. 1836 also saw the completion of the Eagle Street Theatre which was openly praised for its elegance.

Education even had a high point in the 30's. In 1839 New York State's first public school opened in Buffalo. Adults had become concerned that school attendance was dropping in the mid 30's. Oliver Steele became the first school superintendent.

No discussion of 1830's Buffalo would be complete without mention of Benjamin Rathburn. He was a master builder responsible for the construction of a large portion of the city's buildings in the period from 1830 to 1840. He operated stone quarries, brick factories and machine shops to support his building empire. He built the City Jail, the Unitarian Church, the Darrow Block, the Webster Block, The United States Hotel, the American Hotel and countless other commercial and residential buildings. He built as many as 100 buildings in a single year, a remarkable achievement for that day and age. He was not only a master builder, but a businessman too. He owned many business establishments including the famous Eagle Tavern, several grocery stores and dry goods emporiums, carriage, stagecoach and omnibus services. He even had his own private bank. Rathbun's story would have had a happy ending but for one failing. In order to fund his growing empire he had vastly over-extended himself financially. He was found to have used approximately $1.5 million in forged notes, most of which bore the bogus signatures of the most prominent Buffalonians. In 1836 his collapse was a precursor to the national Panic of 1837. He was sentenced to prison in Auburn where he served five years time.

In the 1830's The Canal Street area became well known for its boisterous saloons and "colorful" inhabitants. Paralleling the Erie Canal, Canal Street was known as "The wickedest street in the world." It was to house over 100 saloons and dancing houses, innumerable houses of ill repute and the attendant darker aspects of society which accompany those things. Lake sailors and canal sailors were a hard working bunch of men and they played hard as well. They rarely got along with each other. Their brawls were legendary; all part of the local color in the Canal District.

As the 1830's drew to a close the Holland Land Company, the original owners of Western New York, finished its business here. Having spent approximately $600,000, they wound up with a tidy profit of close to $1.4 million for their 45 years of hard work.

The Village Buffalo 1801 to 1832 - Beginnings

City of Buffalo 1840 to 1850 - The Lake City

 

 

 

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