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The Hamburg Canal in Buffalo, NY

Posted on: | by Scott Hollander |
The Redemption of the Hamburg Canal

The Redemption of the Hamburg Canal

An abandoned Western New York canal denounced as a cesspool of disease, a public nuisance, and a local embarrassment. The Love Canal in Niagara Fall, NY?  No, the Hamburg Canal in Buffalo, NY.

The Canal was such a menance that on January 18, 1898, the New York State Superintendent of Public Works George W. Aldridge, commenting on the condition of the Hamburg Canal, stated in the New York Times that “it would be impossible to attempt a description of its present vileness and unsanitary condition and its imminent menace to the comfort and health of the City of Buffalo.”  Buffalo resolved to suffer no longer from the Canal’s evil smell!

Fortunately this chapter of Buffalo’s history has a happy ending. Eventually by the end of 1902, the Hamburg Canal was completely filled in and talk of land reuse had begun. Today, the Interstate-190 Highway sits on the former Canal site.

The article below, from our Medical Newspaper Clippings, 1901-1906 Collection, describes the final stages of the Hamburg Canal fill-in project and the hope for further land development.



—– The Buffalo Evening Times, November 30, 1902

It’s Past and Present of Less Importance to the Citizens of Buffalo Than Its Future — Will it Be Gobbled by the Railroad Corporations for a Magnificent Union Station or Will It Become a Dumping Ground and Continue to Be a Nuisance?

That historic and malodorous ditch, the Hamburg Canal, will be all filled in by Christmas Day, according to present calculations of the contractors. There is but one more block – that between Washington and Main streets – to fill and then the water way a mile long which has existed for 60 years in the business center will be nothing more than a memory, and not a very pleasant one either.

It was away back in 1835 that the first move was made by Buffalo citizens to dig the canal which was afterwards known as the Hamburg, the name having been taken from the fact that it ended at Hamburg Street. The first intention was to make a waterway from Main Street to Hydraulic mills, but for some reason that plan was abandoned.

During 1835, the Common Council adopted a notice of intention to construct a canal 135 feet wide from Hamburg Street to Washington and 100 feet wide between the later street and Main. The work was begun soon after but prosecuted very slowly, evidently because of a lack of funds, inasmuch as in 1841 it is on record that the canal was conveyed to the State upon the condition that the Legislature appropriate enough money to complete it.

As early as 1855 the canal was declared a nuisance because of the stench arising from the stagnant water and every year thereafter remonstrances and petitions made to abate it. Various plans to purify the water were suggested one being to extend the channel into the Buffalo Creek which was subsequently carried out by the digging of the Ohio Basin Slip.  This slip has also been condemned as a nuisance and will soon be filled in.

In 1867, the residents in the section of the city recommended that the condition of the canal be improved by a current of water.  Four years later the cholera scare was used to impress upon the Alderman the importance of devising some means by which the stagnant pool be made healthful. In a result of the agitation, Gen. Howard was given the contract of construction of a water wheel in the slip with which to maintain a current into the harbor  This wheel helped matters a little but soon afterwards was given up and then the ditch grew worse than ever. It was not until 1893 that the canal was condemned and the necessary legislation procured to permanently  abate the nuisance by filling in the canal.

Down through the center of the canal bed the city has constructed an enormous storm sewer of masonry, 16 feet wide and 13 feet high, big enough through which to drive a double team with a lode of hay, This will connect with the Erie Canal at Main Street and will always have eight or nine feet of water in it. It will be ample to carry off all extra water at flood-time.

Alongside of the storm sewer is the dry weather sewer, an iron pipe one foot in diameter at Washington Street and gradually increasing until it is four feet in size at Hamburg Street.

The bridges at Main and Washington streets will be dispensed with and the grade of the former though fare lowered where the canal formerly crossed it. People who have crossed the bridge for more than sixty years will recall that there was a hump in the highway at that point, made necessary by the canal.  This will be lowered about five feet making the grade straight from Quay Street, near Exchange, south to Hanover Street.

We expect to have work done by Christmas” said Robert Schwartz, inspector for the city, yesterday. “We will then have been about two years on the job.  The contract price is $449,000 which did not include taking down the bridge at Main Street and some filling in there. That will be about $5,800 more so that the total will be about $454,800.

Contrary to expectations, not many articles were found in the bottom of the canal when dredging it out. Several revolvers were picked up near the Main Street bridge and an old flint lock musket of revolutionary days found near Washington Street. This must have been there when they dug the canal over sixty years ago, as it is an old-timer.

Although the old ditch has been denounced for half a century as a cesspool of disease, it is curious that the Department of Health finds that there are no figures to show that it has ever generated unhealthy conditions.  This may be because few people have ever lived near it.

Joseph Ditto, one of the assistant city engineers, says he was told by the employees of the Howard Irons Works , one of the factories built near the canal, that this summer they were able to keep their windows up for the first time in forty or fifty years while at work, so foul had been the smell from the water.

What will become of the valuable space formerly occupied by the canal is still conjectural.  Many citizens advocate giving it to the railroads upon which to erect a union depot, while others insist that it shall be sold at its market price for that to some other purpose.


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