Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Samuel Wilkeson, He Built Buffalo by Building It's Harbor, Part 4

Partial View of Buffalo Harbor in 1888

The development of Buffalo as a city has been inseparable from the development of its harbor. The building of that harbor was a turning point in Buffalo's fortunes unlike any subsequent event in the City's history. 

   The winter was bitter. Storms beat with unremitting fury against the newly built pier. Snow fell upon snow. The waters of the lake rolled in frigid agony. Ice jammed against the cribs and timbers. In the village, the homes and stores were almost lost in the drifts. The loose top snow curled and twisted in the wind, like white smoke. Logs burned steadily in fireplaces and the villagers stayed close to home. December passed into January and the bleakness of February. And still the bitter blasts blew across the waters. But in March the wind lost its icy edge. The ice floated free in the water, tinkling like broken glass as the floes nudged each other in the trough of waves and broke into fragments.
   Then April grass and leaves showed green against the earth and the branches of trees. The wind sighed. As it passed through the village it rustled the buds and carried the smell of earth and water, the scent of forest and plain, the ever- renewed feeling of spring that all is well, that all things can be done. And all was well. Throughout the winter the pier held firm. Not a timber was missing, not a crib had been moved. The stone fill was as firm as when it had been laid down. It began to look as if Buffalo would have a harbor after all. 
    AS SAM WILKESON surveyed the work that spring, he decided the attempt of the formation of the new channel, must come before further work on the pier. About the 20th of May, laborers were engaged, and the pile driver put in operation. Two rows of piles six feet apart were driven across the creek, in a line with the right bank of the intended channel, and the space between these rows of piles was filled with fine brush, straw, damaged hay, shavings, etc. This material was pressed down by drift logs, which were hoisted into their places by the use of the pile driver. On the upper side of the work, a body of sand was placed, making a cheap and tolerably tight dam, by which the creek could be raised about three feet.
   The first job was to dam off the creek at the desired point. The dam was built on a line with the right bank of the proposed channel. Once it was erected, the water in the creek rose about three feet. With part of the channel dug, the sandbank at the western end of the dam was broken. The pent up waters rushed forward with sufficient force to scour out about 15 feet of the adjoining bank to a depth of eight feet.
View of Buffalo Harbor - 1825
   Then the dam was extended across the new channel. Again the water rose. When it was brimming over the top of the dam, another sluiceway was opened and the water rushed out again to do its work, and every dam full of water let off, removed hundreds of yards of gravel and deposited it not only entirely out of the way, but at the same time filled up the old channel. The process was repeated until the channel was pushed within a few feet of the lake. Through this ingenious method, Buffalo Creek cut its own way along the desired path. It seemed victory was assured. Then, without warning, a freak of nature struck and the victory became almost total disaster.
   WORK WAS PROCEEDING steadily, and when the new channel had been pushed to within a few feet of the lake, and the strongest hopes were entertained that the channel extended to the end of the pier, would make the harbor immediately available, the work was arrested by one of the most extraordinary rises of the lake perhaps ever witnessed.  About 7 o'clock in the morning a tremendous swell suddenly rose in the lake. It was inexplicable. One moment the waters were serenely blue. The next a wave of gigantic size was roaring down upon the astonished workers. In a panic, men dropped their tools and ran for their lives. The wave struck the improvised dam with the fury of an enraged beast. The shoulder of water, traveling at frightening speed, blasted over the few feet of sand separating the works from the lake itself and flattened everything in its path. The logs which secured the materials in the dam were splintered. The east side of the dam shuddered under the impact and began to disintegrate. The west end, which was made of planks, was destroyed completely. The planks flew into the air like chips and the cracking of lumber could be heard even above the roar of the water.

   Working equipment was turned into a shambles. The pile driving scow, which had been moved to aid in the channel work, collapsed. The blind horse which furnished the motive power for the pile driver fell into the stream. From long habit, it persisted in swimming in circles and was rescued from drowning only, by a narrow margin. All the lumber, timber, piles prepared for use, with the boats, scows, and every floating article within the range of the swell were swept from their places and driven up the creek.
   THE SUDDEN SWELL was caused by a tornado which crossed the lake a few miles above Buffalo. So powerful was this wind that it cut a swath through timber on shore, felling even the stoutest trees. After securing the scows, boats and lumber which had been put afloat, the condition of the dam was examined, revealing the dam had lost its west end completely as well as 38 feet of the east end. In addition, the structure had been weakened throughout. The waters of the creek were now uncontrolled. They rushed through the dam with damaging effect. It was a hard blow and it was evident that unless repairs were made within 24 hours the entire project was doomed.
   But this was not the sum total of the trouble. In the wake of the tornado, a northeast wind commenced blowing, accompanied by a heavy rain and appearances indicated its continuance. Although a flood had been wished for, to aid in deepening and widening the new channel, the disastrous accident which had just occurred destroyed the only means of controlling it, and turning it to account. A freshet then, might open the old channel or perhaps enlarge the new one in a wrong direction, and even undermine the pier. But the rain increasing, and the weather being uncommonly cold, it was soon discovered that without a large additional force the dam could not be so far repaired as to resist the flood, which might be expected within 24 hours. The recent disaster and the importance of immediate help was communicated to the citizens, a large number of whom, as the rain fell in torrents, repaired to the dam. The pile-driver was put in operation to restore the breach at the east end of the dam. The rain beat heavily, sluicing over the men as they trudged to the dam. The dam was giving way slowly, running off in rivulets of mud. The creek beat against it from behind, the rain from above.
   Wilkeson assigned the men in groups. Some collected brush, others logs, others shoveled the crumbling earth back on the dam as fast as it was washed away. The work went on without pause. The weary men staggered over the soggy sand, bowed under their loads. And still the rain came down. Late in the afternoon a short break was taken for dinner. The meal consisted of bread and beer served to the men standing in the rain. Finally the rain slackened and stopped. Torches were lit and the labor went on in the flickering light. But the pace was beginning to tell. Men were falling away in sheer exhaustion. The creek was now a torrent. The headwaters and tributaries had felt the rain too. A mighty flow rushed toward the lake.
Buffalo Harbor Around 1850
   But Slowly, the men gained on the crumbling dam. Their first effort was directed at preventing further damage. With that accomplished they worked to restore the dam as near as possible to its original condition. Slowly, the planks and logs and earthworks were re-built. The dam began to hold. The men retired to rest, after having been exposed to the rain, cold and water, for more than 12 hours, the battle was won. The work of destruction was halted. Without this help of the citizens, it would have been impossible to make the necessary repairs on the dam; with it, and by continuing the labor of the harbor workmen by torchlight until late at night, all was done that human effort could do to prepare for the flood.
   The rain, having continued through the night, in the morning the flood was magnificent. The strong northeast wind which had prevailed for nearly 2-1/2 hours had lowered the lake two or three feet, and added much to the effect of the water in forming a new channel.  It wasn't until after the storm had subsided that Wilkeson and his men realized how great had been their victory. In stemming the disaster they had won more than they had bargained for. The torrent which had poured through the gaps in the dam had swept 20,000 cubic yards of gravel and heavy stone from the new channel bed. The creek was now flowing straight to the lake. More than that, the water had moved with such force that the stone and gravel had been carried out far enough out into the lake so that it could never again block the entrance.
  Had Wilkeson tried to remove the stone and gravel by hand it would have taken more money than was in the entire harbor fund. From the day the storm passed the channel of Buffalo Creek was 90 feet across at the bottom and 5-feet deep. "From this time," Wilkeson later wrote, "small vessels could enter and depart from Buffalo Harbor without interruption and the entry of two or three vessels in a day excited more interest then, than the arrival of 100 large vessels and boats would now."
   SO THE HARBOR builders had succeeded. But that was not the end. The pier had to be extended to deeper water. A second pier was planned. Old troubles returned. The original $12,000 loan was exhausted. More money was needed. Townsend, Forward and Wilkeson made a public appeal. Scrip was issued, entitling the bearer to a pro-rata interest in the harbor. Over $1,000 of this scrip was disposed of, for a small part of which cash was received, but the greater part was received in goods, etc.   Those who pledged to the fund knew they had small chance of getting their money back. It was called a loan, but actually it was a gift.
   Wilkeson decided to lay down a pier 200 feet long, several rods south and west of the pier already built, but in the same direction. This pier would form the western termination of the harbor. It was found much more difficult to erect piers in 10 or 12 feet of water, than in the more shallow water in which they were put down the preceding year. One difficulty attending the pier work was that of procuring a supply of stone. About 20 cords were required for each crib. The loose stone easily raised from the reefs near the harbor, had already been used, and now stone had to be brought from the Canada shore. Boats were scarce and the pile work proved to be a tedious and difficult job.  An average of 100 strokes of the hammer were required for each pile. The interruption from the swells made it necessary to work at night during calm weather. 
   The pile work was at length completed, but when secured in the best manner that could be devised, was a very imperfect barrier to the swell, and a very poor substitute for a pier. Improvements were made to the pier, adding stone where needed to reinforce, and ties six inches apart on the windward side for added security. By fall the pier was lengthened to 1,300 feet and reached water 12 feet deep.
Portion of 1825 Map Showing the Pier Completed by Samuel Wilkeson 
and all the Buffalonians Who Helped as Paid Workers and Volunteers Alike. 
 The original route of Buffalo Creek turned where you see the inlet at the foot of 
Vollenhoven Ave.  It was the first man-made harbor on the Great Lakes.

   Thus was completed the first work of the kind ever constructed on the lakes. It had occupied 221 working days in building (the laborers always resting on the Sabbath), and extended into the lake about 80 rods to 12 feet of water. It was begun, carried on and completed principally by three private individuals, Charles Townsend, Oliver Forward and Samuel Wilkeson, some of whom mortgaged the whole of their real estate to raise the means for making an improvement in which they had but a common interest.
   The harbor builders believed the next spring floods would so deepen and widen the entrance to the channel that even the Walk-in-the-Water could enter it. That now became their dearest hope. Their victory would be complete when the only steamboat on the Great lakes forsook its home Port of Black Rock and made Buffalo its home. But the Walk-in-the-Water was destined never to enter Buffalo harbor. It was through events surrounding the Walk-in-the-Water, however, that Buffalo finally was to win through to the place it had sought with such effort and valor.

1 comment:

rodpaget said...

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