Buffalo's Old First Ward
Welcome back to BuffaloPhotoBlog! When I started brainstorming around my new "Projects" page, I had several neighborhoods and topics in mind that I wanted to write about. The First Ward was right at the top of this list. Known for being a close-knit community and it's gritty industrial history, the First Ward sits just south of Buffalo and played a critical role in Buffalo's past. Early residents of the Old First Ward first settled in the early 1800's, many from
Ireland, due to new job opportunities in grain, metal and chemical manufacturing on the waterfront. The Irish influence over the neighborhood is still prevalent today, with several street names carrying Irish routes, like O'Connell, Republic and Fitzgerald.
As early as the 1820's, Irish immigrants began arriving in Western New York, many of them by way of the Erie Canal. The Irish faced numerous hardships in their homeland during the 1800's, including widespread poverty and countrywide famines. These travesties lead to mass waves of immigration to the United States in hopes of a better future. South Buffalo, Old First Ward, The Valley and many other areas surrounding Buffalo became the new home of the Irish. At the time, Buffalo's industrial waterfront employed many of the Irish for poverty-like wages, working them 18 hours a day in plants and silos along the Buffalo River. If you know your history of the Buffalo grain silos, you've likely heard the term "Irish Scoopers" - the waive of unskilled Irishmen who worked inside the silos performing a variety of dangerous jobs, including hanging from a rope and swinging dozens of feet up in the silo to scrape the grain off of the sidewalls.
The Erie Canal opening in 1825 drastically changed the shape of Buffalo to come. Buffalo stood at the easternmost point amongst four of the Great Lakes, and westernmost point on the new Erie Canal, quickly changing the way goods were shipped to the east coast. At one point, 80% of the grain in the United States was shipped from the western Great Lakes to Buffalo, then moving over 300 miles down the Erie Canal to Albany and eventually onto the Hudson into New York City.
By 1831, over 55,000 barrels of flour and 170,000 bushels of wheat traveled through Buffalo's waterfront per year, steadily increasing as more silos and supporting infrastructure was built. Railroads soon followed as Buffalo continued to develop and the New York Central railway immediately began competing with the Erie Canal as the preferred shipping method to New York City. By the end of the 1880's, there were over 20 major U.S. railways that either started or ended in Buffalo, several traveling through the Old First Ward and into Silo City as seen in the above aerial picture on the bottom right.
The Old First Ward sat idle for many decades. Many families and a few small businesses stayed, but it never again reached the density it once had in its prime. The neighborhood began to regain momentum in recent years with community efforts lead by the local Community Center, creating events like the St. Patrick's Day Parade to bring people back into the neighborhood.
Today, the neighborhood is making a comeback. The 113 year-old Barrel Factory is near full renovation and currently filling up with small businesses, anchored by the Lakewood Spirits Distillery. Gene McCarthy's survived the hard times and is thriving today as a favorite watering hole for many. There's popular Kayak launches, including the launch at the Mutual Riverfront Park, bringing in tons of new traffic and exposure. Don't have a kayak? No worries! Go visit Elevator Alley Kayak inside the Barrel Factory! New efforts are gaining momentum in fixing up Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, built in 1897. Public art has slowed down nonsense tags and graffiti, providing murals that represent the spirit of the neighborhood. Undergrounds Coffee House is one of my personal favorites in all of Buffalo - try the Ralph Wilson for Sunday breakfast. Need a late night slice of pizza after an evening out? Carbones is a top 5 in Buffalo for me. Last but certainly not least, two of the absolute staples of the First Ward: Mazurek's Bakery and Adolf's Tavern. Like Gene McCarthy's, these two establishments stood the test of time and are true small, local businesses for the community. The future is bright for this blue-collar neighborhood, and I couldn't be happier!