Buffalo's Canal District according to historian Marvin Rapp

This article was excerpted from the book by Michael N. Vogel, Ed Patton, and Paul Redding titled: America's Crossroads, Buffalo's Canal Street/ Dante Place the Making of a City. New York: Western New York Heritage Institute, Canisius College, 1993 which paints an exceptionally vivid picture of Buffalo's old waterfront district...

All material © 2001 bybuffalonian.com and Western New York Heritage Press, Inc. all rights reserved

One of Rapp's "informants" for his unpublished doctoral dissertation on the history of the Port of Buffalo was an old Erie Canal boatman named E. E. Cronk, who was living out his retirement years on Edward Street in Buffalo. Cronk, born aboard a canal boat in 1866 as the son of a canal boat captain, worked the waterway for 14 years and lived on Canal Street with his family for one of those years. He provided Rapp with much detail on the way the canal cargo trade worked, and on procedures at the grain elevators, but he also spent some time describing the amusements of the Canal District in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Rapp's notebook from that 1946 interview survives, and the parts pertaining to the District are quoted here in full:

Canal street had acquired such an infamous reputation that sailors from all over the world would askt he canalers when they tied up in the N.Y harbor to describe it to them. During the 80s, 60% of the buildings on both sides of Canal street from Erie street to Commercial were houses ofprostitution, 30% were saloons, and 10% grocery stores, etc."

The lowest houses of prostitution both in level and quality were those lining the tow path in back of the Canal street buildings. The prostitutes operating on Canal street considered themselves "Ladies of the evening" and the towpath women "dirty whores."

The colored people had their block too. It was called "nigger block." This extended from the RR tracks (old Water street) a hundred feet east between Commercial and Canal. As the canal boats drifted down the slip to the harbor, the crews usually enjoyed a show where they passed "nigger block." In through the uncurtained windows, they could see every manner of sex orgy. Negro men and women dancing in the nude.

The prostitutes always wore Mother Hubbard dresses and nothing underneath. Peculiarly enough, so long as they had their straw hats on the police would not arrest them, but if they were caught outside bareheaded they would arrest them.

The police who patrolled the Canal street district would travel in threes, one ahead and two behind. They had a push cart on the waterfront which they used to carry the canal bodies to the morgue at the police station on the Terrace. The push cart was about eight feet long.

One day in the summer of 1880, Cronk watched the police drag a decaying body, bloated with gas from corruption, blue from putrefaction, eaten away in parts by fish, up onto the push cart. At the same time the police arrested a prostitute who had been plying her trade too openly. Since it took two men to push the cart up the Terrace hill and more than one man to hold the whore, they, three men, overpowered the woman, laid her face down on the body, and a policeman sat on top of her. The weight of the woman & policeman, crushed the chest of the cadaver rotted through. Her face nested on the (indecipherable) of the (indecipherable) chest. They were pushed to the station, the whore arrested, and the body released down the chute to the basement where the morgue was located. The chute was worn smooth from daily use over the years."

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None of the Canal street prostitutes were ever buried at city expense. If they died penniless, and that was rare, a cigar box would be placed near the body in the front room, where contributions would be placed. Saloon keepers would contribute $5.00 - some would pay 5 cents.

Only Theater, at Canal and Commercial the girls would sit down on the men's laps, pull up their Mother Hubbards so that their bare posterior would be near the man's masculine appurtenance. At the Olympic Theater at Erie Street the girls would raise their dresses to put the brass checks" in their stocking after getting a customer to buy a drink.

In some of the concert halls, the customers sat on long benches which had backs. On the back of the bench in front was a ledge. The men selling drinks and cigars would slide said articles from the aisle along the ledge. So practiced were they, that they could stop it in front of the customer every time.

One of the best known singers of the time and composer of canal songs was Billy Barret (margin note: 1875 Billy Baker - sang at whorehouses - good concert singer who had drunk too much), who sang in a concert hall next to the canal bridge.

At the concert halls there was always a great celebration on the Fourth of July. The festivities usually began on the 2nd and lasted until the fifth. The saloon keepers would bring in thousands of maple limbs and put them in the ground. Place looked like a forest."

Celebrations always went to extremes. Men would get so drunk, they would fall down on the floor. Their friends would roll them over on their back and although they were literally so paralyzed they could move only their mouths and eyes, they would pour the liquor down them. When their eyes closed and their mouths closed, they would lay them out side by side in an unused room of the bar.

For those who could hold their liquor, Independence night provided the best or perhaps worst, depending on your taste, that the waterfront offered. On 4 July 1881, Cronk saw the original Kitty ONeil, a beautiful young girl with a lithe body, dance on a 12-inch pedestal an acrobatic routine for 1 hour and 20 minutes, in the nude. Need I mention that the saloon was so full, and the men so packed in, that when a man passed out from drink he continued to stand there.

On the south side of Erie street were located horse barns, two there, (indecipherable) of Washington streets. Farmers near Buffalo would draw in hay and draw out manure. But business during the season would become so brisk, they could not draw the supply away so fast as it accumulated. Cronk saw manure piled over two stories high in back of the bams. As one approached, the pile would give the appearance of shaking, quivering. Closer examine (sic) this, if your nose could stand it and you could cut through the clouds of flies, would reveal millions of crawling impure maggots feeding on the excrement.

Hamburgh canal caught most of the garbage from the city. This collected in the almost stagnant waters of the Hamburgh Canal. One hundred and 50 feet below Louisiana at a small slip that reached to the harbor a large propeller from an old tug swiveled continually sucking in the filth-polluted water and kicking it into the harbor. This stirred up huge chunks of concentrated filth, created huge gas decay, babbles, .7 feet in diameter, which would shoot to the surface, explode and fill the air with such a nauseating smell thatpeople would be sick for a week.

The manure piles, the filth of the canal lured swarms of scavenger flies, while the stagnant waters attracted mosquitoes whose stingers inhabitants thou ht must have been fille-I -ith (indecipherable) files. Aboard the canal boat the stable housed two horses. The crew protected themselves with netting. It was the horses in addition to the two which were housed in the barns on the waterfront."

The efforts to cleanse the canal, Rapp noted elsewhere, turned up more than filth. Every spring, a steam shovel was brought in to dredge the waterway to its proper depth. "This procedure," the historian noted, "caused the bodies and parts of bodies, which had been dumped in the canal during the winter, to rise to the top. At one such spring cleaning, an observer counted eight bodies floating on the surface of the canal within two blocks."

 

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This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com