By Ashley Maready, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, Erie Canal Museum
At the time of the original Erie Canal’s construction, in the early 19th century, the big question to be answered was, “Where will the Canal connect to Lake Erie?” A fierce battle ensued, between the villages of Buffalo and Black Rock. The winner of the debate would be home to a canal port with great financial potential, for it was to be a gateway to the West and the Great Lakes.
Today, Black Rock is part of Buffalo, but at the time it was a separate entity. The two places were three miles apart, separated by thick forest at the northeast corner of the lake, due south of the Deep Cut at Pendleton. Lake Erie itself was also kind of a conundrum; it had no natural harbors along its eastern shore. So Black Rock and Buffalo were the two closest possibilities to seat the western terminus.
Buffalo was a small village of seemingly little importance and with fewer than 2,000 residents. It was a quiet area, a little stopover for people heading west. All this would change when it was designated as the Canal’s western terminus. Despite being on Lake Erie, Buffalo did not have a harbor at the time. The lake tides offshore were strong and the lake was shallow in this area. There was also a sandbar that prevented most boats from reaching shore.
Black Rock got its name from a one hundred foot outcropping of black rock from the shore, which formed a natural wharf and a landing area for boats. The village was inland, above the mouth of the Niagara River. The river flows east from the lake into the interior and north to Niagara Falls. Black Rock’s location on the river made it a much busier settlement than nearby Buffalo. It also had a harbor, which had shelter from lake winds by way of Bird Island and Squaw Island. Black Rock did have a few issues preventing it from being the immediate choice to be the western terminus. The Niagara River’s current was too strong for sailing boats to negotiate passage from the harbor into the lake. A local by the name of Sheldon Thompson started a business to negotiate this natural barrier; he had a team of 14 oxen he called the “horn breeze,” which would pull boats up the river to send them into Lake Erie.
Peter Porter was Black Rock’s most famous citizen, a politician, soldier, lawyer, and a strong proponent of Black Rock as the western terminus. He had a business interest in this plan, as the Niagara River was navigable up to Lake Ontario, just thirty miles north. The only hiccup was Niagara Falls, but Porter’s company would helpfully carry boats around the falls. This had worked out well for Porter prior to the Canal’s construction, as many travelers and cargo shippers used his company’s services to get west by way of Lake Ontario and using the Niagara River to connect to Lake Erie. If the new Canal ended at Black Rock, Porter would maintain and add to his business interests.
The debate raged, and the powers that be changed their minds several times throughout the period directly before and during construction of the Canal. In 1816, a meeting was held in Buffalo to discuss the creation of a harbor, and the Canal Commissioners decided that Buffalo was the choice. Dewitt Clinton predicted that Buffalo would one day be as great and powerful as New York City. Black Rock citizens didn’t take this news lying down! Peter Porter was working on a steamboat to operate on Lake Erie. He had investors in Albany and New York City to invest in the Walk-in-the-Water, a 338 ton vessel, which made its maiden voyage in August 1818. It used the “horn breeze” and traveled across Lake Erie to Detroit and back.
In 1818, DeWitt Clinton asked engineer William Peacock to survey the areas again and make a firm recommendation for the best place for a “safe and commodious harbor” for the Erie Canal. Peacock was good friends with Joseph Ellicott, who had laid out the city of Buffalo back when it was still known as New Amsterdam, and this friendship proved fortunate again for Buffalo. Peacock’s 1819 engineering report after surveying again recommended Buffalo as the terminus, contingent upon the construction of a pier extending a thousand feet into the lake, south of the mouth of Buffalo Creek. He stated “Buffalo from its local situation is apparently the key which opens to the People of the State of New York a most stupendous path of navigation and of commerce extending the distance of more than 2,000 miles.”
Buffalo’s interests immediately headed for Albany to secure financial assistance for the project. A loan of $12,000 was granted to nine Buffalonians who had organized to form a company; interestingly enough, the loan was extended on April 7, 1819, the day the state legislature authorized construction of the western division of the Canal. The debt would be canceled if the Canal ended at Buffalo, and there was great confidence that it would turn into a gift. Unfortunately, 1819 was a year of financial panic, and there was scrambling to guarantee the loan. Buffalo investors knew that if the Canal didn’t end at Buffalo, the harbor project would be of little use. But if they didn’t build it, they would have no hope of getting the Canal terminus anyway. Between a rock and hard place! And Black Rock interests were fighting just as hard to get the Canal terminus for themselves.
Chief Engineer for the Western Division, David Thomas, arrived in Buffalo to survey the Niagara River and Buffalo Creek in the summer of 1819 to find the place for the termination harbor. He was wooed heavily by both the Black Rock and Buffalo contingent. Ultimately he chose Buffalo, and stated that improvements to Black Rock necessary to make it the terminus would be prohibitively expensive and the lake winds would impede the progress of ships. He submitted his report in the fall of 1819.
You’d think, again, that this would be the decision to move forward on. But you’d be wrong! Buffalo began work on their harbor in the spring of 1820, amidst financial tap-dancing to continue the work in the face of weather difficulties, and the frantic lobbying of Samuel Wilkeson from the Buffalo Harbor Committee, but the reversals continued! Canal royalty in the form of James Geddes and Nathan Roberts surveyed both Buffalo and Black Rock in August 1821, and reported back to the Canal Commission in favor of Black Rock. Six months later, David Thomas, Canvass White, and Benjamin Wright, more Canal bigwigs, had a look at both places yet again and recommended Buffalo. James Geddes was the only dissenter on the engineering report and refused to sign it, but the majority won the argument. On top of everything else, Black Rock suffered a setback in the form of a terrible storm that destroyed Peter Porter’s Walk-in-the-Water; the ship’s new owners salvaged the engines and rebuilt the boat…in Buffalo.
In June 1822, the Canal board and the five engineers met in Buffalo to make a final final final decision for the terminus. They were entertained by Wilkeson’s tales of the creation of Buffalo Harbor in spite of the weather challenges, and Peter Porter presented plans for a Niagara River Harbor. Porter’s efforts were to no avail, though, as the group reaffirmed the decision for Buffalo. There was continued back and forth until the spring of 1825, with experiments in pier creation in Black Rock and a section of “independent canal,” to bypass Black Rock and give total victory to Buffalo, proposed and eventually needing to be built.
The anticlimactic ending came in the spring of 1825, when Black Rock was officially cut out by way of this independent canal section, which saw the Canal running parallel to the Niagara River for two and a half miles. There were safety concerns over the harbor constructed at Black Rock, which was eventually washed away altogether by flooding in May 1826. The Canal’s terminus at Buffalo began the decline of Black Rock, which became part of Buffalo in 1853.