Wheels on the Water
by Jack Foran
On two wheels or on foot, the Industrial Heritage Trail offers a fine vantage of the city’s waterfront history
Take some time this summer to get in touch with your Inner Harbor. And while you’re at it, your Outer Harbor as well. And no better way to do both than by walking or biking the Industrial Heritage Trail along the Buffalo River (Inner Harbor) and/or Lake Erie waterfront (Outer Harbor). If you must, you can also drive either segment, but both segments are really hiking and biking trails.
The Industrial Heritage Trail, a long-term project of the Industrial Heritage Committee, an area historical preservation group with special interest in the panoply of industrial activities and enterprises that made Buffalo what it was in its economic heyday, is just now coming to fruition. Open along the whole way, though still incomplete as to all construction and signage details, but with the first of the many planned historical information signs, as developed by the IHC, in place in the Outer Harbor portion.
The IHC was the prime mover behind the monumental Historic American Engineering Record survey and documentation of the Buffalo grain elevators, and the trail informational signs—based largely on HAER survey information—feature harbor depictions past and present and generous verbal explanations of what was once there and what is there now.
The Times Beach sign, for example, tells how that area went from original sand beach—a photo on the sign from about 1900 shows squatter homes on the beach—to industrially polluted area off limits to the public, to a placement facility for US Army Corps of Engineers dredged materials from the Buffalo River and harbor. Whereupon nature began to reclaim the area, until currently it is a wildlife preserve for a wide variety of fauna as well as flora, serving particularly as a stopping place for migratory birds. A sign at a point looking out onto the breakwall and the enormous Cargill Pool Elevator tells the history of the Cargill and of the breakwater system that made the outer harbor possible, including the siting of an elevator there.
The impressive construction and signage progress in the outer harbor portion—the Outer Harbor trail is one of the best designed and constructed bike trails in the region, not to talk about the visually spectacular and historically interesting waterfront and lake views—is the result of the interest and assistance of a number of organizations and individuals in that portion of the project over the past decade or more, according to IHC President Lorraine Pierro, such as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the City of Buffalo, the New York Power Authority, Congressman Brian Higgins, the New York Power Authority, and the New York State Department of Transportation.
The less notable progress, she said, particularly with reference to signage, on the Inner Harbor portion is because the main funding source the IHC has been pursuing for that segment is just the city. But you can download a map of the Buffalo River portion of the trail, with names and illustrations of all the elevators along the river, from the IHC website: buffaloindustrialheritage.com.
(An alternative way to learn about the river and grain elevators past and present would be to sign up for one of the IHC boat tours of the Buffalo River and harbor on the Miss Buffalo, featuring running commentary by industrial history enthusiast and walking waterfront lore database Jerry Malloy, who also serves as the IHC vice president. Five boat tours are scheduled this summer—July 4 and 21, August 4 and 19, and September 3—up from four in previous years mainly because of a Coast Guard order this year that the boat, which used to be able to accommodate 200 passengers, is henceforth limited to 185. Why? Because Americans are getting heavier. As in overweight. Really. That’s the reason. Anyway, the boat tours are always sold out, so make your reservation early. For details, go to the IHC website. The IHC also conducts a non-boat tour of the Colonel Ward pumping station, scheduled for September 22. No reservation needed for that one.)
The Inner Harbor tour starts at the Joseph Dart elevator site historical marker near the Vietnam Veterans’ memorial and proceeds through the Naval Park, across the Commercial Slip wooden footbridge, and along the river shoreline—proceeding behind the NFTA barns—past the Edward M. Cotter fireboat, across Michigan Avenue in front of the Michigan Avenue bridge, and along Ohio Street, traversing the Valley Community Association’s new River Fest Park (some nice signage here on such topics as the several versions of the Michigan Street Bridge and the travails of the grain scoopers), to St. Clair Street (just before the Ohio Street bridge), down St. Clair Street, then South Street, to the brand new Mutual Riverfront Park at Hamburg and South streets (the park is named for the Mutual Rowing Club that existed at the corner of Hamburg and South in the 1880s), across the river from a cluster of grain elevators and related facilities on what looks from that perspective like an island, but is a meander peninsula on the other side of the river. End there or cross the Ohio Street bridge and proceed down Childs Street to view the same elevator cluster more up close and personal, from the back side. One more alternative: Instead of crossing Michigan Avenue to continue along Ohio Street, proceed across the Michigan Avenue bridge and down Ganson Street to the Ohio Street bridge.
To get to the Outer Harbor trail, continue along Ohio Street and through the underpass under Route 5 coming off the Skyway and you’re more or less there, except that the trail starts at the old lighthouse that used to be on the Coast Guard base but is now publicly accessible (and even more impressive and beautiful looking up from below than from the Erie Basin Marina across the river), and runs from there along the whole waterfront, all the way to Tifft Street (and following some finishing-up construction, the Union Ship Canal). And on the other side of Route 5, accessible through a series of tunnels under that main roadway, a subsidiary path along the City Ship Canal and sand piles and railroad tracks.
For the record, the Outer Harbor trail from the lighthouse to Tifft Street is three miles one way. The Inner Harbor trail, from the Joseph Dart marker to the elevator cluster across from Hamburg and South streets, including that view and then going down Childs Street for the view from the back, is 2.6 miles one way. And from the Ohio Street bridge to the Outer Harbor trail is a half mile.
Intro: Pond Swimming • Events: Summer Musts, Festivals, Garden Walks, and Tours
Enjoy the Waterfront: WNY From the Water • Wheels on the Water
Music: Summer Spotify Mixtape • Free Summer Concert Guide
Summer Eats: Cool Food for Warm Weather • Three Wines for Your Summer Oases
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