Buffalo’s future is wound onto a large spool in a building on Forest Avenue.
The spool leads a pampered existence. It rests in a climate-controlled room — always 70 degrees, 50 percent humidity, dust-free — in a storage facility owned by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, tucked between a wal! of framed portraits and a rack covered with gauzy, white fabric. Its name is printed on one end: 92 235 MURAL.
Inside is the vision of artist Arthur Nilsen, commissioned in 1957 by Merrill Lynch, the stock brokerage, to depict the Buffalo that was yet to be. Nilsen painted an enormous mural — 30 feet long, six feet high — that showed a strong, thriving city, a place of unlimited vigor and potential.
“It’s been 12 years since I’ve looked at it, so my memories of the specifics are a bit dim. But it was very optimistic, I remember that,” says William Siener, the society’s executive director. “I recall looking at it the first time and thinking, ‘Boy, a lot of that was misplaced.'”
No one has seen Nilsen’s mural since 1992, when Merrill Lynch donated it to the Historical Society. It was carefully removed from the brokerage’s downtown offices, rolled up and brought to its current resting place, where it waits silently to be displayed once again.
Old photographs convey its energetic optimism. Sparks fly from Buffalo’s steel mills in Nilsen’s painting. The force of Niagara Falls generates unlimited hydropower. A lake freighter disgorges massive amounts of grain at a waterfront elevator. A locomotive charges past, pouring out steam and thick, black smoke.
There’s a final touch that definitely ties the mural to the late 1950s. An oceangoing vessel, all white but for b!ue and red stripes near the waterline, cruises toward the Port of Buffalo. Cumulus clouds billow behind the ship, accentuating the serenity of its voyage, as well as the fair weather ahead for its destination.
How could the future be anything but wonderful? The St. Lawrence Seaway would open in 1959, just two years off. Buffalo, already the largest inland port in America, would soon become a world port, open to ships from every continent, huge ships like the one in the painting.
The city’s prospects for growth and prosperity, thanks to the seaway, appeared to be unbounded. Demographers saw the Buffalo market, then with 1.2 million residents, soon growing to 2 million, maybe 3 million. Dexter Rumsey, president of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, exulted in 1958, “There has never been a time when we could look forward to a more brilliant future.”
It didn’t work out that way, of course. Most of the steel mills eventually closed, as did the grain elevators. The number of locomotives and lake freighters declined dramatically over the years. And the St. Lawrence Seaway? Don’t even mention the seaway to people in Buffalo. It was the biggest bust of all.
Arthur Nilsen’s futuristic vision had gone sour by the time a crew of workmen came in 1992 to pack it away. The only question now is whether it will ever be seen again.
“One of my dreams is that someday, we’ll build a Waterfront Heritage Center, and the mural would be displayed there,” says Siener. “So we’ve got dreams, but not a plan.”
There is unintended irony in his words. Buffalo had dreams about the St. Lawrence Seaway, too. Big dreams. The problem was, it didn’t have a plan to make those dreams come true.
Buffalo’s leaders, from the very beginning, have demonstrated a strong, almost mystical faith in the power of location.
And why not? The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 put the city in perfect position to control trade to and from the nation’s interior. Consumer goods flowed to new settlers in the Midwest. Their crops, in turn, streamed back to the Atlantic Seaboard. Both sides used the same water route — the canal and the Great Lakes — funneling everything through a single port.
“Buffalo has no rival. It can have none,” bragged the 1836 City Directory. “For it is the medium through which all others, both the East and West, must draw their wealth and resources.” Buffalo, it insisted, should be given the titie of “the Great National Exchange.”
Railroads supplanted the Erie Canal by the 1870s, but that didn’t matter. The cataracts of Niagara Falls blocked any passage to Lake Ontario, so Buffalo remained the easternmost Great Lakes port. Goods heading to Chicago, Detroit and other Midwestern outposts traveled first to Buffalo, whether by train or canalboat, before being loaded onto westbound ships. Boatloads of grain made the return trip to be stored in Buffalo’s huge elevators, ground into flour and dispatched to the East Coast, again by rail or canal.
The economic benefits of this process, known as transshipment, were obvious. Buffaio grew to be America’s premier lake port, largest grain-milling center and second-busiest railroad
hub (after Chicago). It emerged as a giant in manufacturing, too, because it was the logical destination for raw materials from the Midwest and it was the beneficiary of low-cost hydropower being harnessed at Niagara Falls.
“Nature has done everything to favor this locality,” marveled Albert Shaw, president of the Canadian Niagara Power Co., in 1893. He predicted that Buffalo would become the greatest manufacturing center in the world, adding, “I think that early in the century, there will be a city of 1,000,000 inhabitants there.”
Buffalo ranked as the nation’s eighth-largest city by 1900, with 352,000 residents. It was bigger than Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Washington. And it was growing rapidly. There was widespread talk of becoming a Million City — always capitalized in the local newspapers — that would rival the globe’s great metropolises.
It was no wonder that local leaders believed so strongly in the power of location.
The trouble was, they skipped part of the lesson. They ignored the fact that Buffalo’s advantages weren’t solely god-given, but were largely manmade, the result of rigorous planning and hard work.
“Yes, we were blessed, as long as we had creative people to figure out how to use the blessings,” says Siener. “Had there not been somebody to build the harbor or the canal,
Buffalo would have been just one more place on a short river that drains into a lake. A great deal of human initiative went into making this particular location valuable.”
The failure to recognize this fact — to understand that location alone is insufficient for success, that determination and creativity are needed to exploit its benefits — would play a key role in Buffalo’s unhappy experience with the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The idea of transforming the St. Lawrence River into a deepwater link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes had been kicking around since the 19th century. A U.S.-Canadian joint commission was formed in 1895 to study its feasibility. Another commission was created in 1909. Neither made any progress.
That’s because powerful opposition quickly emerged. “The reason why it wasn’t built when it was first debated in 1895 was because ports like Buffalo and New York feared the seaway would destroy them,” says Claire Parham, a Clifton Park, N.Y., author who has written one book on the seaway’s history and is working on another. “The railroads feared it, too. All together, they formed a very powerful lobby.”
Niagara Falls was still a dependable barrier to Great Lakes traffic, preventing eastbound freighters from cruising past the Port of Buffalo into Lake Ontario. But the problem, as Buffalo interests saw it, was that Midwesterners and Canadians were determined to bypass the falls.
Canada made the first move in 1932, completing the Welland Canal across the Niagara Peninsula, with eight locks that raised vessels a total of 326 feet. The remaining step was to build the seaway itself, connecting the Great Lakes and the Atlantic — thereby removing Niagara Falls as a factor, once and for all.
Buffalo’s natural response was to stand against the seaway for 59 years, up to the very moment that Congress approved the project. But its opposition usually took a curious form, disguised as an altruistic campaign to spare America from unnecessary grief, as opposed to what it really was — an effort motivated by understandable self-interest.
A 1940 report from the Niagara Frontier Planning Board, for example, warned ominously that “alien tramp steamers” would enter the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence, and that U.S.-Canadian relations might be ruined by endless squabbles over seaway operations. A later resolution passed by the Buffalo Common Council suggested darkly that the seaway could easily be bombed by the Soviet Union.
But local leaders admitted to no concerns about the project’s economic impact on Buffalo. Quite the contrary. The 1940 report included a full page of charts, formulas and detailed calculations, all designed to prove that flour milled in Buffalo and transported along the Erie Canal (then still carrying cargo) would be 20 percent cheaper than Minneapolis flour shipped by seaway. Few people were fooled.
Most Northeastern cities viewed the St. Lawrence project the way Buffalo did. Their congressmen managed to block several seaway bills during the first half of the 20th century, much to the consternation of its powerful supporters. “It seems inconceivable to me,” wailed President Harry Truman, “that the Congress should allow any !ocal or special interest to divest our country of its rightful place in the joint development of the St. Lawrence River.”
A series of events gradually tipped the balance:
• Large iron-ore fields were discovered in Labrador in the early 1950s, piquing the interest of steel mills in Buffalo and other Great Lakes cities. The seaway would be the most efficient path from Labrador to those mills.
• Republican Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1953, pledging a pro-business administration. Control of both houses of Congress also passed to the Republicans.
• Canada, tired of American delays, hinted strongly that it might build the whole project itself. “Our interests could badly suffer if we did not take some action to achieve cooperative control,” Eisenhower noted in a 1953 memo.
Midwesterners pushed the bill through Congress, picking up stray votes from Southern and Western legislators who previously had been ambivalent. Wisconsin’s Alexander Wiley, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, steeled Eisenhower’s resolve. “Nothing short of an all-out fight by the chief executive personally, and by every agency of his administration, can assure victory for the seaway,” Wiley urged in a private note.
The president stayed the course, signing the bill in May 1954. That was the easy part.
The hard work lay ahead. The United States and Canada faced the biggest civil-engineering project ever attempted in North America — dredging 360 million tons of rock, installing seven locks on the St. Lawrence, and constructing the world’s largest joint power facility near Massena. The total price tag would be $1 billion.
The Army Corps of Engineers was chosen to oversee the U.S. portion of the design and construction work. It passed the assignment on to its appmpriate district office, the one responsible for the New York side of the St. Lawrence River.
That office was in Buffalo, N.Y.
Buffalo’s leaders, having lost their fight against the seaway, appeared to have two options in the summer of 1954:
A. They could be spoilsports, badmouthing the St. Lawrence project and attacking Congress and Eisenhower for approving it.
B. They could be realists, devising a plan to benefit from the seaway, or at the least, to minimize the damage it might cause.
They chose neither.
The city’s elites adopted Pollyanna as their role model. Their premonitions of alien tramp steamers, U.S.-Canadian squabbles and Soviet bombers vanished instantly. Their traditional faith in the city’s location reasserted itself. Everything would be fine, after all. Buffalo had persevered before, and it would do so again.
Business and political leaders ushered in a new age of enthusiasm, with each CEO or elected official seeking to surpass his colleagues in welcoming the St. Lawrence Seaway, so recently the object of scorn and fear. Here is a sampling of quotes from the mid- and late 1950s:
• • •
Leston Faneuf, Bell Aircraft Corp. vice president and general manager: “The seaway means push and purpose for the community.”
Seymour Knox, Marine Trust Co. chairman: “We are at the edge of the beginning, the real beginning, for Buffalo.”
Melvin Baker, National Gypsum Co. chairman: ‘Im for the seaway because I’m for Buffalo. I’ll tell you this: Smart men will see the potential here and move in, and 10 years from now, Buffalo will enter a period of great growth. I don’t know anything that can stop it.”
- Fred Schoellkopf, Niagara Share Corp. president: “‘We’re counting on this seaway to open us up to the world.”
- Frank Sedita, Buffalo mayor: “Buffalo is in the most favorable position of all the cities on the waterway.”
Newsweek, enticed by the new positive vibe, sent a reporter to town in 1955. The resulting story breathlessly labeled Buffalo “the Inland Empire of the Sea,” predicting that its golden age would begin when the seaway opened. ”The city’s proud residents have come to realize that Buffalo’s growth has just begun,” it concluded.
Local newspapers hustled to catch the bandvvagon. The Evening News hailed the city’s “vast complex of modern transportation,” listing the seaway as its first component. The Courier-
Express hoped that the St. Lawrence project would inspire Buffalo to “a fuller realization of its potentialities.”
Was it any wonder that Arthur Nilsen felt a surge of optimism when he began painting his mural in 1957?
A researcher today can scan the historical record in vain for evidence of coordinated planning by business groups and local governments prior to the seaway’s 1959 debut. The files do show, however, that a handful of critics insisted a strategy was needed, either to capture additional ship traffic or to minimize the new waterway’s negative impact.
Douglas Campbell, vice president of the New York Central Railroad, warned that the price of inaction might be economic devastation. “There will be no more lake-rail grain movement to Buffalo when the seaway opens,” he predicted. “It will dwindle to practically nothing as ocean ships move directly to the head of the lakes for cargoes that will bypass Buffalo.”
Yet no preparations were made, arousing the displeasure of Paul Speyser Jr., executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Planning Association. He accused the Niagara Frontier Port Authority of taking a “wait and see” approach toward the seaway — a charge that was not appreciated by the city’s elites.
Speyser and his ilk were guilty of “undue panic,” in the opinion of Thomas Burke, director of the American Steamship Co. “You would think,” scoffed Burke, “that the Port of Buffalo would have to be ready tomorrow for the Queen Mary.”