Friday, March 22, 2013

Samuel Wilkeson, He Built Buffalo By Building Its Harbor: Part 5

Buffalo Harbor Around 1888
In the history of Buffalo there has been nothing to match the building of the first harbor here as an exhibition of public spirit and a demonstration of what powerful leadership can do for the Community.

  The pier was completed, and the creek carried by a new and straight, although shallow, channel into the lake. The fact that the pier built in 1820 had endured the storms of one winter uninjured, encouraged the company to believe that the outer pier, although more exposed, would, by being better secured, prove strong enough to resist the swells, and in future protect the channel from the moving sands which had yearly barred it up.
  It was expected that the spring freshet would so widen and deepen the channel as to permit the lake vessels and even the Walk-in-the-Water (the only steamboat on the lake), to enter safely. This boat had been built at Black Rock, and run to that place, not ever touching at Buffalo. It was a source of annoyance to Buffalonians that this fine steamboat passed their village on each voyage but never stopped there, so the very prospect of having a steamboat arrive and depart from Buffalo, was highly encouraging. 
  Named in honor of a great Wyandot chieftain, the Walk-in-the-Water sailed on her maiden voyage on Aug. 15, 1818, carrying 29 passengers for Erie, Grand River, Cleveland, Sandusky and Detroit. She reached Detroit over this course in 44 hours and 10 minutes, developing a speed of about 7 1/2 miles an hour. Like Robert's Clermont, upon which she was patterned, she used sails in fair weather to save fuel. (First Hybrid?-Ed.) Under command of Capt. Job Fish, the Walk-in-The-Water earned a handsome profit for her owners. They knew the vessel still required the help of Capt. Thompson's "Horn Breeze" to breast the current of the Niagara and gain the waters of the lake from her home port of Black Rock. They argued that Buffalo's harbor, entering directly upon the lake, would be a more economical and efficient base of operations for the ship.
Wreck of The Walk-In-The-Water near the
 Buffalo Lighthouse
  But on her last voyage of the season in 1821, the year the new channel for Buffalo Creek was completed, the Walk-in-the-Water left Black Rock. In the night a furious gale arose and Captain Rogers, who was then in command, put back, but was not able to get into Buffalo Creek. The captain, seeing the impossibility of saving the steamer, ordered her beached. With skilled seamanship she was sent broadside on. A rope was stretched from boat to beach, and the passengers were ferried to shore in the small boat. Salvage workers saved her engines, boilers and furniture but the ship it self was lost. 
  The wreck of the vessel ended the hope of Buffalo bringing the Walk-in-the-Water to the new harbor, but gave rise to another. With the engines and fittings of the ship salvaged, it was expected the owners would build another. If the vessel was to be built in Buffalo, the role of the village as a port would be recognized and a thriving shipbuilding industry would be established. The citizens of Buffalo, without loss of time, addressed the directors of the company, presenting the advantages that would accrue to them by building their boat at Buffalo. The company, immediately on learning of their loss, made a contract with Noah Brown & Brothers, of New York, to build a boat at Buffalo, if it could be constructed as cheaply there as at the Rock, and if there could be certainty of getting the boat out of the creek.
Mansion House, white building on right. 
Main & Exchange Streets
   Brown came on early in January, passing on to Black Rock without even reporting himself in Buffalo, nor was his arrival known here until he had agreed to build his boat at the Rock, and engaged the ship-carpenters of that place to furnish the timber. The Black Rock contractors, gratified with their success, agreed to accommodate Brown by meeting him at the Mansion House in Buffalo in the evening to execute the contract. Thus, Brown's hands almost were tied before anyone in Buffalo knew what was going on. But the news leaked out. Sam Wilkeson and most Buffalo citizens were incensed. They gathered in the bar-room of the Mansion House and demanded an immediate interview with Brown. 
   "Mr. Brown, why do you not build your boat at Buffalo, pursuant to the wishes of the company?"  "Why, sir, I arrived in your village while your people were sleeping, and being obliged to limit my stay here to one day. I thought to improve the early part of the morning by commencing my inquiries at Black Rock and consulting the ship-carpenters residing there, who had aided in building the Walk-in-the-Water.
Village of Black Rock
    While there, I was told that your harbor is all a humbug, and that if I were to build the boat in Buffalo Creek, she could not be got into the lake in the spring and perhaps never. Besides, the carpenters refused to deliver the timber at Buffalo.  "Mr. Brown, our neighbors have done us great injury, although they no doubt, honestly believe what they have said to you about our harbor. "Under the circumstances, I feel justified in making you a proposition which will enable you to comply with the wishes of the steamboat company, and do justice to Buffalo without exposing yourself to loss or blame. The citizens of Buffalo will deliver suitable timber at a quarter less than it will cost you at the Rock, and execute a judgment bond to pay to the steamboat company  $150 for every day's detention of the boat in the creek after the first of May."  Mr. Brown accepted the proposition and the judgement bond was signed the next day. 
From the building of the Superior in 1822, 
Buffalo established numerous shipyards 
in the 19th century, becoming the largest 
shipbuilding city on the Great Lakes
   Despite the great risk involved, Buffalonians were delighted. Securing the shipbuilding contract was a genuine triumph. It so encouraged Wilkeson and his group they decided immediately to send an agent to DeWitt Clinton, president of the Erie Canal Board, to inform him Buffalo harbor had been completed and to urge that the canal be extended immediately to Buffalo. At the same time, the agent was instructed to tell Clinton that Buffalo "had established a shipyard." 
   With the engines, boilers and fittings of the ill-fated Walk-in-the-Water on hand, the shipbuilders began their work. The new vessel was to be called the Superior and news of its progress was watched with vital interest in the village. The work went on all winter. There appeared little doubt that the vessel would be ready to enter the lake on the required date. Much depended upon whether the spring freshets would cut the channel to the required depth. The flood came but with it, as so often through the entire harbor building operation, came disaster. The trouble stemmed from a solid block of ice which rose from the lake floor to above the surface. The ice extended from the western end of the pier to the shore. Throughout the winter, it blocked the current of the creek.
   The ice still had not melted when the first flood came.  It removed a large body of sand and gravel, and opened a deep, wide channel from the creek to the lake. But where the creek flowed into the lake, the ice blocked its path and the sand and gravel piled into a new bar that extended for more than 300 feet. The news stunned the village. At the last moment, the final proof of the worth of Buffalo's harbor had been stayed by a malicious prank of nature. The channel was blocked and the Superior was imprisoned in the creek. May 1 was approaching rapidly. Unless the channel was cleared, and the ship floated free by that date, it would cost the signers of the agreement $150 per day in penalties or $24,000 "for the summer." 
The Pier 1870's
    As hard to bear was the thought that Black Rock's low opinion of Buffalo harbor would be vindicated 'and' that the Erie Canal commissioners would be convinced of the hopelessness of the effort and vote to terminate the canal at Black Rock.   Sam Wilkeson was away from Buffalo when the disaster became known. News was sent to him and he hurried home. He arrived about the middle of March. The same day, a general meeting of citizens was called. The cost of dredging the channel was estimated at $1,600 and a fund drive was launched. But only $300 was pledged. Wilkeson did not wait for more.  It was necessary, he said, to begin at once and to work every day, regardless of weather, if the obstruction was to be cleared by May 1.
    About 25 laborers were immediately collected. No dredging equipment was available. Wilkeson improvised a substitute. The pile driver prepared for use, and a line of piles driven, 200 feet from the pier, on the north side of that part of the channel which was obstructed. Two harbor-scows were made fast to these piles, and a platform of timber and plank extended over them. Four capstans were set up in these scows about 20 feet apart.  Scrapers were made of oak plank with bevelled edges shod with iron. These were loaded with scrap, so they would sink, and then dragged back and forth across the bar-by means of ropes and wind-lasses, held in place by driven piles. Two men stationed on the pier could, by the small ropes, pull back the four scrapers as fast as they could be drawn home by the men at the four windlasses, each of which was worked by four men at the levers, and one to handle the rope. The men could work dry, but the labor was excessively exhausting.  The crude mechanism worked-well, and other capstans were prepared for use. For three days the work was unobstructed. Saturday night came and the workmen were dismissed until Monday morning.
   During the night a heavy gale set in, and increased in violence until about noon on the Sabbath when the ice began to break up, and the lake to rise. Soon the ice was in motion, and driving in from the lake, was carried up the creek with such force as to destroy the scows and all the fixtures. The pile driver, being securely fastened by strong rigging to the piles, it was hoped would remain safe, but the fasts gave way, and it was driving towards shore where it could scarcely escape destruction. It was saved by the extraordinary exertions of two individuals who (making their way to it by the aid of two boards each, which they pushed forward alternately over the floating ice agitated by the swells), succeeded in fastening it with a hawser to a pile near which it was floating. This was not done without imminent hazard to the men, who, several times losing their position on the board, came near being crushed by the moving mass of ice. The scow being secured, the anxious and disheartened citizens and workmen retired to their homes.
Judge Samuel Wilkeson 
   The situation was now desperate, more money was needed. Wilkeson again called together those who had signed the indemnity bond and demanded action. To fail this time meant certain ruin. A list was circulated and $1,361.25 in cash was raised. In addition "a certain cow with white head" and "100 pounds pork when called for" were promised. But the work, could not be resumed at once. From the day of the meeting to the middle, of April, there were only two days without snow or rain and work was impossible. On April 15, the weather cleared and, remained good to the end of the month. The work picked up at a frantic pace. Once again Sam Wilkeson was at the heart of the challenge. Once again the destiny of the village rested in his hands. He drove himself as unsparingly as he drove his men. 
  Tuesday morning two rows of piles were put down, on which to erect platforms in place of scows and rafts, which had been destroyed. These platforms were raised several feet above the water to protect the workmen from the spray of the swells which broke against the piles. Six scrapers were got in motion during the day, and notwithstanding the laborers were exposed to a heavy rain, rapid progress was made in removing the sand. Although the heavy swells, which continued to roll in from the lake, rendered it difficult to keep the empty scrapers in line, yet they carried the sand, removed from the channel, towards the shore, and prevented its accumulation. 
Wilkeson Homestead - Niagara Square - On present
 site of City HallBuilt 1823, torn down 1915
 for a gas station
    The laborers continued their work without returning to the shore until dark, eating their precooked dinners where they stood. The labor was so hard, and the exposure so great, that it was difficult to obtain the necessary help; indeed it would have been impossible but for the labor furnished by the citizens, many of whom sent their hired men for a day or more until their places could be supplied.  So the crews labored from dawn to dusk and slowly the sludge was cleared from the channel. But when May 1 came there were still about 40 feet of channel which had been cleared only to a depth of 6 1/2 feet. By this time the owners of the Superior were in Buffalo, demanding the agreement be met. They did not seem overly concerned with the possibility of their ship sticking in the sand. The $150 per day indemnity was more than the vessel would earn in lake traffic and they could afford to take the risk.
    The pilot of the Superior, Captain Miller, had no intention, however, of running his ship aground on its maiden voyage. The boat was put in motion, and fortunately the pilot, Captain Miller, having made himself acquainted with what channel there was, ran her out into the lake without difficulty. The bond was cancelled! From the shore, a cheer went up. Buffalo born, Buffalo built, there the Superior floated, the symbol of a new age for the village which finally had won through over its old rival, Black Rock. The boat was, however, light; and when fully loaded would require much more water. The scraping was, therefore, continued.
An Early View of Buffalo's New Harbor after the Erie Canal opened in 1825
    "When the boat was finished, the citizens were invited to take an excursion on the lake. It was feared that if the boat should be deeply loaded with passengers, she would ground in the new-made channel. Although this would be a trifling occurrence in itself, yet circumstances had recently occurred which led them to regard the experiment with the deepest, anxiety. An act had passed a few days before, authorizing the canal board to contract for the construction of a harbor at Black Rock, which if completed, might secure the termination of the canal at that place, and supersede Buffalo harbor. The subject was to be acted on by the canal board in a few days, and even so trifling an incident as the grounding of a steamboat might influence their decision, and deprive Buffalo of the fruits of all her toils and exertions in building a harbor."

     "An effort was, therefore, made either to postpone the steamboat excursion, or limit the number of passengers, but in vain. Neither the captain, nor a majority of the citizens, could appreciate the solicitude of the few. The whole village crowded on board, and the boat grounded. This was the more mortifying, as many of our Black Rock friends were on board, who had always predicted our failure. But after a few minutes' delay in landing some of the people on the pier, the boat moved forward, went alongside of the pier, took on the passengers, and proceeded up the lake, with bugles sounding and banners flying." 

THE END. But really, it was only the Beginning. Ed. - I may write a post-log to this story, because actually Black Rock didn't give up in it's efforts to gain the Erie Canal Terminus, even after Buffalo Got it's Harbor. 

Chapter Four

Chapter Three

Chapter Two

Chapter One

(Ed.) So now you know who Sam Wilkeson was, and why the house which was torn down recently for a parking area for trucks, was so important to save. It could have been moved. Buffalo, almost 200 years after this historic event, had a physical connection to this man who virtually jump started Buffalo when it could have been easily left behind. Together, while being beaten down by the weather, financial and legal difficulties, Wilkeson rallied Buffalo against all odds, and gave Buffalo what it needed the most, with no financial gain for himself. Not even Joseph Ellicott would support their efforts. Yet he sacrificed everything he owned to get the job done to put Buffalo on the map.  And this was just one of the many episodes in his life. More needs to be done to recognize him, somewhere on the inner harbor.
   I will be adding additional biographical info about Wilkeson to this page in the near future.


Mark said...

Thank you for a wonderful series! I look forward to more.

Johnny Frugal said...

Today, surfing around, I stopped on a site about modern Great Lakes shipping. In a list of harbors throughout the lakes, not one mention of Buffalo. It's hard to that our history as a maritime city has been so quickly, and completely lost.

Jerry M Malloy said...

My feelings exactly. We were the fourth largest port in the world and briefly the 3rd. Today on Buffalo's Inner Harbor, none of that is being celebrated. You can ask, and most Buffalonians including the ones making Harbor development decisions, could not tell you what Buffalo was most noted and respected for around the world. They talk about the Erie Canal, but that was only the beginning. The Grain Industry and the Elevators which were invented here, along with industry of every sort, made Buffalo the biggest and the best in almost every category you could mention. For those wishing to know more of the true history of Buffalo's Harbor and the elevators, I invite you to take the Historic Buffalo River Tour in it's 28 year. For information go to:

Anonymous said...

What about my 3 x great grandfather George Coit and all of his contributions? susie coit williams

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for sharing the stories of Buffalo history. I came across your site due to my interest in old pictures, and aside from finding wonderful images, I have learned so much more about our history. This series about Sam Wilkeson was absolutely fascinating, and I'm so glad to have the opportunity to read it. Thank you again. - Stephanie