CANAL STREET IN '57 [1857]

The following 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 by and Western New York Heritage Press, Inc. all rights Reserved.

On Oct. 13, 1894, the Buffalo Express sent a reporter to get an account from a Great Lakes captain of his schooner's battle with a storm. The reporter got much more than that; he got an account of the Canal District in its heyday, from one of the sailors who went looking for excitement in its dens of vice and liquor. Capt. Benjamin Cole's story appeared the next day.


Gruesome Reminiscences of a

Notorious Thoroughfare.




The schooner WAYNE, which was reported lost in the fierce storm of Wednesday night, came into port yesterday. She is the consort of the D.C. WHITNEY, and the tow-line parted off Long Point. Capt. Benjamin Cole of the WAYNE, was seen yesterday. He said the line, which was a 12-inch hawser, parted at 2:30 o'clock in the morning. The sea was terrific and the waves broke over the schooner with great force. As soon as the line parted, Capt. Cole tried to get the boat in shoal water, as they were in the middle of the lake. When the boat was in nine fathoms he let the small anchor go, but it would not hold. The large anchor was then put out and the boat held till about 6 o'clock in the morning. The WHITNEY then found her, and towed her back to Buffalo. The is a staunch boat of 917 tons. Her captain is one of the best-known captains on the lakes. He said that many of the sailors were very much frightened, and almost lost their heads. The wind was blowing 75 miles an hour, and the condition of the schooner was precarious for a time. Capt. Cole prepared a bottle to throw over in case the situation should get worse, giving the names of the men and the conditions of the wreck. The serious difficulty that he had to contend with was the fact that the rudder was twisted out of place and rendered useless. The bow was also pulled out by the tow-line from the WHITNEY.

The boat is undergoing repairs, and her load of grain was taken out yesterday as she lay at the Eastern elevator. The corn is in good condition considering the waves that broke over her, and the captain reports that only a little was damaged. The corn on the WHITNEY fared worse, there being two feet of water in the hold. Capt. Cole considers that he had a narrow escape, and thinks that great credit is due to the ship's staunchness.

Capt. Cole is one of the most noted men on the Lakes. His adventures would fill a book. He has been before the mast since 1848, and has been wrecked four times. In addition to his seamanship, he is a noted hunter. There is nothing that the versatile captain cannot do. He is a good musician, speaks several languages, including the Huron and Chippewa tongues, is a shipbuilder and has many other accomplishments. In appearance he is a tall man with a thin face, covered by a growth of grizzled whiskers, and his face has strength and determination written in every line. He shipped as a cook when 7 years old and has been a captain for 36 years.







One of his noted adventures was on the famous VERNON in '57. It was in the awful storm of November 18th, when 57 vessels went ashore. On this vessel five men froze to death, and only Cole and the captain and the cook lived. Cole was frozen badly, and he says he feels it yet.

Capt. Cole is a regular encyclopedia in matters of local interest of the early '60's. When he first came to this city, everything about the docks was in the hands of the canalers, and a sailor cut no figure. The sailors soon grew stronger, and many fights for supremacy occurred. Real, earnest fights, too, in which knives and fists played a prominent part. Capt. Cole's stories of these fights are graphic and exciting. "Buffalo was a hard place in those days," said the captain. "A life didn't count for much, and the lower part of the city was a mighty bad place. There were worse dens and joints round Canal Street then than one would believe." He gave it as his opinion that this district is a paradise in these days compared to what it was in the '50's. One of his adventures in those days will show the character of the place. Buffalo had then no police. The (illegible) constables thought they had better let the place alone, and unbridled vice ran rampant. Fights and cutting affrays were of nightly occurrence, and the denizens were as evil a lot of crooks as have ever been collected in one place. It was as bad as the mining towns in the heyday of their glory. Gangs of sailors spoiling for a fight hung on every corner. These were the days when old Mother Cary's dance-hall was famed throughout the land, and was the scene of many a fight. In the dark alleys and slips crime was committed, of which no record can be found on the criminal annals of the city. The "Points" were let alone by the authorities, and thievery, licentiousness and vice more than flourished in this awful hotbed.

Capt. Cole told of one den that was noted even among the many bad ones that infected the district then as now. It was located on Commercial Street, a few doors from Canal toward the canal. It was an underground den, and was directly under the street. His story of his connection with the place is very interesting. He tells the story thus: "I went ashore one day, and my mate was with me. I had a roll of money with me, but never thought of it. The mate proposed to get a drink in the place by Old Mother Cary's. I went in, and we had the drink. I was young then and did not know the town very well. After we had the drink he said 'Let's go in here, Capt. looked, and he opened a trap in the back of the saloon. I thought I might as well see what was there, I followed him. We went down and got in a passageway that led about 50 feet. Then we came to a heavy oak door about four inches thick. The mate rapped a peculiar knock on the door, and it opened. Inside was a room about 12 feet square. In one end was a bar with five or six black bottles stuck up on it, and at the other end was a table where three men sat playing cards. The door closed behind, and I knew I was trapped. I had heard of the place. It was one where they fed drugged drinks to the suckers they got in there, and then they poked them out through the slide with a stone round their necks, and when they were found it seemed as though they had committed suicide. I knew where I was, and I thought I was a goner. The door was bolted on the other side, and I heard it slip into the catch. Well, sir, I began to buy them drinks. I made out that I was an awful drinker, and said I could drink the whole lot of them drunk. I poured out big tumblers of the stuff, and poured them down my neck on the outside, instead of inside. When I got out I was fairly wringing with poor whisky. They drank the stuff and got paralyzed. I pretended to be boiling drunk, and pretty soon everyone of the crowd but the bar-tender was stiff. I made him take drinks with me till he got pretty well under. Did you ever see one of them Spanish knives? We all used to have them in those days. Stuck up your sleeve you know, and bound round your wrist with a thong. I took this out and grabbed the bartender - I was a husky lad in those days - and I told him I would cut his throat if he did not open the door. He finally gave the signal, and I got out of the place soaked with whisky. Spent $7 for those drinks I bought the cusses, but I was mighty glad to get out, I tell you. You see the mate knew I had money, and he got me in, there.

"I saw him a few years ago in Chicago. He was begging - regular vag. That's the way those things happen. They had just got the police then, and this gang left their rathole right after. I'll bet $100 that you can find that old place now, it's plugged up I guess, but I'll bet it's there." Capt. Cole in his youthful days used to play the fiddle at Old Mother Cary's dance-hall.

The WAYNE will soon be repaired, and the adventurous Captain will sail out again.




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